September 2010, Interview with Ana Finel Honigman: Saccharine
Ana Finel Honigman, jacket by "Don't Shoot the Messengers"
Photograph by Maxime Ballesteros, courtesy Ana Finel Honigman and the artist
Interview with Ana Finel Honigman
Ana Finel Honigman's latest curatorial project, Saccharine, takes place as part of the D12 series of exhibitions at Grimmuseum, Berlin, 8 through 17 October 2010. The exhibition features major and emerging, international artists working in diverse media. A contemporary art and fashion writer and art historian, Finel Honigman has taken feminist scholar and female escort "Nadja Veblen" as her muse for this show's theme: an exploration of intimacy in the complexities of both its nurturing and artificial capacities. "Nadja" certainly does not take her position lightly; she understands that she has been extremely fortunate to work with kind and caring people throughout her time as an escort. Well aware of the real and extreme dangers of prostitution, and with no wish to promote or glamourise the escort business, "Nadja's" hope, in participating in Saccharine, is to share her experiences in a non-tabloid (perhaps therefore, non-hysterical and non-"glossy") forum. In this way, her unique insights into relationships and intimacy might be found to be valuable.
Becky Hunter: What drew you to the notion of intimacy as a curatorial project?
Ana Finel Honigman: I think that finding one’s own comfortable relationship with intimacy is one of the most important and difficult parts of being human. It's also very animal to try and sniff out how to relate with fellow creatures. Relationships interest me most. And I've always been especially fascinated by how the art-world has very fuzzy definitions of acceptable, admirable and inappropriate intimacy.
Initially, I wanted the exhibition to be a response to the criticism that I've received throughout my career for writing about friends' work. I've always felt that art writing should be a conversation. I try to champion work that is worthy by people who I know, like and respect. But I often get accused of being a cheerleader and I feel that accusation is unfair. One of the reasons why I love to interview artists is because that format makes the mutual, interactive process of intellectual investigation and affinity transparent. This is how I came to the concept of intimacy as a curatorial project.
My first plan was to split the show into two sections. Both sides would contain only work by artists who I've written about recently. But one group would be my mates and the other artists would be artists who I've never met. I was curious about what this would reveal about me, as a critic and friend. But the Grimmuseum had a different plan for the series of shows they'd invited me to participate in, so I changed directions.
Around the time when I started planning my show, I was talking constantly to Cecile Evans, an artist in Saccharine. Cecile's Sophie Calle-like art is all about investigating the definition of "intimacy." In an interview we did for Whitehot, she said "[Intimacy is] one constant in our lives that we can’t seem to measure. Everything else, money, shelter, food - if you have it, you know it. Even something that is equally flexible and man-made like time has a value ascribed to it, it’s measured and quantified - there’s a system. Intimacy is complete lawlessness, it’s sexy but innocent, it’s right but can go wrong and it’s totally bendable." I agree completely with her confusion and captivation by this term.
At the same time, I was also in constant contact with "Nadja" and her stories really sparked both our interests in the value, measurability, legitimacy and metaphoric worth of all forms of "intimacy." She is a feminist scholar but we both agree that politics can not dictate interpersonal relationships. The personal can be and should be political, sometimes. But personal relationships can not and should not always be politicized. People fuck up. Sometimes people say, throw or fuck things they shouldn't. Sometimes people should be held legally accountable for the same kinds of bad behavior in different circumstances. But these things are complicated. We wanted to try and find art which expressed different facets of these fraught and fragile dynamics. It's nice that the song of the month is Eminem and Rihanna's "Love The Way You Lie."
Awst & Walther, 'Untitled (Body Bag)', 2010
Gelatin, pigment, dimensions variable, installation view from The Conversation at g39, Cardiff
Courtesy, the artists
Hunter: The exhibition is multi-layered in concept, featuring a fairly conventional exhibition of objects, images and films; an online component comprising essays and interviews; and a surrealist-style pseudonymous curator. Why this complex approach?
Honigman: The complexity is more practical that conceptual. We wanted a print catalogue like Peres Projects' Daddy Magazine. But we couldn't afford it. "Nadja" needs her money for her degree and I'm just a writer. On-line started as a compromise but turned out to be a much better route. We've added more essays, including an interview with Prof. Martin Kemp whose show Seduced in England was an inspiration. And my web-guy is just the greatest. He is really creating an elegant site that beautifully showcases the material.
As for the show itself, the idea originated when Despina Stokou of the artist run Grimmuseum invited me to participate in a series of small shows that she was organizing around the theme of "doppelgänger." Margherita Belaief of Peres Projects and Francesca Gavin are also doing projects with "alter-egos." She wanted us to curate half the project as ourselves and half as a fictional self. I'm cheating a little.
Hunter: The title of the show is Saccharine. However, it is billed as an exploration of intimacy. Does this title perhaps reflect a certain cynicism (or realism) on your part as to the way intimate relations are handled in contemporary life?
Honigman: I really like that you mention this. That’s the effect we were aiming for. I decided to title the exhibition Saccharine because it is an artificial sweetener with potentially toxic effects, like the emotional ramifications of false intimacy that people who tried to dissuade "Veblen" warned about. "Veblen's" clients need sweetness and this is the only form available to them. But you're right that "saccharine" is also the dismissive slur leveled at romance by embittered cynics.
"Nadja" and I are pretty toughened but we also see a lot of examples to soften our cynicism. That's why I was really happy to select a few artists who represent the most sincere, desirable and admirable aspects of genuine love. Without diminishing "Nadja’s" and my investigation into the complex emotional needs that are attracted to staged intimacy, this show is also a celebration of four couples’ relationships. For me, some of the most moving works in the show are Maxime Ballesteros's photos of his girlfriend, designer Jen Gilpin. They are two of my best friends in Berlin. Jen and her partner for her label "Don't Shoot the Messengers" made a jacket and a bag for me that I wear every day. It's funny, but I can’t think of anything more intimate than actually wearing someone's work as your second skin every day. And Maxime works with me on almost everything that I do, and is one of the people I trust the most in the world. His photos of Jen are heartbreakingly beautiful. They are tender, empathetic and loving. They also expose gritty reality and how their extraordinary physical and inner beauty and intelligent style transcend their rough surroundings. These photographs, along with the work of artist couple Awst & Walther, John Kleckner and Zhivago Duncan's work about their girlfriends, are sweetly nourishing - not sappy or saccharine. Plus, friendship is a form of real intimacy, and I hope that the warm friendships I'm lucky to have with the artists in the show, and with "Nadja", counteract the bitterness in the title.
Maxime Ballesteros, 'Jen et Bas Couture dans les toilettes', 2010
Courtesy, the artist
Hunter: As well as exploring each artist's notions of intimacy, your curatorial partnership lets us into a friendship of your own that is shrouded in secrecy. How did you and feminist scholar / female escort "Nadja Veblen" meet?
Honigman: Well, I am actually the main curator for this project. "Nadja" is more of a muse. She prefers this dynamic. And our friendship is pretty conventional. Her "double-life" is secret but our friendship isn't. We actually met in a cafe in Berlin last summer, when she was staying at my friend's flat as his subletter. Nadja is really sharp and funny. She's very well-read but pretty daffy. We really got each other's sense of humor immediately. We completely clicked. She just started doing this work because of huge money issues, but her stories were riveting and we would deconstruct her experiences for hours. We both wanted to write about her life. But we couldn't find the proper format to share these strange stories. There have been so many "Belle de Jour" tell-alls, especially in England where the Oxbridge hooker is practically its own trope. Wayne Rooney's recent scandal and Zoe William's response made Nadja feel more than a little cliche. So, this show is not about prostitution. It is about art that investigates intimacy, like we will in our conversation about her experiences for the on-line interview. This show seems like the best way to really engage her experiences outside the genre.
Hunter: As you say, "Veblen" is funding her studies through her work as an escort. Do you know if this is, for her, a performance, or a scholarly experiment, or something more down to earth based purely on practical need? Or a mix of all of the above? I suppose you might say we are all performing...
Honigman: For "Veblen" this is not a performance, although there are performative aspects. It serves a number of personal purposes - financial and emotional. She really appreciates the clear perimeters in prostitution. She is grateful that the emotional boundaries and expectations are mutually understood. "Veblen" has mostly had destructive and disappointing romantic relationships. But the inherent clarity of these "professional" arrangements allows her to feel free in showing fondness, affection and patience without raising the others’, or her own, expectations unrealistically. But the experience also interests her symbolically, which is why she agreed to collaborate with me on this show.
She dresses differently and behaves differently for these dates. She wears mostly Hobbs and Jaeger on dates - classic heels and always dresses. The irony is that she tones down her sexuality dramatically while working as an escort. She is not normally comfortable with traditional forms of romantic expression but she performs the role of "girlfriend" or "beloved" for her clients. Her demeanor is lady-like and her attire is almost dainty. The men she meets are mostly lonely, whether or not they are married. She selects them very carefully and does not risk complications by meeting with men who she might feel real attraction towards. However, she does care about her clients and they are extremely protective of her. As she describes it, "they pay to put me on a pedestal and stay there."
This extends to her sexuality too. In her personal life, she likes sex rough and dirty. But her clients mostly want to cuddle. A few are actually impotent and pay for her to make them feel warm and desirable. "Veblen" has only one man who she fucks regularly for free and they never kiss. They have been close friends for years but have never kissed once and only touch to fuck. However, kissing is the activity she does most with the men who pay her.
She selected her pseudonym after a few months with a particular man who was paying her a hefty amount to visit him for a night in the different cities where he was staying for business. A few nights after she returned from a date with him, she hit on a friend who rejected her. It was the third time he'd done it and part of a series of rejections from friends. She was upset and confused about why the thing that she was offering for free in the back of a taxi would be rejected when someone else was willing to pay her two months rent for it. That’s when she developed this theory of her role as an escort relating to the "Veblen Goods" principle of economics. It started as a black-humor way of bouncing back from being pushed away in the taxi. But then we started to discuss it in more depth and discovered that these questions about relative value, relative attractiveness, relative worth are so much larger. They really relate to all forms of intimacy and expression. In that sense, her experiences are part of a larger intellectual investigation.
Laurel Nakadate, "Oops!", 2000
Courtesy, the artist
Hunter: Are you a feminist? What does "feminist" mean to you?
Honigman: I absolutely consider myself a feminist, although my relationship with feminist theory and certain factions and reactions of feminism has become more nuanced and conflicted over time. It's funny, but "Nadja" is far more attached to academic feminist theory, especially Judith Butler's thinking. On the most fundamental level for me, I just feel that being a feminist means fighting for a cultural and political environment where each woman can craft her own individual relationship to her gender identity.
I vote almost exclusively to protect and advance women's rights. But I also deeply resent gender generalizations. I try to relate to everyone on individual terms and not automatically politicize my experiences or relationships, which I did too quickly when younger. I hate the Pop feminism of the Cosmo magazine culture with its snide, condescending "men are so yada yada" and "boys need blady blah." I have roughly the same number of close male and female friends. My best friend, David, who is also in the show, is a very traditionally masculine man. He is probably the most brilliant person I know and acutely sensitive to emotional nuance. I know that I don't always understand his thinking, which I guess might relate somehow to gender differences. But I struggle to take him on his own terms and extrapolate from that friendship outwards to my other relationships with men. Knowing him is really the best education in being a human.
And I am also very lucky that my father really respects women and sees women entirely as equal. His belief in gender equality is so firm that I often get frustrated when he doesn’t see subtler forms of inequality, like the privilege ascribed to beautiful women. My mother was very active in the feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies and she raised me with a strong feminist consciousness. However, her version of feminism was the glamorous and sexually confident intellectual French form, embodied by feminist Hélène Cixous or Simone de Beauvoir. She was such a little fox, too. My mother presented Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" to me as an early influence. She also taught me to look to Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, from Dangerous Liaisons and NY Public access porn icon Robin Byrd - meaning that employing one's sexual power for a purpose is a strength, not a betrayal of strict feminist values. I am not saying that Marquise de Merteuil's machinations were on par with Byrd's AIDS activism, but both were examples of strong women who I was raised to respect.
So I guess that my identity as a feminist is the same as my identity as a Jew, although I really studied and absorbed feminist thinking whereas I can't even remember the High Holy Days. But despite being a completely non-practicing Jew, I am really conscious of how my Jewish identity has impacted my relationship with the world and how that relationship might relate to the experiences of other people with similar histories of political and personal power struggles.
Hunter: One of the featured artists in Saccharine is Leigh Ledare, a photographer who has captured his mother in strangely Oedipal scenarios. What interested you about his work?
Honigman: I am glad that you singled out Leigh. I first saw Leigh's work when he showed at Rivington Arms in NYC. I didn’t write about his show because it actually touched me so much that I didn’t want to force my response into a cramped word-count or risk having an editor tinker with my reaction. I have to confess that part of my reaction was based on an attraction to Leigh and his mother. They are both so striking, and realizing that they have a completely impenetrable and unmatchable bond made me feel especially voyeuristic viewing their relationship. It’s an amplified version of seeing a stunning couple and imagining their conversations or casual exchanges. This was a connection with few prototypes, and almost no harmonious ones. I think that I also felt so powerfully for Leigh's work because I have no interest in having children myself. I see the appeal in organically creating a friend, but I don’t like kids. Leigh's mother seemed to have created the ideal playmate, by having a grown son for adult fun. I admire her, especially because I've started communicating with Leigh about the show and he is one of the loveliest artists I've met. They are both just so hot. I just think it’s healthy and admirable that they can acknowledge, instead of suppress or sublimate, an awareness of that fact.
Leigh Ledare, Personal Commissions: “Let the Good Times Roll. 1 Blond, 53 yrs old,curvey, buxom, slim, clean, petite. No diseases or drugs.
Seeking healthy, honest, reliable, financially secure younger man for discreet sensual fun. Ext#1084”, 2008
Courtesy, the artist
Hunter: The exhibition features artists from the UK, Europe and the USA. Has your own prolific work/travel schedule (Berlin-based art critic / grad student at Oxford / lecturer in New York) influenced your view of the art world?
Honigman: I notice regional differences more in my work as a fashion journalist than through my experiences as an art writer. There are more similarities than differences during fashion weeks across the world, but fashion still needs to speak to a local clientele while art, at a certain level, seems content to talk within its own universe. The art world feels like a parallel universe because international relations are so fluid and there is so much cross-cultural creative exchange. Berlin exemplifies this vibe. Berlin is so international that its blend of cultural influences is perhaps its most defining feature. However, in terms of the intimacy issue, I think there are really significant differences in the dating culture between London, New York and Berlin. Relationships between men and women seem more adversarial, awkward and embittered in England than Berlin. I realize that is a huge generalization but Bridget Jones is still a part British culture that I feel whenever I'm in England.
Hunter: How do you expect "Saccharine" will test the boundaries of intimacy between exhibition viewer and work of art/artist?
Honigman: One of the main reasons why I think "Veblen's" experiences are a great metaphor for art is because viewers want an intimate relationship with work. They want to feel a personal kinship with the object, and by extension the artist. Good art evokes a feeling of intimate connection with the right viewer. And I think all the work in this show is really, really good. I love it all.
Amie Dicke, 'Dissolving floors of memory', 2007
Sculpture: chair, sugarcubes and high heels, dimensions vary with installation
Courtesy the artist and Peres Projects