VAGINAL DAVIS AS THE MADONNA
PHOTO BY NADA ZGANK
"The students love my whimsical approach to learning," artist Vaginal Davis says of her recent incarnation as professor. We caught at the end of a month of teaching a performance seminars about Josephine Baker and Jean Harlow at the Malmö Art Academy in Malmö, Sweden. Davis has always been a painter and filmmaker and she's appeared in the films of Bruce Labruce and a singer in a variety of pop groups, beginning with the Afro Sisters. She's perhaps best known for her riotous queercore zines, particularly Fertile La Toyah Jackson, which was named for a friend who stood in for her boss at LA boutique Retail Slut while she was on vacation. You see, the beauty is in the details. The hero Fertile was always preganant, and loved to gossip about sleeping with Eddie Murphy. Davis would probably cringe at the pretension being called a "performance artist," but she is indisputably a performer and it's an act of generosity that she lets the humorless art world occasionally host her. She calls everyone "doll."
Every few years the establishment and the academy recognize once again that Davis, who lives in Berlin, has been making art all along, and invites her to tour the United States. She's doing "performative artist talks" at Princeton, Vasser, Columbia, NYU and Hampshire College, and last night headlined "Stereoscope," a performance series at New York's PS122 curated by Davis' former student, Mashinka Firunts. Teaching is part of a political act about gender and class and the ways people choose to have fun. And as with the semester, tonight Davis's run in New York ends with a party, cohosted with Labruce, who has been in town privately screening his latest film.
We ask Davis for more details:
ALEX GARTENFELD: You've lived in Berlin for what seems like an eternity. How did you end up there?
VAGINAL DAVIS:I have lived in Berlin for only three-and-a-half years. It may seem longer to many because of my relationship with the Berlin based art, music, film and action collective CHEAP which goes back to 2001. My grandfather is German, born in Wannsee the black sheep of the von Hohenzollern clan. Lots of scandal concerning my grandfather and also my father who was born in Mexico and now lives in Argentina. There are a lot of Germans in Mexico, Central and South America.
GARTENFELD: Do you like all the traveling you've been doing?
DAVIS: I have always hated flying. I mainly pass the time writing letters. I am very old school and I still keep many correspondences the old-fashioned way, via post, and I also draw and sketch. I also obsess and fantasize about whatever attractive men may be on the flight. Though these days the pickings are lean. No one flies regularly anymore but fugly, bland businessmen, and hideous families with no-neck monsters for children.
GARTENFELD: We haven't seen much from you in the last few years in New York, although last year you participated in Performa. Is this a return for you?
DAVIS: I have never lived in New York City, but a lot of people think that I am a New Yorker, because I was embraced by the Downtown scene since the 1980s. For the record I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. And only Los Angeles could produce a creature such as myself. New York is a boutique city. You have to be wealthy and of privilege to be able to live comfortably there. My cute flat in the Rote Insel section of Berlin is only 200 euros a month. Can't beat that.
GARTENFELD: What is your favorite city?
DAVIS: Paris is my favorite city in the world. The men are so beyond gorgeous, especially the humpy Arab men. I could never live in Paris, as it's also a boutique city.
GARTENFELD: Your tour this time around is really being endorsed by universities. Do you feel like you have something to teach the United States?
DAVIS: Having been around for so long I go in and out of vogue every few years. Currently I am experiencing a resurgence. I believe its because of advanced capitalism's collapse. The ruling class thinks that the economy is improving—well, this is just the first stage of things getting worse. The young students are now gravitating toward outsider artists who haven't been corrupted by institutional forces and consumerist whims.
GARTENFELD: Do you identify with the term performance art?
DAVIS: When it comes to performance art, I am more interested in the failures then the so-called successes. I have never cared for entertaining anyone. My performances may have elements that some may find entertaining, but that's not my main purpose. If you want pure entertainment value just go and see something like Stomp or Blue Man Group.
GARTENFELD: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
DAVIS: I am not a sentimental or superstitious person, so I don't have any pre-performance rituals. I am a very practical woman. After a performance I am always hopeful that I will lure someone home for a ritual of a more personal nature.
GARTENFELD: What's the best advice another performer has ever given you?
DAVIS: The best performance advice I have ever been given was to "Know where your light is, onstage." That is why I am a great admirer of the fabulous Kembra Pfahler of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. She is a perfect, consumate artist, and she always knows where her light is.
GARTENFELD: What are you currently reading?
DAVIS: I found a copy of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, and I have been reading it. I loved the 1970s film version of the novel that starred Tuesday Weld. Bruce LaBruce's 1994 film Super 8 ½—which I make a cameo appearance in—is a semi-remake of Play It As It Lays. How's that for a little bit of trivia, eh?
VAGINAL DAVIS AND BRUCE LABRUCE HOST A PARTY, AUNTIE CRISIS, TONIGHT AT MARIE'S CRISIS, LOCATED AT 59 GROVE STREET, NEW YORK.