Orgy for 10 People In One Body is the bodacious title of Isabelle Albuquerque's exhibition that is now touring as separate headless bodies since the initial group show. The eighth sculpture joins an exhibition on magic The Emerald Tablet open now until October 23rd in the Jeffrey Deitch LA gallery. The sculptures are casts of her own body, that unified as a whole ten sculptural bodies produced a "symbolic orgasm" according to the artist.
How did you get started in sculpture, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
I first started sculpting in 2016. My partner Jon Ray and I were doing a lot of design work at the time and we were working with Arthur Jafa to design his incredible anti monograph - A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions. I was deeply affected by the book, AJ’s approach, his ideas and works; the depth of what he was doing.
At the same time, Trump was elected. We had a little office in Chinatown in Los Angeles and everyday we'd see protestors marching past our windows as we worked. I especially remember the women's March and us all leaving our desks to join it.
And then on a very personal level I could feel a kind of anger rising inside me. Something that had perhaps always been there. Something ancient and activated. Like a volcano. I started getting to the office very early in the morning before the sun rose. The office was in a strip mall and there was a public bathroom where I would mix plaster and clay before the day began. I put up a door to separate my little space and I began making lots of forms. Lots of breasts, heads and penises that I would work on for months and then subsequently slice, smash or destroy. It was incredibly satisfying and healing. It was like I was sculpting an army to protect me through the next phase of my life. I did this for about a year before getting my own studio. And in the new studio the anger was slowly subsumed by love, the army eventually turned into an orgy and I stopped destroying the work and began protecting and nourishing it.
I chose to pursue sculpture and it chose to pursue me for many reasons, but one of them is its innate depth. I am obsessed with the z axis and the way that three dimensional work can offer multiple perspectives simultaneously.
Does your inspiration come predominantly from your own personal experiences, or more from external influences?
As well as being a sculptor, you are also a talented performer. Can you expand on your musical ventures as member and founder of performance duo Hecuba?
Hecuba is a music and performance group that I began with Jon when I was 22. In some ways it was the foundation of my artistic life. Jon and I tried everything there. Our first album Paradise was an ode to the California dreamers that came before us - Kenneth Anger, Walt Disney, Micahel Jackson, Karen Carpenter. It was about their geological connection to West, California as the edge of the world and the idea of fantasy as a survival mechanism.
For our second album Modern, Jon and I attempted to “merge” and live, work and perform as two people in one body. For many years, we dressed identically, shaved all of the hair off of our bodies, and practiced a kind of boundaryless collaboration. We were thinking a lot about the lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano and my current sculptural series Orgy For 10 People In One Body definitely emerged from ideas begun in Hecuba. I loved the immediacy of Hecuba, the collaboration and love between Jon and I and the connection to a larger community through the performances. From these performances grew an interest in longer events in time and I started moving towards a kind of time scale that was more sculptural than ephemeral or performance oriented.
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Your first solo exhibition Sextet was on display at Nicodim gallery at the tail end of last year, showcasing pieces from your latest series Orgy for 10 People in One Body. How did you choose the individual pieces for the exhibition, and how did you feel seeing them presented in the gallery?
I wanted to show every piece from the Orgy that I had made up until that point and so it was less of a selection process and more of a process of how to exhibit them in relation to one another. I had been imagining them all together in one space for so long that when they finally were together at the gallery I felt a deep kind of harmony and release. A symbolic orgasm.
Your latest series Orgy for 10 People in One Body involved casting and 3D scanning your own body to create ten headless humanoid sculptures, composed of different materials. What prompted you to use your own body for these creations, and what effect did you hope to evoke in the viewer through this method?
I see the Orgy as a foundation for a life long sculptural practice. Each sculpture in the series explores a material language. The language of bronze, the language of rubber, the language of resin, wood, etc. When I began, I wanted to understand bronze like I understand my own foot. Rubber like I understand my own hands. Fur like I understand my own pussy. And using my own body was both a direct and metaphorical way to understand these classical sculptural materials through transmutation.
Because all of the sculptures are derived from my body, one might assume that the work is about me, but in some ways the work questions the idea of “me” altogether. By representing myself in multiple materials I am speaking to the unfixed nature of the self. The unessential self. What Bataille defines as obscenity.
But using my own body is also about the shift from anger to love that I was speaking about earlier. Working with my body in this way has forced me to confront so much of my own internalised shame and has led to a profound process of self acceptance that I really hope is contagious to people viewing the work.
Orgy for 10 people in One Body intersperses personal, poetic moments from your own life, with elements of myth, history and socio-political movements. Why did you choose to integrate these juxtaposing private and public elements together in sculpture?
I think it was less of a choice and more of a way of seeing. In my work, I am using the language of sexuality and erotism as a lense through which to understand my own life but also all the systems, history, structures and current events that are influencing all of our lives. I often think of Ovid and how he used the idea of metamorphosis as a lens through which to understand a larger human experience. Metamorphosis or in my case erotisim becomes the eye through which to see.
You’ve experimented with lots of different materials in your work. What affects your choice in materials, and what is your favourite material to work with?
The process and experience of choosing each material is manifold. For example, with the first sculpture in the series Orgy For 10 People In One Body 1, I was interested in casting my body in bronze because of the way that the bronze interacts with light, refracting and reflecting it in a very sensual and powerful way. And I love the idea of an illuminated body and the spiritual implications there. But also, just months before I began work on the sculpture, my family’s home and archive had burned down in the California Wildfires. I come from a matriarchal lineage of artists and we had lost four generations of art. Much of the work of my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and my sister - it all turned to ash. As we were cleaning through the rubble of my mother’s house and studio, we found three bronze busts. The busts were almost perfectly intact and so this had a profound effect on me and I became very interested in materials that have a kind of eternalness. Materials whose lives may outlast our own. Materials that maintain their integrity through trauma.
Processing the fire also came into the decision making around the wood for Orgy For 10 People In One Body 3 which is carved from solid walnut. Originally I had hoped to carve from one of the trees that had been burned in the fire. A tree I had spent my childhood dreaming under. I love working with wood because it is a body too and it has already had a life. Trees are like witnesses to history. They can see before and after us. They also have a tactile call and response with human touch. So much devotional sculpture is made from wood and the more it is touched, the more sacred it becomes. The oil from human finger tips, being touched, gives it more power.
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Orgy for 10 People in One Body presents multiple iterations of the body in various positions, each one a capture of fleeting moments of emotion. What does this separation of the self mean to you, and why did you feel it was important to capture these various moments in sculpture?
To me it feels more more like an integration of self than a separation. Or like an acceptance of the multitudes of self. Self with all of its selves. Expansiveness rather than narrowness.
Each sculpture is a performance of a different idea or set of ideas. Before beginning the fabrication of each piece, I work like a Butoh or Vogue dancer for many months searching for and rehearsing a particular form. I call this the “drawing” phase and it also includes a lot of self portraiture through photography . In this phase, I am looking for an unsolvable gesture. For example, in Orgy For 10 People In One Body 4, I am on all fours in what may at first read as a very submissive even derogatory position and yet in this sculpture the body is full of power and dominance. This piece is not just an expression of submission but of the relationship between submission and dominance, how they coexist. Similarly, Orgy For 10 People In One Body 2 (the candle piece) represents a very common sex position but also a birth position. It holds both receiving and birthing/giving at once and in relationship.
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Your sculptures from your latest series are suggestively posed, and each present different expressions of female sexuality. Do you believe it is important to use art to alter the stigmatised narrative surrounding women and sex, and why?
I think it is important to use any and everything we have to fight systems of oppression and so often oppression wields its cowardly sword at the body and sexuality because it knows how powerful these forces are. Our sexuality and desire is a deep source of wisdom and power and when we decouple it from shame, freedom becomes more possible.
You’ve stated previously that you often perform personal rituals of sorts, whilst your sculptures are being made, which often relate to the sculpture in question. Can you give us some examples of these rituals, and why you carry these out?
In some ways, Orgy for 10 People In One Body is one long super sigil.
And as I work on it, I keep learning about things that I may be doing intuitively that are connected to longer lineages of ritual through human history. For example, Orgy For 10 People In One Body 3 (the wooden piece) is the only piece in the orgy at a smaller scale. She is at a scale that is holdable and I found myself caring for her in the most tender way, sleeping with her, singing to her, caressing her and I noticed how healing this care on her body was for my own body.
I was working on the piece right when lockdown began and at the same time I joined a group called Enclosure - a collective of artists and medieval scholars that began meeting regularly in quarantine to talk about medieval art, enclosure, anchorites, saints, etc. We were all pretty raw when we first began speaking, getting the hang of zoom and our new monastic lives and in one of the first meetings I was telling the group about the small wooden sculpture and she was sitting beside me and they introduced me to the idea of sympathetic magic. I realised that this ancient human practice had made its way into my own.
Other rituals have been more intentional. For example in anticipation of the body scan from which the form of Orgy For 10 People In One Body 5 (The deer piece) was born, I worked almost like a method actor to “become” the deer. I ate only deer food, spent all my time in and around the deer meadows in the mountains near my studio, and listened constantly to a sacred motet by Arvo Pärt called the Deer’s Cry that is a kind of protective prayer or spell of concealment originally invoked by Saint Patrick in 433 AD to turn he and his monks into a herd of wild fawns when an ambush was upon them. I am really interested in transhumanism and transformation in general as a way of meeting and transcending our moment.
Do you believe that political or social statements always lurk behind an art or sculpture piece? If so, how would you categorise the statements which your own sculptures present?
I don’t think of my sculptures as statements. Each is more of a question than an answer. But I do think that having a voice is a political act and so in this way making art itself can be seen as political. I think that making my work, having a voice and using it, is an enactment and support of the freedom and power that lies within each of us and why art is often seen as so dangerous to other systems of power, because it is. It reminds us of and connects us to our own power, outside of the systems that try and control us.
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