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Interview with Jessica Voorsanger
by Georgia Fee

London, Oct. 2009 - Jessica Voorsanger is a whirling dervish. She works with a diversity of materials in many different mediums, and the projects just keep coming. Keenly interested in exploring the relationship between viewer and viewed, desire and desired, Voorsanger has developed interactive installations and performances that range from the quirky to the outright absurd. Her work entices the audience into becoming part of the party, a party in which everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. ArtSlant's Georgia Fee met up with Jessica Voorsanger at Pellicci's in the Shoreditch area of London. Over breakfast, they talked about her work and loves. The following exchange resulted from their conversation.

Jessica is currently showing in famous: Celebrity(ies) and Visual Art at the Kunstlerhaus Dortmund (on view November 20 - December 20, 2009)

Jessica Voorsanger at Pellici's cafe, London; Courtesy of the artist

Georgia Fee: You talked about your interest in celebrity culture, and your historical involvement as a fan.   What is a fan?  Are you the uber-fan?  Tell us a bit about your crushes.

Jessica Voorsanger: I grew up in New York City in the 1970’s.  I saw celebrities in the street, in shops, etc. all the time.  I even went to school with celebrities’ children.  I see fans as people who admire a person, celebrity, subject or thing with great enthusiasm (maybe even too much).  As in, I am a fan of football or the books of Jane Austen.  Where I find the concept of fans really interesting is when they get slightly more obsessive about their interest in their object of desire.  I don’t know if I was ‘the’ uber-fan but I was certainly in the deep end of enthusiasm.  I’m talking about David Cassidy and my fascination with the idea of celebrity that came from my growing up with celebrity all around me.

Jessica Voorsanger , The Woody Allen Show, 2008, video still from a series of films made as part of an installation celebrating Woody Allen, Galerie 33-FON, Berlin Germany; Courtesy of the artist.

To be an uber-fan I think you really have to be ready to cross any line to be with your idol.  Where I did steal Bob Geldof’s rubbish as a piece of work, I would never go so far as to break into someone’s house, as some uber-fans have done.  There needs to be a sense that you don’t have a world without David Cassidy (or whoever the subject is) to fit the truly obsessive uber-fan bill.  Where all I did was eat, sleep and drink The Partridge Family (David Cassidy’s TV show), I wouldn’t have crossed any legal lines.  (I did lie a little though and I did run away when I was 7 to go to LA to be with David.  As a 7 year old though, after I walked into unknown territory I got scared and went home).  The relationship of being someone’s fan is a really interesting one, as being a fan can be both euphoric and destroying.  Fandom is one of the purest forms of unrequited love.  All you want is to be with them and what they want is to be nowhere near you.

Now celebrity seems to be more about notoriety and being on any reality TV show is enough.  It’s become tawdry.  What happened to the Cary Grants, David Bowies and Joe Namaths?

I don’t think being a fan has changed but celebrity certainly has.  People used to be celebrities for actually being able to do something like sing, play sports, act, etc.  They may not have always had their ‘big breaks’ easily or ethically but, at the end of the day, they did act in films, TV shows, etc.  Now it seems really cheap to aspire to celebrity.  The entire word has come to feel tawdry and sordid.  It is more about notoriety than about being famous for a reason other than being drunk on a reality TV show.  I blame reality TV for ruining the gorgeousness of celebrity!  I used to see someone walking down the street, and feel the electric buzz in my belly from excitement and energy.  This is why I did the installation in Walsall (Stage Struck), asking the question: Are celebrities interchangeable now? In doing that I invited the audience to dress up and sing karaoke by mixing up one vocal artist with another.

I had lots of crushes!  David Cassidy was foremost and constant.  I loved his pretty face, good humor, and girly hair and bubble gum music.  But it didn’t stop me having crushes on other people as I got older, David Bowie, Robin Williams (I know shocking- but true -during his Mork days), Rutger Hauer, Dennis Quaid….  My tastes changed as I got older from being purely bubble gum to being a little bit more dangerous.

Jessica Voorsanger, 1967 Sgt. Pepper's, Mixed media beadwork on felt; Courtesy of the artist.

GF:  Is your work really a “fan letter” carried out  to the extreme?  Romanticism stressed strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience,  and among other things, elevated popular/folk art to “high art.”  Do you see your work as somehow referencing Romanticism?   Can you talk a bit about your influences?

JV: Yes that would be an amazing interpretation of my work!  As I have written over 300 fan letters (to lots of different people) that in a way they are all one, the ultimate act of fandom – a giant fan letter to celebrity! But celebrity as I grew up with it, an homage to the TV of the 70s and 80s (not this fake tawdry version).

I love the connection that you have made with romanticism although that was never part of it.  My influences are from a really eclectic range of people, Agnolo Bronzino, Sophie Calle, Christian Marclay, Sylvie Fleury and Carol Burnett.  I love Carol Burnett.  She was the first celebrity that I wrote to.  I must have been about 8 or 9.

GF: The term “fan” stems from the word fanatic.  How does fanaticism play out in your work?  Do you see a difference between devotion in celebrity culture, as opposed to religious or political cultures, for example?

JV: Devotion can take on many levels of conviction.  The question is where do you want to take it and how is it going to change your life?  Meeting your idol should alter your life forever, making every dream come true.  But your idol isn’t who we think they are – they are real people – not just our puzzle piece constructions of who we want them to be.  I was once told you should never meet your idol, they can never live up to your expectations and I think this is true.  Meeting David Cassidy (and having lunch with him, as I did for a piece of work in 2002) was great but after I got over the euphoria of having had the encounter I was completely over him.

Fanaticism in religious and political terms is so beyond even the obsessive fan (maybe not Mark Chapman) that the comparison becomes an incredibly complicated discussion!  I think Amitabh Bachan (the Bollywood star) had it right when his fans wanted to build a temple in his honor and he declined.

Jessica Voorsanger, Stage Struck Costumes; Partridge Wear collection, 1995, costumes created, altered or sourced from watching 63 consecutive episodes of the Partridge Family, installation view, Gallery W-139, Amsterdam; Courtesy of the artist.

GF: You’ve done projects on David Cassidy, David Hockney, David Bowie -  are you particularly attracted to celebrities named David?  Do you consider your work as part of the David Cassidy machine, for example, supporting and promoting his brand to the world?

JV: I did do a piece several years ago exploring the fact that when you are obsessed with a particular idol that anything connected to them, including their name, becomes particularly precious.  The piece I made was a series of portraits all of people with the same name - ‘David’ (you guessed it, based on David Cassidy) but they were a range of completely unrelated Davids.  The piece included:  David Cassidy, David Bowie, David Ginola, David Beckham, Davy Jones, etc.  I later did a series of ‘John’ paintings for the same reason.

GF: In a number of your projects you cross from fan to actress to star.  Can you talk about how you prepare for these transformations?  What kind of research and preparatory work do you do?  How do you pick your celebrities and ultimately, how does it feel when you become Woody Allen or Amy Winehouse?

JV: Picking the celebrities to pretend to be in the transformations is varied.  It may be someone I adore or find amusing.  I love David Hockney and his style.  That’s why I chose him to impersonate at The Hayward Gallery for the 60 Years of British Art exhibition.  I really like to become men celebrities for the perversity of being in reversal drag.  I find that when I am in character I am given a freedom to behave differently than myself and have fewer inhibitions, in other words I can sing (badly) at the karaoke!  I love being in costume and adore the wigs.  I now have over 50 wigs in my collection from different costumes/characters that I have used or invited the audience to participate in.

But with Amy Winehouse it was an easy decision to make as I look like an older, fatter, healthier version of Amy Winehouse.  When I research a subject I first immerse myself in images of the persona and try to determine what type of clothes they might wear, or what their typical things or iconic looks would be -  like David Hockney’s panama hat and striped tie?  Then I start trying to source the objects by searching the web/eBay and scouring charity shops and vintage clothing stores.  If I have to speak like them then I need to take the research further…


Jessica Voorsanger, Woody 4, painting; Courtesy of the artist

GF: Why do you get up in the morning?

JV: Art, excellent TV, mindless literature, chocolate, popcorn, charity/thrift shops and my family.  Every day is a new day!  What do you live for?  Art, excellent TV, mindless literature, chocolate, popcorn, charity/thrift shops and my family.

ArtSlant would like to thank Jessica Voorsanger for her assistance in making this interview possible.

--Georgia Fee

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