Last year, in the midst of Miami Art Week 2017, countless spectators stood beneath a series of clear glass tubes and dangling white wires, waiting for an eruption of sorts. An orgasm, to be blunt. The work, by Suzy Kellems Dominik, lit the walls of the Nautilus in neon shades of hot pink and sky blue. There were fireworks, a bird in flight, a labia. And, underneath it all, a proclamation: I can feel!
It was a highly Instagrammable moment, yes — one that received glowing write-ups in Elle, The Cut, W Magazine, and many others — but it was also a powerful statement made during the early rumblings of the #MeToo movement. A message about taking pride and ownership of one’s body— specifically, a woman’s body. But such wonderfully raw feeling is something one should expect from Kellems Dominik, a multi-disciplinary artist and self-proclaimed “emotional autobiographer.” Putting it all on display is the name of the game. The San Francisco-based creative, whose rich personal history includes a stint as a competitive gymnast, specializes in eye-catching explorations into social constructs and human relationships. Feminism, social justice, individual liberty: these are all themes that enter Kellems Dominik’s purview. She’s a strong female voice, and a timely one at that.
For Miami Art Week 2018, the artist returns to the halls of our own Nautilus with a new sculptural work, “INVISIBLE.” As she prepared for her follow-up installation, we caught up with Kellems Dominik to talk the toll of time, the gift of curiosity, and an early lesson in the power of female will.
Tell me a bit about the work you will be displaying this year:
“INVISIBLE” is a sculptural installation that features five larger-than-life female totems that take a poetic, surrealistic approach to representing the female nude. The soft-sculptures are hand-rendered from cotton, much like a sock puppet — albeit far more politically charged and on a monumental scale. They measure in at 12 feet tall! The sculpture is the first public presentation of works from an ongoing series that I started in 2006. As a self-ascribed emotional autobiographer, naturally my work draws significantly from my role as a mother to two beautiful daughters. In 2006, my daughters were six and eighteen respectively — two separate generations in themselves — and it struck me as a fascinating activity to see how starkly different our sock-puppet self-portraits would be. I was involved with my youngest’s kindergarten and posited the activity to the parents of her homeroom classmates — I tasked us all with undertaking the activity with our children. What started as banal became such an important exercise for me. I began making these sculptures of different fictive women at varying ages and they became a staple in my studio.
I’m now 57 years old, and while I embrace every part of what that means, there is a reality to be told about what time does to the human body! We are so accustomed to seeing perfection on the runway, onstage, and in the media that it struck me as apropos to take on the challenge of making sculptures that exalted the female body at middle age and beyond. In a setting such as South Beach — and with such an amazing platform as the Nautilus, where people from all walks of life come to experience and engage with the ideas disseminated around Miami Art Week — it struck me as the best opportunity to exalt these totemic middle-aged ladies!
Last year’s “I Can Feel” received a good deal of attention — and rightly so! Do you feel the pressure to top that this time around?
Firstly, I am grateful to the Nautilus and SIXTY Hotels for generously giving “I Can Feel” its first public platform. Let’s be honest: it was a bold move on [SIXTY co-founder] Jason Pomeranc’s part! I am honored that this work resonated with the many art enthusiasts who were drawn to it in person. For those who were unable to visit, I thank the digital information age for allowing audiences to experience the work from afar through social media and the thoughtful stories published about the work. I am, as always, emboldened to shine a light through my practice, and to engage and generate productive social conversation surrounding issues that remain salient well beyond Miami Art week. Pressure… I adore it! I am ready to take whatever may come with the exhibition of “INVISIBLE.” Having said this, when the pressure gets a bit intense, there are always Red Vines, ha.
As a multi-disciplinary artist, does your idea drive the medium/materials or does the medium/materials drive your idea?
I am an emotional autobiographer, therefore my work is fully entrenched in the recesses of my brain and soul, and at the intersection of the conscious and unconscious. I am often presented with an experience or an impetus that directs me to a particular form of storytelling. My body of work includes performance, silent film, video, immersive installation, textile, neon, embroidery, vitrine… a variety of forms. That said, the work itself goes well beyond object-making, despite the importance of the art object itself. The process becomes part of the medium. It is a catharsis of sorts. Exploring new skills, mediums, and research through which I communicate my voice is the bedrock of my studio practice. Curiosity is a gift.
What was your first experience with art as a child?
Three simultaneous experiences come to mind. First is having had my creativity piqued with what one might label a “makers space” today… essentially a garage filled with craft and art materials, a spectacular array of metal and woodworking tools and the freedom to engage my curiosity — snacks provided! The second was a spectacular performance by the esteemed Indian conductor Zubin Mehta. The third experience lives in my memory as a kind of amalgamation of cultural exposure. I’m profoundly influenced by my first visits to relics of Renaissance past: the churches, crypts, paintings, and sculptures of that golden era of arts production and patronage.
What did your parents do for work? Were they interested in the arts at all?
My mother was, for the times, a traditional woman: a mother, wife, homemaker. My late father, as his father before him, was an engineer and a stunning, imaginative genius. As far as the arts… yes! As a family, we especially valued dance, classical music, and — as my father called it — “long hair.” That said, we were not art collectors; my parents found it more valuable to collect experiences and relationships than objects themselves. They did, however, imbue a certain eye for the whimsical, a lens through which I came to approach life. I inherited an ability to seek beauty in objects others might otherwise find mundane.
How did your youth training as a competitive gymnast — a very physical and body-centric endeavor— shape your perception of the female form?
I am glad that you asked, but my response could truly go on and on so I will respond in brief. At thirteen, I first set foot in the gym as an aspirational gymnast. At sixteen, I was inducted as a member of the United States National Gymnastics Team. By the time I was at USC, I was NCAA All-American. It was a short but unprecedented, extraordinarily ascendant career that proved profoundly formative. It is sad but true that unrealistic expectations and long-term complications relating to the body abound in gymnastics — as with many sports and professions splashed across pop culture today — though for me, at that age and during that era, I was more focused on celebrating the body’s ability to do awe-inspiring things. Imagine asking and trusting your body to break the bounds of physics! Moreover, it was perhaps my first outward testament to the power of the female will. I learned that I could achieve most of what I desired through hard work, tenacity, and the courage to dream big.
Your work deals a lot with relationships. In your life, what relationship has had the most influence on you and your work?
Every interaction I have ever had has made me who I am, and has affected how I emotionally intellectualize my existence and work. I addressed the importance of my familial, foundational relationships — my relationship to my daughters, for instance — when we were speaking about the inspiration behind “INVISIBLE.” Because my work is so profoundly linked to my lived experience in the world, even the most fleeting interactions find voice in my body of work. And then there is “the muse” who keeps on giving — really just the archetype of who I am, the society I live in and the choices I have made.
You describe yourself as “an emotional autobiographer.” Can you elaborate on that a little for our readers?
Some artists are painters, others are sculptors, some are filmmakers. These artists assert a dedication, a technical proclivity for a particular medium or art form. My practice is a bit different. For me, the story is the medium. I’m not discouraged by the fact that many of my projects necessitate months of research and technical practice in materiality and techniques otherwise new to me. In fact, it energizes me to have to work through a new skill in order to arrive at what it is I need to communicate meaning! That said, the story itself is not always narrative or linear in a traditional sense. Hence, I qualify my form of autobiography as “emotional.” Sometimes I’m driven by a subtle sensation, a feeling, a discomfort, or a reaction. Other times it is an emotional onslaught! These feelings are the shadow of an experience or the distillation of a series of experiences, but the byproduct is nonetheless fundamentally about communicating that emotion.
In this era of #MeToo, how do you think perception of and response to your work has changed?
The work I produce always seems to hit right at the contemporary zeitgeist, which is interesting considering that the work has generally been years in the making. I don’t think this is necessarily to say that I harbor an unusual foresight but rather that the issues women are debating and the change we seek to make has also been years in the making.
Recently, I’ve found myself pondering whether my life experience has worn thin my ability to withstand the constant barrage of intellectual poison, emotional terrorism, and our overall loss of humanity… perhaps just a bit sooner than others? I would reiterate, however, that despite my work being intensely personal, there exists an innate space where the viewer will ascribe their own associations, their own recollections, experiences. Considering that #MeToo has acted as a catalyst to air many of our respective histories — particularly those relating to women’s health and persistent issues relating to consent — I hope that my art can act as a conduit for viewers to internalize the work in a way that adds a new layer to their own lived experience.
From your view, as a woman and an artist, do you feel as though women are making strides?
I am certain that the status quo has broken open entirely; it strikes me as impossible that it would ever revert. At the very least, women are being reincorporated into the historical narrative — female artists are being granted visibility and inclusivity on a scale unlike eras past. That said, my hope is that the fervor and the call to action continues to resound beyond the timeliness or trendiness of particular movements. Progress necessitates resilience, patience, and persistence. And a shared value for the aggregate power of the vote!
Who are other strong female voices that we should be paying attention to?
To circle back on our topic of my involvement with gymnastics, and to further reinforce themes present in “INVISIBLE,” I honor the work Michelle Obama has done to link a healthy lifestyle through eating well and being energetically physical. But on a far grander scale, any and every woman courageous enough to speak up for herself and others. Doubly for those who can’t!
What was the last book/film/piece of art that inspired you and why?
Most recently, Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” from 1969 at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Be still my beating heart! I gasped, I sighed, I swooned. The work’s inspiration upon me was visceral. I encourage all art enthusiasts to experience this magnificent, thought- and conversation-provoking work in person. As I continue in my commitment to reclaim the narrative from the male masters of the canon, I will use this work as my next inspiration — a springboard, if you will.
Similarly, and as it relates to “INVISIBLE,” I’ve found myself revisiting Hans Bellmer’s poupées and his unsettling photographs of his wife’s bound body. As I toiled over my totems with thread and needle in hand, I found myself grappling with the profound difference between wielding the needle and being the subject of imposed restraint. His works are so seductive in their grotesque, bizarre beauty. I kept finding myself wanting to fight against that representation of the female form produced at the hands of a man. I think that kind of battle cry made it all the more important for me to imbue my sculptures with empathy, compassion, and care.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
I gave it to myself: “Why not me!”
And, lastly, what are you most looking forward to this week?
Moving the art viewer and using “INVISIBLE” as a jumping off point for a powerful dialogue about something much bigger. I have the honor of participating in a panel discussion with fellow power-ladies in the arts and culture world and I am so excited to engage the thoughts, experiences, trials, and tribulations of such a great group of movers and shakers in their respective fields. I hope to inspire candid, productive dialogue as I find myself constantly lamenting the societal aversion to discussing the issues that affect us personally, professionally, and culturally today. In this way, I also thank you for this interview, for the opportunity to collaborate and for a platform to commune!
Suzy Kellems Dominik, INVISIBLE, 2018. Cotton knit, acrylic, thread, organic cotton batting, chunky wool. Approximately 16 ft. W x 12 ft. H x 2 ft. D. Views from the artist’s studio in San Francisco, California. Courtesy of the artist. Photo Credit: Christopher Yu.