Published  09/07/2015

Susan Cianciolo: ‘Everything I make is so sacred and it’s all about the process of making’

Susan Cianciolo: ‘Everything I make is so sacred and it’s all about the process of making’

The artist talks about the Fluxus boxes in her latest exhibition, opening a textile store in Mississippi, and her early years in fashion design

Susan Cianciolo is an artist who works in a multiple formats. Her practice, developed over the past 20 years, includes handcrafted tapestry and clothing, as well as drawing, performance and film. Her exhibition at Bridget Donahue in New York, entitled Susan Cianciolo: if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite), presents elements from this diverse body of work, and is centred around the artist’s cardboard vessels, which embody the deeply personal nature of Cianciolo’s approach.

Allie Biswas: Your exhibition with Bridget Donahue is the first time you have worked together. How did the show come about?

Susan Cianciolo: Alex Fleming, who curated the archival material displayed in the exhibition, was introduced to me by one of the performers I work with a lot. She told me that Alex had a gallery which was quite an anarchist space, and that he was interested by my work. He wanted to study my archives, so he started coming to my studio every Friday. He was so persistent. We got to know each other and he told me that he wanted Bridget to come and see the work. So Bridget came, because of Alex's recommendation, and she said the same thing. She wanted to keep on coming to my studio and studying the archives. I realised how much we were talking in depth, and how much she tapped into the work. Then, when she first got her gallery together, she asked me if I wanted to come and have a look at it. When I went, it was pretty much at the demolition stage. It was afterwards that she invited me to have a solo show with her. We talked about showing my recent box works, which were inspired by the early Fluxus boxes I’d made in 1998.

AB: How would you define a Fluxus box?

SC: In the 90s, I showed at Gallery 360 in Tokyo, who consider themselves to be a Fluxus gallery. They introduced me to Barbara Moore in New York, and told me I should study the Fluxus movement with her because they felt that my work was in that genre. I spent all of my time talking with Barbara. It gave me something to grasp on to. It was such a meaningful time, and I think that's why I hold on to it and relate the boxes to that moment. It's not me trying to give the boxes a big title.

AB: The main installation in the exhibition is a selection of these boxes, or kits, which are laid out on the floor across the central gallery space. The items contained within each box are very personal, ranging from clothes you have designed in the past, and your journals and scrapbooks, to Polaroids and handmade dolls.

SC: Sometimes it's painfully personal. I do have my own diaries in some of those boxes. It has always been personal to me, though, with the fashion shows as well. They wouldn’t be as meaningful otherwise.

AB: What I especially liked about the installation is the way that each box is presented on top of one of your quilts or tapestries. This created a sense of warmth in the space, perhaps because of the tactile nature of the object, which evokes homeliness. Also, opening a box can be something that is almost daunting – I’m thinking of the pop-up clown in a box. But your boxes don’t possess that characteristic.

SC: That's the best thing I could hear. That is exactly what each box is meant to be like. It's really important that you feel something good from them. I think that’s my sole reason for being here, and having the gift of being an artist. My purpose is to give back. The beauty of the making is at the heart of each work. It is all intuition, and I feel that if I don't follow that feeling, then the work isn't pure. And as I've got older, I feel the real work is happening now.

AB: The title of the show is very compelling. Did that also come from a place of intuition?

SC: Yes, definitely. Last night, I went to this ashram in upstate New York, which I've been going to for years, and got to speak with some people who knew the guru who started it back in the 70s. I was able to tell them that the title of my show is one of the guru’s quotes. I was so glad that I could tell someone who had known him. These chantings that I listen to on a CD, which I bought from the ashram, included this one section where the guru just talks. Deciding on the title for an exhibition is one of my favourite things, so for months I’d gone through hundreds of titles. When I heard the guru speaking these words, it was just instinctive – I knew that would be the title of the show. His quote seemed to cover all categories within the show.

AB: What about the second half of the title – that originates from something else, doesn’t it?

SC: Yes. The second part of the title is something Alexander Graham Bell designed – the tetrahedral kite. He is one of my heroes because he invented things that helped people. I really felt that he had this higher calling, which he was channelling. I like the idea of healing and inventing coming together, to be this one thing. How do we make things that have never been made before, that provide new feelings? It's not just about going and meditating. You know, those moments are so important because they don’t come every second. That's what the title of the show embodies.

AB: Later in July, in collaboration with Coulter Fussell and Kiva Motnyk, you will be opening YaloRun, a textile supplies store and studio space, in Water Valley, Mississippi. Can you talk about how this project came about? Why Mississippi?

SC: That question I ask myself over and over. I went there last summer for a residency programme with Pinehurst Art Residency. A while ago I met a woman here in New York, Mary Lapides, through a collector. When her brother passed away, she decided to use the pine forest estate he had owned to help support artists. Mary’s earlier life was at Christie’s, and she has a good eye. Anyway, I was on the list to go down and do this residency. The gallery that partners with the residency, Yalo Studio, has a lot of history with quilting, and with engaging with the local community. So I stepped into this quilting community. I presented a performance and an exhibition of tapestries at Yalo. While I was there, the studio and I were offered a grant by the Mississippi Development Authority’s office of tourism to obtain a building within the state of Mississippi in order to open a storefront space together. So that’s what we are doing. I ask myself, why Mississippi? But I feel as though when you have life goals that are within your work, they just appear how they appear, and I just accept them. It’s my job to take the mystery and the adventure, and follow through.

AB: The premise of the store is to focus on supplying textile supplies. Why is that?

SC: Quilting has been built into the culture of the community for a really long time. But nobody there has access to quilting supplies, as there aren’t any places in the town that sell these things. As well as that, the shop will house quilters, giving them a space to work. The other half of the shop is for me to do whatever I want with courses and workshops. It will be very experimental, off the grid.

AB: It sounds as though you have a lot of freedom to engage with the public in as many ways as you would like.

SC: It is a completely open forum. It has been a life dream for me to have some kind of school, and this just fell in my lap. I guess it just wasn’t meant to happen in New York. It’s as though I’ve had to go to this foreign kind of land. I travel to Japan so much, and when I went to Mississippi last summer it actually felt more foreign to me than Japan. It’s an hour and a half from Memphis, and it’s just so small. You know, there is only one place to eat out, which has vegetables from the local farms, and the woman there cooks for you. I feel as though that’s why the whole experience pulled so much out of my soul. And, as well as that, because so much of the work that I did down there during my residency then developed into the work which I’m showing at Bridget’s gallery.

AB: Will you be inviting any guests to collaborate with you during the workshops you are hosting?

SC: Yes. One of my teachers in New York, who is a sound healer and teacher of Kundalini yoga, has just opened a school, too. So she is going to come down with me for my first course, and we’re going to combine her sound meditation work with my tapestry. I can play around with combinations. The course will only be available to four students because of the capacity issues. There is only one Airbnb in Water Valley – I stayed there the last time – and the property only has four bedrooms. We’ve already reserved that for the students.

AB: At the end of last year you debuted a homeware collection (another collaboration with Motnyk) called Run Home. Will that initiative have any crossover with YaloRun?

SC: We will offer production to women in Water Valley who are fulltime quilters, or need a side job. Every woman in the town is a quilter and a great hand-sewer. There is also land with the property that we are going to be given which I can start to cultivate for all kinds of natural dying processes.

AB: Those processes are incorporated in the fabric works you make, in particular the tapestries.

SC: I've been working for many years on tapestry pieces. They might start off as a small collage, but I’ll often work on each one for years, and many hands will have worked on them. There is always something from the past that is added to the newer piece. It all gets collaged together.

AB: Occupying multiple categories, or making work that traverses traditional classification, isn’t considered problematic for an artist now. But when you started your career in the mid-90s as a fashion designer, and were also incorporating fine art into your production, people commented on how difficult it was to define your practice. How do you feel about that?

SC: You have reminded me of when I was starting out in my 20s, and I used to get grilled by the press. I look back and smile, but really I was so young and it was so traumatising. They wanted to crack this code – is it art or is it fashion? Now I realise that I cracked my own code by learning to be comfortable with my work. I feel like it has taken the past 20 years to just sit in my shoes, and it doesn’t matter what I’m asked, or how it gets categorised. In the moment, I didn’t understand what was going on because I was just making and experimenting. So I should really see that it’s such a compliment in the end. I’ve just learned to go with whatever is going to be written or said. I remember Bridget talking about a review that had been written about me, and she asked me if it was OK that they had termed my work as fanzines and pillows, and I said, well that’s what I make! I’m not spending my energy chasing people saying, it’s this, or it’s that. Maybe I’ve been through a lot, in a good way. It’s like a modern-day challenge. These are modern-day dilemmas that we have, and we can’t be bothered by them.

AB: That's a healthy way to look at it. I think a lot of people could be crippled by how they are defined by others.

SC: Well, maybe I came close in certain moments. There was a lot of press attention at different times and I really didn’t enjoy it. That’s what I love about growing older and wiser. I'm just not affected in the same way.

AB: What made you want to study fashion at university?

SC: I came from a family that considered going to college a really big deal. On my block, I don’t know if anybody went to college. My grandparents brought me up and they didn’t go to high school or elementary school. They didn’t go to school for a day in their life. My grandfather taught himself how to read and write, and how to speak English. He took apart cars and put them back together. We made all the furniture in our house. We made our bread every week. They were scared to death for me to go away and be an artist. So they made a deal with me. They said that if they took out all of these loans, I could train in a trade, and I could be an artist on the side. And when I started studying fashion at Parson’s, they even made me take courses in business and marketing. All my teachers begged me to change to fine art. It was so clear that I was an artist. Anyway, I was working a lot on fashion illustration and I was doing that professionally even before I left college. I was a published fashion illustrator. The minute I left college, l took a studio and was supporting myself as an illustrator and graphic designer. At the time, my friends said I could have a job anywhere I wanted. The phone kept on ringing. I said no.

AB: Who were your clients?

SC: I saved up and I interned at Geoffrey Beene for a month with Alber Elbaz. Then Beene hired me after that to sketch. All through school, I did the window displays for Bergdorf Goodman. Visionaire was publishing my work, which got me other jobs. When they were searching through the archive for this exhibition with Bridget, they found all the invitations I designed for Club USA [a night club]. They were two-coloured screen prints. I did all kinds of things. But nobody said, here’s a bunch of money, go and be a fine artist. I worked for two years at Badgley Mischka, and then, after leaving them, I immediately started my own clothing line. At the same time I was working for [musician] Kim Gordon because I needed a part-time job.

AB: Your collections included all types of mediums as well, though, not just clothes.

SC: When I made a collection, 50% of it would just be exhibition-based pieces. There was always this live music aspect, and films and books.I was painting and collaging. I learned how to screenprint and use textiles when I took a year at Winchester School of Art, in England. I loved all the layers in each collection. Even today, there is always a performance I make for the exhibition’s opening.

AB: The current exhibition also includes one of your films.

SC: My films are made specifically for an exhibition or a certain time. For me, they catalogue time and they are very secret. They are only shown for the moment they are made, and then they get archived. It's very personal. I’m very nervous to show them like this, in New York. But I feel it’s also important for myself to let people see them.

AB: The internet must make things a little difficult.

SC: People have snuck a couple on there, which made me quite upset. They have always been sold as editions, so, for example, once those five are gone, they’re gone for ever. Everything I make is so sacred and it’s all about the process of making.

AB: Collaboration also seems to play an important role.

SC: Interactive is the word I would use. How can I make this exhibition interactive? Whoever has bought my clothing, I've always had a close relationship with the customer. I've custom-made clothes for so long. You become so close to that person. I collaborate with the same people over long periods of time. When I’m working on a performance, I think for so long about who is going to be in it, and how I will dress them.

AB: One of the boxes in the show contains a cotton vest, and a separate collar made out of two single pieces, the idea being that the viewer can attach the collar to the vest, to make the “full” object.

SC: That is from 1998. We really mastered the production. By hand, sitting together in a circle, that's how we made those pieces.

AB: The drawings in the exhibition were particularly interesting to me because I wasn’t able to decipher any formal developments within them, even though they cover a significant timescale. Has keeping a linear style been a conscious decision?

SC: That is a great question. Well, like I said, I had to learn a trade, and I'm so proud that I’m a master in hand-tailoring and pattern-making. But you would never know it. You would not necessarily know that I had those skills. And I don’t even believe in anybody even being educated or going to school. But I do see in myself how abstract I am, and breaking down all of those walls came about because I had a chance to have a particular education. Also, in play with what you’re talking about, I believe that past and present are the same. I very much believe in non-linear. My progression is precisely that repetition and that mundane sameness, always coming back, over and over. I still use patterns that I developed in 1995. I’ve always been interested in breaking down complexity into simplicity, so you can’t tell what comes from what – that was a big point I wanted to make with fashion. There are no seasons, nothing goes out of style, and some of my best clients have supported me for 20 years. I want to be clear that it’s not about fashion in the end, it’s about process and the history of making, and the beauty in these traditions. My real goal, when I did the clothing collections, was to bring back the craft movement. Everyone was forgetting about it. I wanted to bring back all of these things that are in our American history. Even just from my lineage, there is a quilt dating back to 1890, which is in the exhibition now. My great-grandmother lived with us, too, and she made patterns using newspapers, so that’s how I learned how to make patterns. I grew up making embroideries. I didn’t realise until later that other people just don’t grow up that way. Then I was a little embarrassed that I grew up so differently. It took me a while to come to terms with it. What do you mean you don’t knit and sew all of your clothes? Fashion allowed me to have a voice. It is a very loud voice, with propaganda. You can make that statement quicker in fashion than in art.

AB: You’re often described as a cult figure, which I think was particularly propelled by your early work.

SC: When friends tell me that I always find it difficult to fathom. My closest assistant is currently in Paris and she said to me that everyone there has collected my clothes from the 90s. It’s so touching because I did all of my early shows in Paris. The French really support things that they believe in. They don't forget. When I lived there in 1991, Serge Gainsbourg had died, and everyone laid out flowers on the streets. That’s what we don’t have in America – the French will support somebody they believe to be an icon, to such depths. If something is different, we are a little afraid of it at first. That's why I had to introduce my Do-It-Yourself kit three times over 10 years! First, people were nervous, then they started to get a bit more familiar. Now, I’m getting some attention again, because of this exhibition, but it’s good when you’re hiding out and not hearing so much about yourself.

AB: There was definitely something mysterious about you in the way that your priorities were very different, as you’ve explained. It wasn’t about trying to create the biggest fashion brand, or be in the press all the time.

SC: Yes, the cult description may be more to do with influence. I do see some designers now, who I feel are referencing my work. I’ve come to terms [with the fact] that this is a language I’m speaking. Now that I’m not making clothes, I make a strong statement by wearing Eckhaus Latta, because I found that, for the first time in my life, I met a design team who are speaking this language, which is their own, but is also connected with my own. And I see that with students who study and intern with me. And that’s OK. I feel like it’s a natural process.

AB: Are there any other designers who interest you?

SC: When I went to London years ago, I met [fashion designer] Jessica Ogden. Today, she is my closest friend. We met in 95 or 96, when we had just started. We looked each other in the eye, and it was like we were twins. She has been such an important person in my life, and we have collaborated on private projects. My trips to her home and studio in Jamaica over the years have been really influential. Another designer I have felt connected with is Keiko Maeda, who designs the line Cosmic Wonder. We have collaborated before and exhibited together in group shows. For a long time I only wore his clothes. Bjarne Melgaard, the artist, approached me for a long time. I made him a few suits. He just said to do whatever I wanted. He also commissioned me to make a bunch of dolls, which I’d first made in the 90s. It was such a good exercise because he was so caring and supportive, and to see his practice, which is so large, was so educational for me. We are good friends now.

• Susan Cianciolo: if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite), the Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York, 17 May – 12 July 2015. 

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