Susan Cianciolo: “Though I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not Love, I am nothing” ‘Corinthians’
- Susan Cianciolo interviewed by Wendy Yao, January 2016
Conducted on the occasion of Susan Cianciolo’s solo exhibition at 356 Mission.
Wendy Yao: When you were making clothes for Ooga Booga I’m not sure they were from proper collections, you just sent different pieces that you wanted to make.
Susan Cianciolo: Do you know how far back it was that I did make clothes for Ooga Booga? That’s a really long time ago.
WY: It started a really long time ago, more than a decade.
SC: What I liked was just the communication with you or somebody else, like Tomorrowland in Japan, those few stores I would say yes to because I had the right to make the decisions, and you were open to those decisions, not just looking through a line sheet and picking things out. It was so open ended. Cause you may have said, “How about this, this, and this,” or it probably was like an exchange or more of a conversation—
WY: Yeah more of a conversation and then you would figure out what it would be.
SC: So in the beginning that was more what I was open to. I had all these really big goals for myself, like—I want to change fashion, I want to bring back the craft movement, I want to get people to be creative, like with the Do-It-Yourself Skirt. I had all these ideas to do things in ways that had never been done before, but then I realized I wasn’t doing anything if I wasn’t changing the way the business was, cause I was still running on their schedule. And that’s why things were not changing. Something was off. So then when I stopped I said, “I’m only working with stores if I can do one-of-a-kinds, whatever I feel like,” because otherwise it was still this fascist system where the designer has no rights and no say. So that carried on until I got to the point where I didn’t even want to do that anymore. So it’s been a long, long process of learning for myself.
WY: It’s great to hear this chronology because going through the kits in the exhibition, you combine so many objects from different eras, it’s not linear. So this might help some people get a sense of the big picture, and I don’t know if everyone who sees the show knows about what was going on in the designs you were making. A lot of them were very conceptual, like you just mentioned the Do-It-Yourself Skirt. Can you talk more about that? It seems like the “kit” idea existed within some of the clothing pieces themselves.
SC: Well it came off of that, that was the first, original kit.
WY: And it came with all these unconstructed parts so that the wearer had to put some work into deciding how it would be finished and worn.
SC: I wanted a smart wearer. A woman who is smart and creative, and could play with the clothes, and they were fun and conceptual. I realize there are so many ways to attack clothes when you’re making them, and I really believe not everything had been done before—so these were all concepts I was playing with, but the Do-It-Yourself kit was this way of empowering the person who was buying it, saying, “You’re way more creative than I am actually, and you should go home and make something that’s so much more interesting than what I would do.” So there was an option in the studio—I bought these giant skirts at this warehouse, and you could come in and I could custom tailor it to your body, or you could come in and buy your own kit that came with—from Pearl River in Chinatown, they had these incredibly beautiful scissors that they sold there, so those went in this little hand-sewn muslin bag with safety pins, and it was stenciled, “Do It Yourself Denim Skirt Kit.” And the skirt was folded, wrapped, and boxed, because of my love for packaging. But for all those years I always had one side of my work that was custom. So you could come in and the sky was the limit for completely couture custom suits or dresses or evening wear, everything you could think of. So the DIY Skirt Kit would be something that was more in the mid-range, I think it was like $250, or you could have a custom denim skirt made for you by me, I would fit it on you and then we’d sew it. People were really into it.
WY: So where did the idea for kits come from, did that start through things like the skirt kit? And how did they evolve to become the kits that we see in the show?
SC: You know, in the ‘90s every single interview I did started with the question, “Are you an artist or a fashion designer?” I spent all those years in such a dilemma and panic because I didn’t know. And now I feel like the question I’m going to be asked is about the kits, and I feel that same dilemma, like oh my god I don’t know exactly why or how, but I was making them then, and I’m making them now and I want to have this really smart answer about why I do them, cause other people have theories about why—like the archival aspect—somehow they’ve become in this way an archive. But sometimes they’re just these emotional pieces that I make to release anything that’s going on personally. And other times they’re to me this beautiful object. Or other times they’re this sacred kind of prayer object. So they have different purposes. Sometimes they strictly contain an outfit, so they’re similar to my first kits and that’s why the older kits fit so well with the newer ones; there is still a sense of timelessness to them.
WY: Because the kits contain stuff that’s so personal to you, do you think of them as kits for yourself or kits for person that buys them?
SC: I’ve never thought about that.
WY: It seems like some of them were kits for you, in terms of how they’re named, and what was inside them. You had used some of those items already for your own purposes in some ways right?
SC: Sometimes yes. But that’s how I make the collection. When I used to make official collections they always had things in them just from me. Or the costumes do now. So it’s not as if I see the kit differently than when I make a full costume or when I make a film. Every medium is the same to me—when I met Aaron he inspired me to start making films, and all of a sudden it was a life-changing experience because I realized there was no difference in making a film and making a fashion collection. Then I started to realize there’s no difference in making a book and making a collection and making a film. And I see those kits as a sculptural medium that’s containing all those same emotions and feelings.
Sometimes when I’m thinking too intensely about my own work and I feel discouraged because I don’t have all the answers yet, because I’m learning about it as I go, or I don’t understand the work myself until 10 or more years later, it’s such an instinctual experience for me, making the work, and seriously I’m repeating things in the work because I finally understand it more. It’s its own being that’s teaching me or speaking to me and you’ve asked me in the times we’ve been together, about meditating, and that is what fuels the work because it’s these unconscious answers or directions that come and say “make this” or “do that” and it’s always been that way, and I don’t even know why or even believe in those directions I get, but I have always followed it, even if it really seems strange and I don’t even believe in it myself, I just follow these cues or voices that push me in these different places. So right now I don’t know yet about the kits. I enjoy that everyone has their own view that maybe comes from a personal place or is some kind of art historian view. So I’ve just been listening to what people are telling me about them and then learning.
WY: Maybe we should talk about meditation—how did you get into it?
SC: It seems like such an awkward topic because meditation is so popular now. I’d say it’s not something I discuss because it’s a very private thing. But it does—as you and I spoke earlier this week—it does influence my work. I have a lot of memories of when I lived in London and I get a lot of flashbacks from that time because I remember visiting some Sikh temples in London, and doing all kinds of meditation practices myself through different things I read or learned, meeting different teachers. Prior to that, I still remember the time I was opening my first collection, in the early ‘90s to mid-’90s just a lot of reading and learning techniques and trying them. And then dating that way back to experiences with my mom, and friends of hers, showing me different things. So all of that—visiting friends would invite me to go to Buddhist temple or yoga, and then 13 years ago, I met the teachers who I study with now, and it was because of a friend visiting from Kyoto. I just knew it was a feeling that I had met the right teachers and then I’ve continued with their specific practice. Combined with whatever else I feel like adding in or what I’m personally studying on my own. So there are other kinds of practices I’m just fitting in and experimenting, trying out.
WY: How does it tie in with your visual practice?
SC: So all of these interests of mine, mixed with imagination, and people around me, is what goes into the performances. All my work is so personal, it just comes from this everyday life of spending my days with Prarna [Mansukhani], who works in my studio. Her mom recently gave me all of her custom clothes that were made in India that she wears to temple, because she knows that I meditate. I was so honored to receive them, so a lot of those specifically became the costumes for the show, combined with other pieces that I made, and then all my time spent in Japan—there was one master I got to work with closely, and we collaborated on the show. She did very traditional kimono and obi sculpture and then I mixed in my costumes. So I remember some techniques she showed me, and then a couple Afghani musician friends gave me a piece from their mother. I’ve read a lot of books about textiles. So it’s a lot of close people around me. And all of my Kundalini yoga practice, like when you have to cover your head, like the combination of meditation and chanting. Sometimes it comes from my background, which was very simple growing up with my grandparents and my great grandmother took care of me, and we were living in the old world, cause they were just very poor, and I just think about how simple I grew up and at the time it was so embarrassing. But now I look back and it influenced all my work. I think my grandparents who brought me up influenced my whole life’s work. Cause they never went to high school, they just taught themselves how to do everything. And I think the basis of my work comes from that.
WY: What is your relationship to spirituality, I see it in a lot of your work, quoted in your books and exhibition titles?
SC: Well, a lot of my day has to do with prayer, for a long time in the morning and for a long time at night, and throughout the day, it’s sort of constant. I’m always in this sense of prayer in relation to my work—cause I don’t even believe it’s me making it. I don’t think it even has anything to do with me as a human. I’m just a vehicle that it comes through and I have no right to put my name on it or any of those things, but so I pray all the time that as it comes through me I’ll do the best job I can possibly do to facilitate the work. And that it can be as honest as it possibly can, and that I’ll hear all the right instinctual messages from my heart to make the work. So up until the openings I really can’t go anywhere or do anything except just be in the state of preparing for it, cause I never know if something will come to me and say like, “Change the whole show,” or “Change the performance,” cause that does happen. To be an artist I feel like, it’s the highest honor, and I don’t even know if I’m old enough yet to receive that honor. I think I’m so young to be even having such big shows, cause I just planned to work for my whole life, in making this work, no matter what. I’ve been very lucky so—integrity, that’s my biggest prayer—if I’ll always have integrity and not be influenced in any way, try not to look at other work or anything really. Cause I’m just constantly trying to hear what the work is that I’m supposed to be doing, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with anyone else, and I may not understand it. So I look at it in the way of being a spiritualist. I called my mom just to let her know, cause so many people are praying for my shows—in prayer for days and weeks and months, and that day itself, there are many people—and I don’t even feel worthy to receive such prayers. And I know my mother’s always in prayer all day, and my father and friends and teachers, for months ahead, I’m only sending light to the experience. So these are techniques I’ve learned as I’ve gone on.
WY: Does it feel universal to you, across cultures?
SC: Yes, for me it comes from my own religious background. I spent a lot of time at the Cloisters before this show, to get some early study and inspiration. And my mom just asked me if I wanted to go on a retreat with her, she does a lot of religious retreats where she’s just studying early lettering that’s in the Cloisters. So I grew up with all that embroidery work, very traditional work. It’s only now that I have more time that I’ve had the chance to study other countries and the overlaps. So one of the girls had this scarf that Bridget picked up for me that said “Jesus Loves You”—
WY: Oh yeah, Sonya [Sombreuil Cohen] was wearing it.
SC: Sonya yeah, and the blue and gold just looked nice on her. So yeah, I was brought up on this very deep faith. At four years old by myself I just decided to join this other religious family and spend most of my life with them, and no one came with me. I would just walk by myself at four. I just started studying the Bible and my mom said I was very very different. And I knew early on that it would be incorporated into my work. I watched my mom her whole life, working in soup kitchens and helping women in the prision, that was our whole life. So whereas my daughter Lilac’s whole life is with me as an artist, my whole life was helping my mom as this feminist activist social worker with nuns. I used to feel so guilty, like how can I be an artist when my mom is helping the world—what’s my purpose? And I would pray to have a purpose, and I couldn’t believe she got so many loans and financial aid to send me to art school, because she was a great oil painter and she gave it up to do all these other things, but I think that’s why it was so important to her that I as a woman had a chance to be an artist. Cause I still think that’s hard, do you?
WY: Yeah, totally. Back to religion for a minute—I notice a lot of your titles more recently have been invoking God in different forms, so the title of this show, your show at Bridget’s, and recent books. I don’t remember that so much in the Run days.
SC: Yea. I think it shifted from there to become more reference-oriented. The title for Bridget’s show [if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)] has to do with this ashram I go to upstate. It was a quote from the guru who started that ashram. I was listening to this chant of his over and over, Lilac and I have heard that chant every day for the past 8 years, we just listened to it over and over. But then I had it in the car, and I kept turning up his words cause he talks in certain parts, and then he said that quote, and it just blew me away. I had hundreds of working titles that I was just looking at every day for months, and I kept running them by Bridget. And then it hit me and I stopped in my tracks and said, “Oh my god, that’s the title!” Cause they have to come from this everyday place that’s in my very mundane repetitive every day. And then this other one for the 356 Mission show came from a friend who sent me this lecture from Ram Dass, and I’ve never listened to him before. They way I listen to things is I just listen to it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times, and I start writing down the whole lecture, which is totally crazy. But the way he starts off the lecture is with that Corinthians quote. What I like about his lectures is, he quoted a lot from Corinthians, and he quoted all these different gurus and masters, and then he got to his lecture. But I loved that it started off with something so simple, it brought me all the way back to me being four, when for some reason decided on my own that I was gonna memorize the Bible. I just would read it and write it. I thought, if I didn’t write Corinthians on the title we could have just thought the quote was from anywhere, and thought, “Oh that’s so profound.” But it’s Corinthians, and that has so many like horrible meanings—I think in our world as artists, it’s not very cool to be religious. And I’m not afraid for everyone to look down on me or judge me or think I’m a weirdo. I knew it was an awkward title, it was long, but I had to use it cause I was incessantly writing it over and over again and couldn’t get it out of my head. There was just something that hit me with it, and it related with the work.
Wendy Yao is the founder of Ooga Booga and a co-founder of 356 Mission
RUN home quilting workshop: small quilts with Susan Cianciolo and Kiva MotnykJanuary 9, 2016