AK: There’s a precedent for art and fashion in the twentieth century, if we look to Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali for example, but in the twenty-first century contemporary brands have increasingly looked to art. One of the things that we postulate in our book [Art/Fashion in the 21st Century] is that fashion looks to art for a kind of longevity that it doesn’t inherently have because it’s by nature fast-moving and changing. I just wondered what you thought about this relationship between art and fashion, and how you think it can continue to be relevant.
CS: I never thought of it before. I can see your point. It’s constantly trying to reinvent itself and seem like it’s fresh and it’s kind of impossible to really do that. That’s true in art, too, really. Everything’s been written about or photographed or painted to the point of artists in the fifties and sixties just evolving into just making coloured canvases and that sort of thing. It seems like everything’s been done. Maybe because fashion tends to be more disposable than art, maybe that is something to do with it.
AK: This tension is evident in your Chanel project. The potency of those images is kind of extraordinary. You take these pieces from the archive and give them something greater than they are on their own, just garments in a box. What was that process like for you in terms of working with that archive? What were you aiming to do?
CS: I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have any goal. It’s often like that. I always start shooting a series and I really don’t know what it’s going to become or I might have an idea but it turns out to be nothing to do with what I eventually make into a body of work. It was very intimidating because they were sending me things from like the 1920s and they would arrive in these … like a trunk, that was more like a coffin because it was the size of the dress. I’d open it up and they would have carefully, beautifully folded tissue paper filling up the dress from the inside out, as well as exterior protection so that is was like this three dimensional little…
CS: In a sarcophagus. Yeah. The shoes would be there and whatever else was meant to go with that. Sometimes it was jewellery or a hat. I was very intimidated by the historical aspect of these pieces. I also wanted to work with them as quickly as possible and I didn’t want to use any makeup because I was just worried. I didn’t want to get anything dirty. I really just worked as quickly as I could with every piece and then I would pack it up as well as I could and then return it to them. It sort of informed the characters as well. One of the issues was I knew that I’m not a sample size so I was choosing pieces that looked like they would have room for a larger than sample size body. Because so much of it was couture, I wasn’t aware that even a little jacket that looks loose actually has all these interior structures that have to be zipped up or attached.
AK: And you’re working solo trying to put these things on.
CS: Yeah. I’m doing it all solo. There was a chiffon gown with all this beaded work up here (the neck). The sleeves were so tight, I couldn’t move my arms around to zip it up. Because the beaded work was so heavy, the only way I could keep it on me was to hold it up while i was photographing myself. I wound up having this really angry expression on my face. I remember cursing Karl Lagerfeld.
AK: How funny. Some of those couture pieces are so incredibly heavy. What I find beautiful about those images too is that they are a reminder of the very close relationship between art and fashion when it comes to couture and the handmade and the artisanal. I think that’s a beautiful moment where the two are very closely aligned, where you can feel the hand of the artist.
CS: Yes, it was extraordinary. Even some of the more simple things. There was one dress that belonged to Coco Chanel, maybe from the 1950s, and it was just a really simple. It wasn’t cotton but maybe a light wool, and it looked like something my mother could have worn. Not high fashion. I don’t know if that one in particular was couture but just the interior of the dress was so gorgeous, so perfectly done and handcrafted. There was so much I didn’t know about Coco Chanel like the whole idea of the original bag that she designed had all these specific pockets. One was for your love letters, one was for an extra pair of underwear in case you had a night out with somebody, and another pocket for tips because you’re always tipping people. The history of it all. She was the person to define modernity. Just the idea that before that women had to carry their purses with one hand. She invented the idea of the cross-body. So that you could have both of your hands free for doing things. Just fascinating.
AK: It is fascinating, isn’t it? So much of that gets lost in this discussion about fashion and art. Looking at your body of work at QAGOMA just now, I was just so struck again by the singularity of it. You’ve had a lot of influence on people but your practice is still so singular. What do you think that comes down to?
CS: I don’t know. I never thought of it. I think a lot of people going into photography now are accustomed to working with a team. I still work completely alone. Maybe that is part of it because you do have to be somewhat more inventive when you can’t just tell somebody, “Move that a little bit to the left or right.” You have to do it yourself and then you’re constantly second-guessing what you hope it’ll look like.
AK: It’s a really interesting point about that second guessing. I watched a few documentaries on you, a recent one when you were talking about the Balenciaga project and I noticed you had this oval mirror, and then I was watching a great piece from the BBC from 1984 I think and you had the same mirror. That’s such a lovely continuity of practice. Do you still use that mirror?
CS: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s the same one. It’s really falling apart, though. I should get another one. It’s really junky.
AK: It’s a historical item in its own right now! How did you find the Balenciaga project? I think that’s still one of the most interesting art and fashion collusions in recent times.
CS: That was totally fun but it was also another case of where some of the things were so tight it was hard to put a jacket on and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it because the sleeves were so tight I couldn’t move my arms.
AK: What do you make of all the brands that are working with artists? Some do it so effectively. Like Louis Vuitton, for example, who are so very clever at collaborating. I love the work you made with them. (Sherman designed a trunk for her make up, wigs and accessories in the house’s signature monogram).
CS: They’re fantastic to work with. Really, so generous. Chanel was great, too. The only bad experience was early on in like the mid 80s when I was doing something for a French brand. I think they just wanted me to recreate something I had done a year before, which were these kind of happy pictures and all these happy, go lucky faces. I was so excited that their ad campaign was going to be in French Vogue and I thought, “Oh my God. Just imagine what I could put in French Vogue.” That’s when I got into the bloody nose and fake scar tissue (series of work). I just thought, “Oh, this is so exciting to think about this being in French Vogue.” Then they hated it. They didn’t publish any of the good things. I still got work out of it but it wasn’t my original idea.
AK: I’ve always admired the tension between beautiful and ugly in your work. Obviously it’s something that you’re very interested in as well. We live in such a narcissistic culture now. I wonder what you make of contemporary photography. I know you’ve spoken at length about the selfie. You’re probably sick to death of talking about that but it’s such a fascinating thing, isn’t it?
CS: It is fascinating to me. I’m totally repulsed by it. I can’t imagine growing up, if I was a teenager now, what it would be like because, of course, every kid is taking selfies and posting them on Facebook or whatever. I’m so anti all of that. I don’t care if other people do it. I just have no interest at all and hardly ever remember to even use my phone as a camera. I never think of it.
AK: This is just a theory I have but I think your work has this new potency for a younger generation, who have seen your images and they understand what you are riffing off. It’s like they understand your project from a contemporary perspective. I have a ten year old, actually, she acts more like she is thirty which is terrifying. I’d said to her “I want you to come to this show,” and she said, “What is it?” I said, “Cindy Sherman.” She said, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen the poster for that.” She never notices anything. It’s kind of amazing. Obviously, the images are so striking for her. She’s already so ingrained in this visual culture that something resonated with her. I had the catalogue and she was intrigued. She’s part of a new generation for whom everything is visual. That’s their first interaction with anything. I wanted to tell you that because, obviously, not only had she seen the poster, she read the name. Which is a miracle!
CS: That’s true! And she remembered it.
AK: Something resonated! When you think about your work in the future, do you feel like there’s so much more, yet, to do? What does it feel like to you?
CS: I do feel like I’m sort of getting to this point with using myself in the work that there’s not as much leeway in terms of the range. It’s not as great because I’m much more limited to doing … I could do very old people and maybe somebody in their fifties. When I was younger it seemed like the range was greater.
AK: Is that a little bit to do with female ageing? Is that something that you think about in regard to yourself?
CS: I think so. Certainly I could try to do younger characters if I was really using Photoshop more to make my skin look younger and erase everything but since that’s never really been the point.
AK: Your work has never been about perfection.
CS: I definitely feel like I just don’t know that I can do this anymore, sometimes. Part of it is, I guess, because, at least when I started my recent body of work, instead of seeing a character now I’m noticing too many wrinkles. There weren’t so many wrinkles there five years ago. I don’t like how it’s making me sort of self-conscious.
AK: We’re at such an interesting point in contemporary culture with women and ageing and how we think about those things. You really push that. It’s like the great last taboo, isn’t it? Ageing. Everything else is kind of done now.
CS: Like when I did the society pictures, I remember there was some review where the writer said something about, “Oh, it’s just fantastic how she’s gotten the wrinkles down and the little extra bits of fat that, like, you know, really point to a certain kind of character and a certain age.” I remember thinking, “I didn’t do that on purpose. It was just like … They just showed up.” I guess in my earlier work it seemed like it’s artifice and I’m creating, that’s not really me. Now I feel like this really is too much me. It’s just a little too scary.
AK: That’s so interesting because when you were younger you would play older women.
CS: Yeah. I didn’t mind being playing with wrinkles and flabs of fat and things like that then!
AK: My children said to me the image of the woman in the blue caftan with the earrings, Untitled #466, 2008, looked like me. They said, “Mum, that will be you when you’re seventy.” I think it’s so funny. I had to have a photograph with it. They said, “Everything but the shoes.” I thought that was actually quite nice. It’s a powerful work that encapsulates it all there, what it is to be a woman, with all those insecurities. I think it’s beautiful. What is your relationship with fashion? Are you interested in that world?
CS: Yeah. A little too much, I’d say. A little too much! Yeah. You wouldn’t know it with what I’m wearing now though.
AK: No, I can tell.
CS: Yeah. A little too much, I would say. The people that work at the various stores in New York call me up and say, “We have some new stock. Would you like us to send it over?” I say, ”I’m too busy shooting right now.” They respond “We’ll just send you a package.”
Cindy Sherman is on display at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane until 03 October 2016. Read more about the exhibition.