Silicone Valley: Cajsa von Zeipel in Conversation
Cajsa von Zeipel is a Swedish-born, New York-based artist who primarily works in sculpture. Her most recent exhibition, Nine Lives, was on view at Company Gallery in New York from September 9–October 31, 2020. Filled with manifold references to the COVID-19 pandemic, #metoo, Zoom calls, and Black Lives Matter, Nine Lives is firmly situated in the present. But it also looks toward the future—to a future where houseplants might gain sentience and start reading Donna Haraway books, or where lava lamps, previously kitschy home décor, might become sperm donors.
So, too, does the exhibition look backward to the recent past of early 2000s computer technology and 1990s mall culture. Installed at the front of the gallery is a metal gridwall panel meant to resemble a retail display rack. Amidst the detritus of American consumer culture—hair rollers, bedazzled visors, pink plastic sunglasses, shiny silver handbags—are several books hung by bungee cords. A few of these books are feminist academic titles: there is Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, as well as Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather. These literary selections suggest that von Zeipel is thinking deeply about the entanglement of gender, capitalism, and technology not just in the past thirty years, but in the past three-hundred years.
Nine Lives centers on nine larger-than-life human female sculptures. With their faces sculpted in silicone and their midriffs and breasts often bare, these women could be seen as mere sex objects. But von Zeipel creates her sculptures with the rigor of a dramaturg and the thoughtfulness of a nineteenth-century novelist. By embedding so many tiny, personal details into each sculpture, von Zeipel asks the viewer to spend considerable time with them, to apprehend them from all angles, and to arrive at an understanding about who each sculpture is as a person, fully-fleshed and fully-formed. In the modern media landscape, young women are often reduced to ciphers, their images used to sell Coca-Cola and cosmetics. They receive and transmit culture, but they do not actively shape it. Marshall McLuhan famously called these ciphers “mechanical brides.” Yet von Zeipel’s sculptures turn this idea on its head (often literally, as in the flying sculpture Catch and Kill). They collect the scraps of capitalism and, in turn, actively imagine new worlds.
Last month, I sat down with von Zeipel—via socially distanced iPhone call—to talk more about the show.
Elizabeth Wiet: I’d like to start off by talking about the figure of the young woman or girl. As a critic and curator, I’ve always been drawn to art that not only asserts that femininity can be the substance of radical, avant-garde art, but asserts that girlhood, and girlishness, can be, too. So often the girl is thought of as being the apotheosis of mainstream culture. The girl is the pre-eminent consumer. She goes to the mall. Back in my day, she watched MTV. Nowadays, she spends most of her time on TikTok. That’s the stereotype, at least. But a number of artists have pushed back against this narrative and, working across mediums, have argued that girlhood is actually this unruly, complex, political thing. I think of writer Kathy Acker in the ’80s, or more recently, the theater artist Tina Satter. In her book about the Riot Grrrl movement, Sara Marcus describes her own adolescence as feeling like she was constantly on the edge of calamity.
So there’s this idea that the adolescent girl is a figure who is in flux. I don’t know if you know the book Girlhood and the Plastic Image by Heather Warren-Crow, but I think it resonates so deeply with your artistic practice. In the book, Warren-Crow argues that the girl is a plastic figure: not because she is artificial, but because she is moldable and mutable. That’s what the word “plastic” means. “Only a plastic girl can save us,” Warren-Crow writes. “She can face up to the screen because her face is a screen; she can shift power because she is a shapeshifter; she can produce change because she is change.” One of the book’s central case studies is Alice in Wonderland. Alice, after all, is constantly mutating, constantly changing in size. She is sometimes very big, sometimes very small.
Young women are often expected to just be small, to be diminutive. But your sculptures are so arresting partly because of their size. These young women confront us. So, as an entry point into our conversation, I would love to hear you talk more about how you think about the relationship between gender and mutability in your artistic practice.
Cajsa von Zeipel: What you’ve said about girlhood and plasticity is right on point—it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to explore in the past ten years as an artist, though in different ways. But I think these ideas have become more explicit in my practice now that I’m working with silicone instead of plaster. Plaster has a resonance with classical sculpture and high art—it’s very much about the white surface, which resembles marble. Plaster is very hard to kill. Silicone, on the other hand, is associated with fake tits, fake lips. It’s something we use in order to shape, and change, our bodies and our identities. It’s not solid and unmoving the way plaster is.
From the start, my sculptures have almost always been young women or girls. For me, it’s connected to understanding my own sexuality. When I was younger myself, I really adored the idea of the beautiful supermodel—more than boy bands and stuff like that. Slowly, I started to realize, “Oh, this is actually attraction. It’s not just about wanting to be that girl, it’s about wanting to touch that girl.” I also consider myself quite femme. And that has always been something I gave to my sculptures, too. It’s quite mind-boggling to me that they’re often seen as straight, simply because they’re feminine. With this show, I tried to be more straightforward with the characters, to make it clear they’re meant to be lesbians. Working with silicone, it’s easy to become pornographic, to become a male gaze thing. But here you step into the gallery and the sculptures just own themselves, and are by themselves.
That relates to one of the sculptures I wanted to ask you about, which is Aqua Aura: the two women who are suspended in a moment of sexual intimacy. I remember very vividly that one has a lava lamp in her lap. That was one of my favorite things in the show—the lava lamp as an artificial phallus. She’s also wearing a headband magnifier on her head, which speaks to how you’re playing with scale.
You mentioned the idea of the gaze. And in that sculpture, she’s looking away from the viewer. But the figure she’s with, her lover, is looking casually at us. Some of the other figures in the show really arrest us with their gazes. That’s interesting to me: the subtle expressions on these women’s faces, the ways they do, or don’t, look at us. I’d be curious to hear you talk more about how you think about these sculptures as characters—about how they relate to each other, and then how they’re supposed to relate to us, as viewers.
When you’re working with quite undressed bodies, who are showing a lot of skin, it’s easy for the sculptures to be objectified—to be seen as mere sex objects. So, it’s important for me that these sculptures be truly three-dimensional. I incorporate a bunch of little details into each sculpture, so that a narrative about who each woman is can really start to build in the viewer’s mind as they walk around them. Working with color and silicone, as materials, allows me to make these women seem fleshier and more present. They seem like real characters who not only have real bodies, but real psyches, and real lives filled with real dramas.
With Aqua Aura, I really had to fight the impulse to make the main figure too beautiful. The magnifying headgear gives her control, gives her agency: it reminds the viewer that she has the power to gaze back at you. It also distorts her face, freeing her from the burden of her own beauty. The other figure, her girlfriend, also challenges her beauty, in a way. That’s because she’s not fully attending to her girlfriend’s body. If you look closely, you can see that she has a phone popping out of her pocket. She’s been texting someone else. She’s a player. Her shoes were made for a one-night stand. She’s got her toothbrush and extra underwear in her suitcase. These are all things that will allow her to just move freely in the world.
I’m not trying to create problems between them as a couple, but to create a history, somehow—to create a more complex narrative about who they are. As an art student, I was brought up believing that you had to reduce things to their essence. That’s why I worked with white plaster. But I just can’t see the point of that kind of reduction anymore. With these sculptures, I wanted to expand frozen moments into at least a few hours. I’m working hard to destroy that “less is more” logic. I suppose that’s what the headgear does, too. It magnifies rather than reduces.
I’d love to talk about the place of travel and intimacy in the show. Some of the sculptures are solitary, while others are closely paired in embrace. But the solitary sculptures always seem to be headed somewhere: they carry backpacks and sleeping pads, they ride scooters. So these women are either in close physical proximity to one another, or they’re en route to some new destination. Both of these things have been foreclosed to many of us due to the pandemic. I know you began working on this show before COVID-19 hit. But do you see it resonating with our current moment?
I think this exhibition would have looked very different in another year. I started working in January and was supposed to show in April. But then, of course, the pandemic hit. Like many people, I had one month where I really didn’t know what to do with myself, feeling, “if I go outside the door, I’m basically dead.” Of course, we now know a lot more about the virus than we did then. But that earlier feeling of not knowing how it was transmitted, and what was safe, really impacted the show. In those moments of uncertainty, you collect yourself and you think, “Okay, what do I have?” Whether it’s in the luggage they’re carrying, or the person they’re embracing, all these sculptures possess a feeling of, “I have everything I need.” There’s a sense of home. The bodies that are very tangled and melting together—that’s me, quarantining with my wife. We’re basically one entity now.
On the other hand, there’s that one piece that’s more solitary in the back of the gallery, What The Heel. She’s a woman in front of the computer—that was totally inspired by all these Zoom calls we’re now having, and all the broadcasts that are being conducted from home. Everything in that sculpture is really compressed and claustrophobic: she’s working on her kitchen sink, and her world is so penetrated by all this digital stuff. But there’s an element of loneliness there, too.
It’s all very tied to the present moment, but it’s not all related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I started working on the flying couple, Catch and Kill, when I was thinking about Ronan Farrow’s book of the same name, about Harvey Weinstein. It’s like a delayed #metoo piece. The newsprint fabrics that they’re wearing are meant to convey the speed of news updates and the overload of information that characterizes our lives. Catch and Kill started off as a reference to Farrow’s book, but that title—it also came to signify the transmission of the coronavirus and the police brutality that Black Lives Matter is working against. Because our news cycles change so rapidly, the meaning of the art ends up changing, too. The number 2020 repeats throughout the show, as a way of assigning the pieces to a particular year, a particular mood. It’s almost as if these pieces were “signed” by the year 2020 as much as they were signed by me as an artist.
You mentioned What The Heel, the sculpture of the woman who’s on her computer. She’s also pushing a baby stroller holding a plant that appears to be reading a Donna Haraway book. Of course, the show is very much about consumerism and technology—things that are considered cultural, or even artificial. But nature, and caregiving, are peculiarly intertwined as well. Could you talk more about how you’re thinking about the relationship between the “artificial” and the “natural”?
It’s all about upending ideas about who, or what, has a psyche. That’s why I let the plant read the book. That’s also why I use the lava lamp as a strap-on dildo in Aqua Aura, which you mentioned earlier. As it flows through the glass vessel, the lava starts to look like eggs or sperm. So the lava lamp isn’t just an object, but a potential sperm donor. I want viewers to see the plant and the lava lamp as being their own characters, rather than objects.
Donna Haraway’s theory of the “cyborg” has had a big influence on my practice. As a sculptor, I kind of work like a plastic surgeon. I will sculpt a female face in clay, and then will use it to cast the sculptures in silicone. But I’ll augment each face a little, as if I’m packing the cheeks or lips with fillers. That way, the girls look similar, but not identical. They’re like sisters. They relate to each other so that they almost become each other. But there’s these small shifts. My sculptures are almost like clones, but not quite.
As a lesbian, I’m so bummed that me and my wife can’t have kids who are biologically both of ours. We can’t actually have children who are clones of ourselves. But I think in fifty years or so, there will be that technology. The lava lamp sperm will totally exist by then.
I know the title of the exhibition, Nine Lives, is a reference to an Ursula K. Le Guin story. It also points to how these sculptures are, if not multiple versions of the same self, at least related to each other in some way. As we’re talking about nature and non-human things in the show, of course, I have to ask about the dogs. At the front of the gallery, there’s the pair of dog sculptures, Beware of Dogs. One is climbed onto the other’s back, almost replicating the body positions of the human sculptures in the show. And then at the end, there’s that tiny little puppy on the green carpet.
I think the dogs are a very queer reference—it’s about the kind of caretaking or motherhood that my wife and I are able to experience. We have three dogs, and it’s through the dogs that I’ve learned a new type of body language. We all just sleep in a pile, in a kind of tangle. We have one Chinese Crested, in particular, who has this unique way of bending back his head. He can almost put the top of his leg on his back. And that move is what the bending woman in Catch and Kill is doing.
I love that you mentioned the idea of dog ownership as a form of queer caretaking. We read an anthology called Queer Pup in a poetry course I took in college. It was filled with poems from gay and lesbian writers about their dogs. So there’s definitely a tradition within LGBT art and literature of exploring the importance of animals to daily, domestic life.
Yes! I also tried to endow the dogs with a sort of human-ness, just like with the plants. There’s another dog on a Roomba, who has a GoPro on his back and is spying on the sculptures. On his Roomba, he can take a little stroll through the gallery and then come back to communicate with the two dogs in the front. It makes you wonder whether the dogs are actually the ones in control.
On the subject of surveillance, I wanted to ask you about that sculpture that was in the lower right corner of the gallery, titled Share Screen, with the two-dimensional lenticular prints conveying messages like “This High-Tech ‘Fungus’ Literally Blocks Your Smart Device from Spying on You.” The structure of that sculpture, to my eyes at least, almost mimics a CCTV control room.
Surveillance, technology—it’s unavoidable. I was an “early adopter” with social media, but then I took a long break until maybe six months ago. I’ve become quite scared of the internet, somehow. Sometimes, it feels like it actually heard whatever I said when I was talking about something in person, you know? Or it will remind me of things that I don’t want to be reminded of. When you’ve been affected by it enough times, you start to really believe in the conspiracy theories: they have so much information about us, you can’t help but feel like you’re being watched. So, Share Screen is partly borne from real fear.
But it’s not a fear-based show. It’s not designed to make you feel scared. I use the headline about the fungus in a sort of humorous way. By joking about internet surveillance, I’m trying to make myself a bit calmer about it. The fungus headline is real, though. I use headlines as if they were ready-mades. I incorporate them, along with other found objects, into sculptures that I’ve otherwise built from the base. Information becomes its own kind of scavenged material. For the lenticulars, I wanted to create something that had the quality of being both still and moving. They’re just a sheet, but they also present two different realities, somehow.
The lenticulars also convey a sense of secrecy: you can’t read the messages unless you’re physically positioned toward them in a certain way. They’re a lot like the human sculptures, in that you have to move around them, and really look at them from all angles, to understand what’s going on.
Lenticulars are also kind of retro. They make me think of the old tilt-cards you used to get in the bottom of Cracker Jack boxes, or the lenticular CD covers that were so popular in the mid-’90s. I associate that kind of print technology with my childhood. The show is very much set in the present moment of 2020, but there are little elements that take us back to the ’90s or the early 2000s. You can see that in some of the fashions, too. So much of the show felt vaguely like the mall culture of my high school years.
I was born in 1983, so I grew up in the ’90s, too. I bet when I’m sixty I’m going to start wearing puffy silver jackets again! Because that’s what you do: you eventually go back to whenever you started to invent yourself, you know? The show is, in many ways, about self-fashioning. And the ’90s is when I started inventing myself. A lot of the ’90s now feels really far away. But it’s part of who I am in the present.
The idea of branding is really present in the show, whether it’s about corporations branding themselves, or people branding themselves.
That really comes in with the logos, too. The Louis Vuitton bags that the girls carry are all branded with that company’s logo. But they also wear shirts that find different ways of saying they’re queer. We often use fashion to categorize ourselves.
That reminds me of the wallpaper, too. All these designed phrases: they look like logos or decals. Could you talk more about the wallpaper and its place in the show?
The words depicted on the wallpaper are mostly quotes or phrases that I had written down when I was learning English. I’m Swedish, and this is my seventh year in New York. But it was really hard being here for the first three or four years. I felt like I had to drop so much of who I am, since I wasn’t able to access the language to the same extent I could my native language. Jotting down these notes allowed me to become more spontaneous with words. I’m also dyslexic, and so I’ve avoided using language in my work because I have a hard time with it. But I’m trying to have more fun with it.
I’ve been trying to lose control more, to embrace accidents more. Even the lenticulars—those are things I can find in my local dollar store. A lot of the objects in the show are things that jump out to me whenever I move around my neighborhood on the Lower East Side. Incorporating these objects into the sculptures is like inviting collaborators from the city, whom I don’t really know, into my studio. So, the show is very much about individual identity. But it’s also about these subtle forms of collaboration. And it’s about what might be possible when you relinquish control or do away with the old rules.
Elizabeth Wiet is a writer and curator working at the intersection of performance, visual art, and literature. She joined the editorial team at Topical Cream in August 2020, and also works in curatorial and editorial capacities with Bidoun and The Kitchen, where she is currently Exhibition Coordinator. She is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Yale University and works between New York and New Haven.