The Many Faces of Alia Raza

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Published September 14, 2009

Many publications parse the minutiae of celebrities’ beauty regimes. But few of those forums actively engage with the potential psychological or sociological significance of beauty rituals for the famous faces, and the fans who follow them. New York- and Los Angeles-based video artist Alia Raza is addressing that arena.  Raza has developed a video project that deconstructs the relationships between outward beauty, internal awareness of ones’ own body and the peculiar tensions among people whose physical appearance is intimately linked with their professional or creative standing.

For “The Fragile White Blossoms Emit A Hypnotic Cascade Of Tropical Perfume Whose Sweet Heady Odor Leaves Its Victim Intoxicated” Raza presents ten silent videos in which Chloe Sevigny, Kim Gordon, Devendra Banhart, Patrik Ervell and figures in Lower East Side fashion engage distinctive beauty rituals, some of which Raza designs and some which exaggerate their own regimes, without interruption for twenty-eight minutes. A portion of the series will be presented at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, as part of Diane Pernet’s A Shaded View on Fashion Film Festival.

Here we discuss distinctions between art and fashion, and between personal maintenance and philosophical self-consciousness:

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: Did this project begin with your own beauty rituals?

ALIA RAZA: It really began with wanting to portray anxiety and self-consciousness. I don’t mean self-conscious like being shy, I mean literal consciousness of our physical being, and the fact that we have to present ourselves to others. Some people go into the world with a lack of self-consciousness while others always feel uncomfortable in their own skin. A lot of times physical beauty is looked to as a cure for this discomfort. And there’s an entire culture and several industries that support that notion, not to mention biology, society, and who knows what else. People think of beauty or the search for it as frivolous or vain. I definitely don’t. I find it more disturbing, and that’s what the project is about.HONIGMAN: What was the response of the participants to enacting these rituals for the camera? (PHOTO BY KAVA GORNA)

RAZA: Everyone was interested in the idea, maybe because I never told anyone how long the takes were going to be until they showed up. We shot each one for 28 minutes straight, without stopping. And it’s not easy to perform for that long with cameras in your face, so I think everybody was exhausted. Except for Chloe, who after scrubbing her skin raw for half an hour, said, “Want me to start again?”

HONIGMAN: How did you select your subjects?

RAZA: I went to a lot of parties. Some of them were people I admired; some were friends of friends. All of them had to be part of a particularly self-conscious world, whether that was performing, fashion, media. I wanted people you hear about and see in magazines, people involved in the manufacturing of images and products that are a part of visual culture. I plan to continue the series and have my mind set on a few new people as well.

HONIGMAN: How do you see your work fitting in with Diane Pernet’s festival?

RAZA: My understanding of the program is that it’s for videos and short filmsthat deal with fashion and beauty. But they’re supposed to be under five minutes, and these are way longer, so I hope people will sit through them.

HONIGMAN: Do you consider that your work fits primarily in an art context?

RAZA: I don’t see these as fashion films, but I’m interested in fashion. I don’t care for most of the video look-book type things people are doing, with some girl skipping through the woods in different outfits to cool music. I do like the more inventive ones, like Kalup Linzy’s for Proenza. But when I conceived of these videos, they were to show in a gallery setting. There was an element of their looking like fashion ads but not selling anything, which I liked, and what ended up happening with some of them, which might be hypocritical, is that they were shown at fashion presentations. The designers were close friends of mine, and I knew they respected the work and it was clear that these weren’t just being made to highlight the clothes, but that the clothes were the costumes. That said, I actually think it’s an interesting concept to use a fashion presentation as a gallery. It gets confusing, in a good way. It addresses the boundaries between art and cinema and fashion, and really this project is all three.

HONIGMAN: Explain the series’ title. What is the story of the blossoms?

RAZA: The title was a short poem I wrote ten years ago. I’ve always had this obsession with night-blooming white flowers. Maybe because my mother wore Jardins de Bagatelle, I don’t know. White flowers, the scented ones, are stark and clean, but they’re also baroque. They look pure but they smell so strong it can be like poison. A lot of people can’t stand them—jasmine, gardenias, tuberoses—they’re so heavy and sweet they can make you sick. Tuberose oil is one of the most precious and expensive essential oils, and it’s a narcotic. Your throat starts to itch if you inhale too much, and you feel woozy. The oils from the flowers contain a chemical called indole, which is what gives feces and rotting flesh their putrid smell. But these are the flowers used in all the prettiest perfumes, the really feminine ones.  Why do we find the smell of decay and rot beautiful? How can you not be fascinated by that?

HONIGMAN: Can you describe the cultural context that formed your own sense of grooming.

RAZA: I grew up in the suburbs and my exposure to what I considered the real world came from fashion magazines and music and art, so there’s always been a subconscious sense of, “Do I fit in with this culture?” I’m sure my family affected me a lot too. I grew up with an older sister who was very beautiful, men would follow her down the street and all the boys would get excited if she picked me up from school, so I guess I learned early how powerful appearances can be. And then, I guess I’m naturally an aesthetically minded person and I liked to draw and take pictures and I think being interested in things like clothes and surfaces often goes along with that.

HONIGMAN: What is the distinction between narcissism and self-consciousness in this context?

RAZA: That’s difficult. I don’t want to make judgments or say that I think people need to be less shallow or vain. I’m just trying to make images that bring up these issues in people’s minds.

HONIGMAN: Did you want viewers to imagine they were being exposed to something intimate, though exaggerated, in these known people’s lives?  Or was the point that beauty and the upkeep of their appearance is part of their profession?

RAZA: Yes to both questions. These films are meant to work on multiple levels. They are portraits of each of the subjects, like moving paintings. But they are also studies of a character that each subject is playing onscreen. I would suggest traits of the character to each person before shooting and they incorporated these into their performance. Kim’s character is a schizophrenic; Margerita’s is self-hating bulimic; Patrik’s is a violent masochist. Some of them are more lighthearted. Devendra’s was just funny.

HONIGMAN: Do you believe in beauty products?

RAZA: I believe they are very powerful objects. It’s psychological, or maybe it’s marketing, but there is something eternally fascinating to people about this jar of cream or bottled scent that represents so much more than what’s actually in it or what it’s capable of doing for you. It becomes mythical, like potions and elixirs and poisons. So I do believe in them as fascinating ideas, and I think they can be very beautiful to look at and to experience. The act of buying something from a beautiful place in a beautiful package that you will rub onto your skin and will change how the world sees you and treats you? It’s very potent. On the other hand, my own routine is not very involved. I don’t brush my hair and I don’t like makeup.