Interview conducted and transcribed by
artist and art historian Stephanie Kang
Stephanie Kang: Something that really interests me about your work is how you discuss ideas of mythology, and specifically monstrosity. Monstrosity is often perceived as a negative characteristic, but how do you find potential in the figure of the monster and its ability to disrupt ideas of normativity?
Mitch Vicieux: From Greek and Roman mythology to contemporary horror, you see desires to play with the monster. It is limitless, yet liminal. It exists in two identities at once and can’t be contained into a single word. It is unknowable and exists in a space that hits me as a non-binary person. What I consider in my work and research is that if we’re already interested in having an appetite for these kinds of symbols that have been related to otherness, or in my case queerness, why can’t we activate that and reclaim it to realize how extraordinary a body outside of the convention can become? So rather than being horrified by a werewolf, dracula, or frankenstein, why not be open about our intrigue for them? In current media trends, we can see that the public loves the monster, so I want to tap into this desire, which horror theory refers to as “seduction and repulsion.” By utilizing a twofold experience of seduction and repulsion, I want to see if we can activate an understanding of transness and see how wanting your body to be something outside of these bounds can be accepted by a widely cis-het audience.
SK: Perhaps we can talk about how this all relates to your work at Urban Arts Space. What does your work’s final form look like and how is it installed in the space? How does it relate to these concepts of monsterhood?
MV: Three of the tactics that are used in horror movies to create fear are scale (Godzilla), multiplicity (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), and something that is interstitial (the werewolf).These are the parts of my toolkit that I wanted to bring into the exhibition. Regarding scale, in my piece Cerberus/Therianthropy, it is a 15 foot long sculpture that is put above the archway of Urban Arts Space. I wanted it to be a looming symbol dominating over the space. For my piece on the ground Tiresias/Felt So Heavy, I wanted to create an interstitial space. It’s difficult to tell if it is meant to be a breast, a tongue, or an organ. You can’t digest what it is immediately.
SK: Looking at your works and their titles, you reference a diverse range of sources in your pieces that come from comic books, horror movies, Gothic literature, ancient mythology, and early Christianity. How do you culminate all of these various references and incorporate them into your finalized works?
MV: I use iconography throughout my work, and comic arts is such a ripe platform to essentialize images down to common symbols that can then be broadened out to see how they apply to queer mythologies. While I’m not actively religious or spiritual, I’m interested in how symbols connect with different aspects of homoeroticism and gender variance, broader themes that have been co-opted by various LGBTQ movements to represent our story and show that we’ve always been here. So these references may seem disparate, but I’m very interested in the accessibility of mass media, so I want to strip away some of the lengthy backgrounds behind these images to bring them together to form a greater whole.
SK: Through your historical references, you seem to express your desire to make invisible queer histories visible through your work. What are some specific references that you are thinking about in this regard?
MV: The first one that I reference in the work is Dionysus. Prometheus, the hero deity who stole fire from the gods, was shaping humans out of clay, when Dionysus invited him to dinner. They both got drunk off of wine, and coming home in a stupor, Prometheus switched the genitalia of the male and female clay figures. Later when discussing this with Dionysus, Dionysus said that this was their “unconventional” proclivities living on through this creation tale. At the time, myths and deities were being digested in a way to represent what we would talk about now as “queer.” Moving later into a Western Christian tradition, I’m thinking about Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s 1955 book Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. It spurred a lot of Christian religious leaders to reexamine Bible verses that were read as anti-homoerotic and anti-transgender. These sentiments were thought to be so intrinsic to Christianity, but it seemed not so anymore with further examination by a more diverse group of theorists. I also look at David Plant, a gay Catholic writer, who talks about how different imagery in Catholic writing about the body gives sensuality and sex a greater sense, that a whole is larger than its parts. It takes away the idea that the beauty of flesh and our bodies and the control thereof are more than skin, hair, and bone. With Judaism and other Abrahamic religions, Leviticus and Deuteronomy created this perspective that transgenderism and same-sex relationships were completely out of the picture, but scholars have found that they were really only vehement about these condemnations when they were in conflict with other societal rules.
SK: While you reference historical and pop cultural sources within your work, you also look to your own body as a reference point within your images and sculptures. What are your thoughts on this commingling?
MV: I want to use myself to specifically talk about my own experiences, while also giving entry points of understanding to my viewers. So it’s almost like having no specificity because of a hyper-specificity? Compartmentalization has also been important for me though. In my work at Urban Arts Space, you see a breast, a pectoral, wings, and an eye, and there’s only one sculpture that’s actually a full body. So looking at these parts, I feel like that is a way to get my identity and choices of representation into the work without alienating anyone, especially non-binary people who might not have my opinions or experiences.
SK: It’s interesting how you develop a contrast between the whole body and its fragmentation, and it reminds me of this twofold experience of seduction and repulsion that you discussed earlier – how the whole body is seen as desirable, yet its fragmented parts have a grotesque quality. I can’t help but think of how this relates to Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. Thinking about the body, she discusses how once a part of our body is cast off, it is immediately viewed as grotesque and other, because it creates a breakdown, a loss of distinction between our subjecthood and objecthood. For example, hair has an abject quality as soon as it falls from our body. How do you see this idea playing into your bodily sculptures?
MV: So much of this identity-based work is centered on my experiences. My whole life was related to a singular part of me – my breasts. This sagging reminder of my femininity was dominating every other aspect of my representation. I resorted to modesty and tried to cover myself to hide this femininity, but it felt like such a strange contradiction that this one part of me and how I was handling it was such a push away from what I felt I was supposed to be doing. And it’s this unfortunate place that many people who are assigned female at birth have to live with. This experience really developed my work. What are the parts in my transition journey that felt really big to me? And that is represented through scale in the installation – the big, pustulating breast versus the high pectoral on the wall versus this all-seeing eye. This eye hanging above really represented to me how I felt as a person with breasts, but it’s still how I feel as a person who sometimes gets looked at funny by strangers. I find dysphoria often has a lot of specificity to certain parts. So I wanted to work with that division; essentially, while the whole is larger than the sum of its parts, what if some of those parts are causing someone a lot of agony?
SK: You often work with plushy material, so I was wondering about the importance of your work’s materiality. What is the significance of working with material that mimics the texture and tactility of plush toys?
MV: I want to imitate coping mechanisms of people undergoing transition procedures towards achieving gender confirmation. So I really try to look at marks to imitate the kinds of sutures that were used on my own body. For me, it’s really trying to have the process and the materiality mimic these ideas. Drapery is also seen in a couple of the works. Quite often for trans people who haven’t had medical transitions, they wear baggy clothes to try to conceal their breasts or groin areas, so I want to think about how much fabric relates to that identity.
Plush sculptures are also one way that we see 2-D characters come to life. Since so much of my work starts as a 2-D sketch on paper, I find it easy to translate and add construction decisions in a way that will help bring it back to transgender studies.
SK: Judith Butler describes gender as a performative doing that can be used to parody notions of normativity, and I definitely see elements of this idea in your work. How then do you incorporate humor or parody into your practice?
MV: For something that is so other and outlandish to a white cis-het audience, we need some kind of entrypoint, and I find that humor is a fantastic way to bring the viewer in. But the other side of humor is shock value, so I feel like you can use this tension between the cute and grotesque to create a discomfort that helps a cisgender viewer to understand body and gender dysphoria. Again, those two things might seem disparate, but I always wonder how you can mix the cute and the grotesque together to amount to something greater. It’s no longer a silly cartoon for kids or a horror comic for 18+, but it now exists in a strange, contentious space.
SK: Throughout our conversation, I was thinking of some other artists who might be in conversation with your work. You’ve told me before how Orlan has been an influence for you, but I was also reminded of Mike Kelley. Who are some of the artists that inspire you or who have been significant influences on your practice?
MV: Mike Kelley is a great reference. He sometimes uses premade plushies for materials, and I would like to think about using some of my pre-transition clothing as material. Another one is Keith Haring – the idea of using iconography and the aesthetic of pop to convey an important political message. I also really love his idea of the pop-up shop. The accessibility and breadth at which he handled the actual property of his work is something that I really strive for in my own practice. I would love for everyone to actually be able to access my work, not only theoretically, but also visually for free online or through comic books. I basically want to have different access points. Another person I look to is Stephanie Syjuco. She had a huge influence on my use of the CMYK color scheme, which is how comics are printed. Her work Color Theory Communication Transference uses color averaging of a billboard at Berkeley to question how the history of the institution was forming itself based on the public content that was circulating through flyers, advertisements, and community posts. I’ll like to continue to look back at these material elements, because I’m such an avid media consumer, who is actively reacting to real world conditions. How are actual people responding to the material conditions of activist movements in their community?
About Stephanie Kang:
Stephanie Kang specializes in contemporary art, with a focus on new media art and theory. She received her MFA in Visual Art from Washington University in St. Louis and her BFA in Studio Art from Calvin University. She is currently a PhD Candidate in the History of Art at the Ohio State University. Her dissertation project, "Queering the Future: Hopeful Imagination in Dystopian Times" examines works that engage in bodily enactments to reimagine the future as queer.
As an artist, her visual works has been exhibited at venues and institutions like the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, and the Athens Digital Arts Festival.