When is disgust a good thing? Julia Kristeva’s essay “The Power of Horror” is still a tour de force on the uncomfortable feelings that emerge when presented with objects and images of horror, decay and repulsion. “We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.” These are the sensations that hit you looking at these images by British artist Julie Verhoeven, created in collaboration with photographic artist Annie Collinge.
This is the third time you’ve worked with Annie Collinge on a set of portraits. How did these pictures develop?
This shoot originally came about as Frieze asked for a press portrait. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to apply our annual Annie shoot for this purpose. I loosely began to think I should adopt my “toilet attendant” guise, but lacked any discipline to commit to one “look.” I need excess!
What are you doing for Frieze this October?
It’s an intervention in the male and female toilets. I’m going to be resident for the duration as a toilet attendant. There will be a video and sound piece involved. Restrooms are usually the refuge away from art, so I’ll be quite annoying for most people. I’m going to get some really ugly air fresheners.
What do you like about bathrooms? You’ve used toilet seats and paper often in your installation.
I’ve always had a fascination with toilets, I don’t know why. I like the fact it’s a space we cannot avoid—unless you have a catheter or something! I like the way it’s a sort of refuge from the flashiness of the fair. It’s such a demeaning job, but why should it be? I felt lots of parallels with invigilators. Being an attendant, this hierarchy shit. Hopefully I’ll hear some gossip…but no shagging. [Collector] Valeria Napoleone is going to do a cameo at the VIP opening, alternating between the men’s and women’s toilets.
Do you see the works as portraiture rather than self-portraiture?
I find the very thought of doing a self-portrait pompous and absurd. It’s the same reason that I have so far resisted putting myself in my video work: because of how unattractive that sense of narcissism is. It’s the same reason I have struggled with “artist” as a job description—it seems so self-righteous and self-absorbed. Which it is. However, the process of doing these shoots helps me clear the fluff and clutter and see what I am dealing with in my work. It’s been a good primal shortcut.
How did the works emerge?
I think she just contacted me out of the blue with the idea of doing portraits. We decided to try it as an ongoing thing, documenting my hairdos. We aspired to produce rather formal portraits, as you would at a photo studio for cheesy family shots, working methodically throughout the outfit changes. Working in a controlled frenzy.
What attracts you to the materials you use? Plastic, food, glitter, paint, makeup: they can be so textured, sticky, disgusting.
As I’ve matured I’ve sort of regressed in my love of really primal materials, almost like a baby responding to wet, dry and color. The more disgusting it is, the more I enjoy it. I think part of it is because now I’ve sort of given up trying to make things nicely. I’ve come to terms with things just getting sloppier.
What is the process like?
I do a sort of dry run first, where I see myself and think, “I can’t believe how grim I look.” It just depresses me so much. If I have any of my face coming through, I have to keep obliterating it some other way. I highlight things that are obviously bad in my aesthetic—so, obviously, my bad teeth. I make them look really yellow. And I always think, “Why do you look like a man?” So to lengthen that issue, I make myself wear a jacket and a shirt, horrible male things.
What do you feel about the images?
Her work reveals something. She tells me to just be. By doing nothing, I felt it revealed more and I felt more comfortable. I just like to bury myself in crap. To hide. I’m trying to bury myself, but looking at them, I’ve realized I reveal a shit load more about myself. These portraits are a result of dealing with my insecurities. It’s just an instinctive process—an exaggerated version of the everyday me.
There are a lot of holes in the work, many orifices: exaggerated mouths, nostrils, gaping shirts. How does sex play into it for you?
It’s all so kind of base, isn’t it? I think there is a gentle, wet aggression rippling through it all. I try to present a feminine, genteel, polite façade, but I really want to climb down a toilet and disappear. (That scene in Trainspotting has never left my psyche.) I like the sweaty, rough side of sex—the lack of control, visceral and body fluids abound. I wanted the portraits to feel frenzied yet “presentable,” a knowing wink to a seedier core. I like the homeless, trampy, vagabond feeling they have, which I didn’t anticipate.
Were you influenced by Cindy Sherman’s approach?
Annie and I are were doing a juvenile, almost kindergarten version of Sherman, I suppose. I really like Lucas Samaras’ self-portraits—there’s a sort of grotesqueness to them that I like. I also love Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion, full of grotesque beauty tips; The Bachelor Boys: The Young Ones, full of idiotic humour and send-ups.
There is a lot of humour in your work—in your performances, your installations, these images.
It has taken me ages to embrace it and realize that that can be considered art. I have all these pompous rules in my head—it’s just nonsense.
Portraits by Annie Collinge
Julie Verhoeven (British, b. 1969) is a London-based fashion illustrator, designer and artist. In October, her intervention for Frieze Projects will transform one of the fair’s bathrooms into a playful “total artwork.”
Francesca Gavin is a writer and curator based between London and Berlin. The author of five books and Editor at Large at KALEIDOSCOPE, Gavin has written for publications ranging
from the Financial Times to Dazed. She co-curated the Historical Exhibition at this year's Manifesta11 in Zurich and is now focusing on book projects. @roughversion