The Joy of the Body: An Interview with Narcissister
The artist and performer on her new film, Narcissister Organ Player
Try a taste of this: a giant hot dog, as big as your body. The sausage inside wiggles enticingly, then climbs right out of its bun. Standing upright, the wiener shimmies on red high heels, tossing down feather boas of mustard and ketchup. Then the meat peels back, and a waitress steps out of the sausage, with a perky hat on her head and a perky smile on her masked face. The waitress prances up to an empty table, flipping her notebook coquettishly, then wriggles out of her uniform, revealing two Cindy Shermanesque prosthetic breasts, from which the waitress squirts mustard and ketchup. One red-nailed hand to her ear, she hears the customer ask for more. With ravenous enthusiasm, the waitress pulls sausage links from her vagina and gobbles them up. Exhausted or satisfied, she flops back down on her bun, feather boas trailing, as if to say, “That was some hot lunch!”
Hot Dog is performed, costumed, and choreographed by Narcissister, the Brooklyn-based artist credited with inventing the “reverse strip-tease,” in which the performer pulls her costume (or props) out of her body, and dresses herself. Already well-known as an artist, Narcissister crossed the great divide of experimental art and popular entertainment when she performed on America’s Got Talent in 2011. (She made it through to the second round, and performed a version of Hot Dog in Las Vegas.)
As a performer, Narcissister is an acrobat: she can dance on her hands, and compress herself to play the pearl inside an oyster shell. Years of physical training are evident behind the miraculous feats of her masked persona. (The pseudonym is a canny portmanteau of narcissist and sister, winking to the artist’s investigations of image-making and sisterhood and her identity as a woman of color.)
In her preparations to enact the breath-taking physicality of Narcissister, I wondered how the line between the artist and her persona blurs. “It’s my body,” Narcissister explained to me over email. “I draw on my years of training as a professional dancer, including two years on scholarship at the Alvin Ailey School in New York. When I am in rehearsal with Wanda Gala, my dramaturg, talking about the works we are in the process of creating, I refer to Narcissister in the third person: ‘What would be a real Narcissister gesture in this moment? So she moves from the front of the stage and then what?’”
Another signature of the Narcissister persona is her face: a generic wig form mask, which she wears while scaling a replica of her own head, or underneath second or third layers of costume. The mask simultaneously lends the character a recognizable iconography and flexibility. “Anyone can be Narcissister,” the artist explained to me. “I think this makes the project more interesting.” She has staged performances in which other people wear the signature Narcissister face, such as a 2014 work in which she invited women to adopt the mask while walking around NYC bare-breasted, leading HuffPost to describe Narcissister as “the topless feminist superhero New York needs.”
In 2018, Narcissister released her first feature film, Narcissister Organ Player. The documentary, which the artist directed, premiered at Sundance and SXSW. It’s a dazzling introduction to the artist’s kinetic, inventive practice, and the social conventions it challenges; it’s also an affectionate and mischievous portrait of an artist’s family. As curator Jeffrey Deitch noted in a Q&A that followed Organ Player’s screening at Film Forum in New York, parents often seem “not allowed” in the art world, and are notably absent at celebratory events such as exhibition openings. Organ Player, however, unabashedly identifies Narcissister as her mother’s daughter. The camera follows the artist’s mother around her home; we peek at her poetry over her shoulder, and inspect the scars on her naked body. We also see her onstage, knitting quietly in a chair while Narcissister “pulls things out of [her] body.” When I asked what it was like to share her mother with her persona, Narcissister replied, “In my experience it has enriched my work and deepened my understanding of my work.” Having shared the stage with her mother in the past, she added, “was very special, very supportive. Also, of course, a bit surreal!”
The familiarity, creativity, and tension of the mother-daughter relationship forms the emotional fabric of the film, and it’s the stuff Narcissister is made of: her performances tease, challenge, and seduce all at once. Documentation of live acts like I’m Hungry and Baby Lady are paired with the family history that gave the persona physical and intellectual shape: the story of how her Moroccan Jewish mother fled her home for the United States, where she met and married Narcissister’s African American father, a physics professor who remained devoted to the academic life his wife abandoned with parenthood. In home-video footage, the artist’s mother attends to a chicken sandwich as carefully as she might a poem, and a sensualist philosophy shared by the film’s human and superhuman female subjects is foregrounded: societal fashions and art world aesthetics may come and go, but the truth of the body remains.
Discussing her performances, Narcissister mentions her mother’s intimate, half-teasing acknowledgment of the persona’s physicality — “Your poor little vagin!” When I asked Narcissister what the art world’s response to the bodily concerns of her persona has been, she replied, “There is an art historical precedent for doing this kind of work — known and highly respected artists have used their orifices in their work. The art world has been slower to embrace my work, presumably not because I use my orifices in my work but perhaps more because of the spectacle and entertainment aspects of my work.” She continued, “I think for the most part, entertainment and spectacle are seen as lowbrow in the art world, that work that embraces entertainment and spectacle is devoid of politics and is without rigor, especially when the artist is a woman.”
The spectacle of Narcissister’s performances — and they are spectacular — is, of course, embedded with political and critical rigor. For every layer stripped, or put back on again, a querying response is tugged out of the audience: what is allowed of whose body, and why? The site of this interplay of entertainment and critique is Narcissister’s own body, which we see the artist use in Organ Player as both a creative instrument to be pushed past its perceived limits, and a home in the world — the seat of physical pleasure, pain, and identity. “I am grateful to have the body I have,” Narcissister said to me. “It has enabled me to do the work I want to do, to dance and to play for the long duration of my movement career thus far. And I love to note: my body is both a gift from, and a site of remembrance of, each of my parents. I see them in my body and what a joy this is.”
Narcissister is currently working on an evening-length theatrical piece for the Soho Rep. theater in New York City, in collaboration with playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Masked and merkin-ed, Narcissister is a Brooklyn based artist and performer who works at the intersection of visual art, avant-garde theatre, and activism.