f-words: Emilia Garber

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Stallassien detail, Emilia Garber

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Rope, Emilia Garber

Marisa Espe: I’m going to ask you something and it’s totally not a judgment. Given your use of glitter, yarn, string, and other “crafty” materials, do you have working definitions between art and craft or art and kitsch?

Emilia Garber: I think that it started out as a negative term, like it was a critique on mass-produced art as being unsophisticated. I think that the judgment was from a higher social class, someone who had the privilege to critique mass-produced art. I also think about sweet kitsch from the 60s and 70s, such as a ceramic squirrel figurine and the sentimentality of the object. I think the meaning of the word kitsch changes based on our historical understanding of it. Someone could have bought this object from a vintage store, and now having it in your bedroom is ironic. Someone could’ve bought almost the same thing from Target for pure decoration and be unaware of any historical implications of the object. I think it has more to do with class distinctions and economic values than it does aesthetic anymore: it’s more political.

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Chandelier detail, Emilia Garber

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Organizer detail, Emilia Garber

So I know that some artists say this, and maybe you agree with this: do you think you’re elevating these objects and materials? Bringing them out of the crafty lowbrow world to the highbrow, high art world?

Maybe a little bit, but only in a really sincere way of wanting to see if I could change the way I thought about the material in some sense. I do use these objects and materials, and I think when I first started, you know, I had a loose understanding of the implications of them being oppressive or negative. Anyway, I was trying to fuck the system a little, but the art world has its own political agendas and its own systems. So I’m not really sure if I am fucking the system…

Or participating?

Probably more participating, but it’s still cathartic for me and I’m selfish, so why not participate? It feels good to make art that seems relevant to your experiences. And I think that’s what art is about, like physically having control. Like, “Oh, I can change this, ha ha, I’m God.”

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Rug detail, Emilia Garber

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Spider, Emilia Garber

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Rug detail, Emilia Garber

So, you also use hair in your work, and hair means a lot of things. Hair is very racial, it’s status, it’s gross, it’s really pretty. So what I’m getting at is: what does hair mean to you?

I had really long hair my whole life, like past my boobs, always. A few years ago I shaved it, and I always tell everyone. In the second conversation I have with anyone, I’m like, “I shaved my head.” I want people to know that it was a big deal for me because hair is so much a part of my identity… So I shaved my head for two reasons: I, ironically, damaged my hair with a box relaxer from Kroger to get it to be like your hair, and then it turned into cotton candy material, no joke.

It sounds kind of cool.

I know what you’re thinking and it wasn’t that. I was also going through this feminist kick where I was like, you know, I didn’t want to be sexualized by men and hair has a lot to do with that, especially long hair. After I shaved it, I felt “masculine,” which is not bad, but I wasn’t used to feeling like that, or feeling like people saw me like that. Even if they didn’t see me as that, I thought they did, so I struggled with that. I’m almost to the point where it’s not that short, and it feels like, “ahhhhh,” like back to myself.

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Stallassein detail, Emilia Garber

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Chandelier detail, Emilia Garber

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Mouse detail, Emilia Garber

Is your work feminist?

F-f-f-feminist? Yes, I’m saying yes.

“Feminist? Yes.”

“Feminist artist? Hell yeah!”

You know how in interviews, they like, blow up some words so that the text is bigger? It’s going to say, “feminist? Hell yeah!”

[Laughs]. So yeah, I also feel frustrated with certain aspects of our society, obviously, but so do most people. People are troubled by the world. I guess my definition of feminism is a very basic one, in that it’s good to be aware of why you feel shitty and think about that. I can only go off my own belief, so it’s hard to feel like you’re being effective or your viewpoint is effective for everyone collectively. I came up with this stupid metaphor that doesn’t even make sense. So mostly everyone has some issues except for a cat lying on a vent.

So, the cat isn’t a feminist?

I’m just saying that the cat lying on the vent eating Fancy Feast probably doesn’t have many qualms. But then I was thinking that maybe she’s pissed because they de-clawed her and she can’t go outside and hunt for her own food. What if cats are aware that other stray cats are out in the cold and don’t have a heater? Of course, this is one privileged cat’s perspective, whatever that means. So, yes, I am a feminist.

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Aquarium detail, Emilia Garber

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Condom detail, Emilia Garber

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Organizer detail, Emilia Garber

I honestly think, and this could be different for other people, but if I see a piece that has hair in it, and even if I think, “that’s really cool,” part of me is still, like, a bit disturbed.

I am more interested in the disturbing aspect of hair and would argue the disgust also comes from the feeling that we can’t fully identify with the hair that’s off the body. We can and cannot understand it. The hair was once a part of us, and it’s that in-between space that we can’t identify with. I hate… I’m about to spout out some theory and terminology.

After you do, I have a story, so we’ll balance it with theory and with like, a stupid story.

So, abjection. The abject. I’ll do my best, I don’t even know all of it. Julia Kristeva, she’s the queen of this theory, this is her shit. She claims that the abject is something we reject as really disgusting or disturbing. All of those times that we feel really disturbed or you have a visceral reaction and something in you says, “that’s gross,” that’s probably abjection.

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Stallassein detail, Emilia Garber

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Stallassein, Emilia Garber

We use objects to identify who we are and who we are not. So we are not that cup, not that scarf, not that kitschy ceramic squirrel. Within this physical space, we can say, “I am not that, so I am this.” The abject is different from the object, we must reject it because we cannot be fully understood it in relation to ourselves. It’s between the object and subject, the ceramic squirrel and you. There’s no real language for it, because it’s above all ambiguity. I think it’s hard to explain because language is structured in the way that allows us to live in the physical world. Ultimately, it all comes back to our birth [laughs]. That’s a classic statement. We were once in our mom’s bellies, attached to her, one identity, and we didn’t know ourselves without our mom. Then, we had to figure out how to be our own self, which then causes you to reject the mother in some sense. I feel like that causes a lot of our little quirks when we’re older.

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 Chandelier detail, Emilia Garber

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Aquarium, Emilia Garber

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Chandelier detail, Emilia Garber

So, back to hair. I know this is tangent-y, but I’m trying to relate it back. My mom is a hairdresser and she collects her female client’s hair for me to use, and she often collaborates with me on these projects, and it’s intimate in many ways. Hair relates to this abject theory because it’s part of the body and part of our identity, and we treat it with care. We decorate it, we comb it, but once it’s off the body, it’s abject material, it’s gross to us. That’s really interesting, and that’s why I like to use hair… It’s weird that we’re crazy.

Speaking of crazy, when I was in middle school, I witnessed a fight. It got so bad, there was a glass display case, and one girl shoved the other girl’s face into it. So, her face was cut up and bloody. I saw the fight from afar and finally, like, adults came and made them stop. So now that it’s over, I see the evidence of what happened: the hallway has shattered glass, fragments of hair, strands of hair that were ripped out, and blood, all mixed together. I’ll never forget what that looks like, maybe because of mothers and abjection.

Mothers! Well, okay, it starts all at the mother and it ends all at death—classic. Another good example is the human corpse, because we see our body, and we recognize that it’s a human body but we can’t relate to it. We have to reject the corpse in order to define ourselves as living.

So, to answer your question, I don’t always use hair in my art but I think it’s really cool.

Marisa Espe in conversation with Emilia Garber. Photography Rebecca Ciprus