This series of sculptures and photos had their beginning with Vodou. I have had a long time interest in the various Afro Atlantic religions, their music, dance and art….and a few years ago I was in Miami and caught the huge Vodou exhibition there “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou”. I have been interested in Afro Atlantic music, art, food, dance and ritual for some time- so much so that I directed a documentary on Candomble, the Brazilian equivalent of Vodou, about 10 years ago- I also have also presented groups of Santeria and Vodou drummers in concert in New York....amongst other things.
In this museum show, which included "living" shrines and altars- i.e. ones that were being "fed" by members of the local Haitian community- there were some examples of wrapped votive objects- fetishes, as they used to be called. One of these objects that I noticed was a simple knife and fork, their bottom half wrapped in fabric, which appeared to me to simulate the “dressing” of the object. The generous wrapping appeared to be like a dress which the silverware wore...and the clothing therefore also animated the silverware- by dressing these objects they were given a kind of life, or maybe their lifelike powers and energies were in this way acknowledged. Although they were possibly only wrapped, bound, and not consciously dressed in the sense of clothed, I enjoyed the idea that they were wearing floor length skirts.
I immediately thought to myself "what if this dressing process were applied to other objects? Would it give them life and a sense of power? Would they likewise be elevated by this ritual treatment? Could ordinary objects be given a kind of dangerous lifelike aura by merely dressing them?....what if objects that already were somewhat anthropomorphic-furniture, for example, were dressed in this way? Would it be simultaneously funny and powerful?"
Well, there was only one way to find out.
I sketched the basic ideas for this proposed series in my notebook and I thought to myself I might show them as both sculptural objects and as photographs—photos of these dressed objects in imaginary contexts. I imagined that, based on some previous works I'd done, I could use lighting and framing to bring out, accentuate and make visible the power inherent these objects. And, by showing them together, the object and a dramatic photograph of it in a setting, the elevating transformation produced by the photographic process would be obvious. Or so I thought. But, as often happens, the work knows what it wants to be better than I do.
I wondered for some time how to create the little outfits for these objects, which I had been acquiring at discount stores and at flea markets. I soon realized that the perfect person to collaborate with on this project would be a costumer, and that the costumer with the perfect sensibility for this was right under my nose, my wife, Adelle Lutz.
We had collaborated on fantastic costumes before, for my own live
performances and also for my film True Stories, so I showed Adelle my crude notebook sketches and then she asked me some questions, she refined the ideas and suggested some new ones.
So, with the help of our friend, artist Michael Daube, we began to select materials, fabrics, borders and designs.
As the dressed objects started to accumulate and I began to think about photographing them I realized that my initial ideas and assumptions were wrong, or at least they would need to be revised. I realized that my intentionally cliched technique of elevating objects by spotlighting them was not going to work in this case. I realized that instead of creating fetish objects, objects with powerful aura’s, as I'd originally intended, we had created little people. A family, in fact. The objects had indeed become animated, as I'd intended, but in a completely different way that I had assumed they would be .
Rather than being contemporary votive objects they were caricatures of uncles, aunts and other family relatives....and when grouped together the images looked like a motley group assembled for a wedding portrait. The lecherous uncle, the sultry ex wife and the radiant bride: Tio Guillermo, La Madrasta, La Novia, La Novio, El Cardinal, El Santo, La Bailarina and El Chico.
I began to photograph them therefore not as shrine or altar pieces, but as people in their familiar contexts. In their homes and gardens, with their possessions and their furniture. And, in keeping with the Afro-Latin religious inspiration, I gave them Spanish names.
As a final touch, I experimented with some framing ideas. I decided that to frame these large portraits in imitation of conventional family portraits would be too obvious….for some reason I wondered about the possibility of achieving the look, color depth of automobile finishes on the frames. Each frame would be a different color, keyed to a color in the photo. This turned out, after seeing a prototype, to be a perfect look to complement the images, but proved to be difficult to achieve. Car surfaces have many many layers of paint applied to them in order to achieve the depth and reflective qualities we take for granted. These layers of paint are usually sanded and re-applied many times in a tedious time consuming process, all of which is often automated at the automobile factories, but here, with the small number being produced, that would have been impossible. Stephan Petrik, the framer I have worked with for many years here in NY, was miraculously able to create this effect on wood.
Lastly, I realized that seeing these portraits all hung in a room reminded me of the documentation of an actual wedding reception, but something was missing….the cacophony of voices. So I recorded the sound of a roomful of people talking to one another, some of them holding glasses of wine. It did the trick, when it was played over a series of small speakers in a room more or less the same size as the one in which it was recorded it had the strange effect of creating the ghostly effect of many people being in the room, albeit unseen. To further accentuate the artificiality of this audio addition I had it fade down to silence for a brief moment every few minutes before fading back up, so one could hear the room as it actually exists, silent, empty…and then hear it slowly fill with wedding guests.
DB Sept 2000