Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, wrote, 'Masochism is a valuable job skill.' For Kate Gilmore, his assessment was right on target. Gilmore video-tapes herself in comically dare-devil situations performing demented, dangerous acts intended to demonstrate the futility of everyday activity. In a nine-minute video titled Double Dutch (2004), she skips rope on a perforated cement platform in plum-colored stiletto heels. She desperately tries to hammer her left leg free from a bucket, where it is trapped in cement up to her knee, for My Love Is an Anchor (2004). Main Squeeze (2005/2006) shows her pushing her way through ten feet of terrifyingly tight tunneling, with television monitors at the front and back of the passage way allowing viewers to watch her from both angles as she struggles to squeeze through.
The 31 year-old New York-based artist was raised in Washington DC and received her MFA degree from Manhattan's School of Visual Arts before she had her first solo show at Brooklyn's Plus Ultra gallery in 2004. A critic for the New York Times, reviewing her work in a 2005 group show in Hartford, Connecticut, commended Gilmore on her 'pluck' before praising her 'unadulterated, raw and real' videos as 'the purest manifestation of true emerging talent. I defy you to shrug this stuff off.'
Gilmore is currrently participating in an exhibition at the iconic Mary Boone gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea, entitled 'Heartbreaker.' The group show, curated by Amy Smith-Stewart, is centered on the theme of psychodrama and emotional vampirism. While the show will also feature art by Georganne Deen, Rashawn Griffin, Laurel Nakadate, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Cristina Lei Rodriguez and Kathleen White, it is named after one of the two videos that Gilmore will have on view.
In her 2004 sixteen-minute video, Heartbreaker, Gilmore soils her girlish party dress when blood squirts out of the over-sized plywood heart she brutally hacks at with an ax. Her vampish cruelty towards the vulnerable wooden Valentine catches up with her in With Open Arms, a 2005 video she will also present at Mary Boone. In this six-minute skit, she repeatedly bows theatrically before an invisible audience, but as she stands beaming on a tacky stage in a strapless lilac dress, the crowd responds by pelting her with tomatoes. She gives a good performance of someone gallantly struggling to keep her game face while receiving the proverbial worst possible review - and watching her appear to fail ironically makes a witty, entertaining, clever piece of art.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: Why do you think artists are often allowed, and even encouraged, to do things other people would be considered insane for doing?
KATE GILMORE: Being an artist allows you to get away with a lot more than in other professions. For example, I don't think that most professions would want someone to stick their foot in a bucket of plaster or jump rope in stilettos on a perforated wooden platform. In daily existence, destructive fantasies are not acceptable. We are told to hold in most extreme emotions or reactions. But in art, the expression of the 'taboo' is highly encouraged. In art, there is a freedom to express one's self much more honestly.
AFH: What makes artists so special that they can be seen as exempt from normal rules of conduct?
KG: I don't know if artists are 'exempt from the normal rules of conduct' in daily life, but they are certainly exempt from it in their artwork. In daily life I don't think it would be okay for someone to have sex with a collector for money like Andrea Fraser or to chain themselves to an ATM machine like William Pope. All these things that artists do are deemed 'okay' because they are done under the umbrella of art. By doing these things that are normally deemed 'wrong', they are addressing what these societal confines actually mean or at least trying to understand them.The most successful art, in my opinion, is most revealing of the artist.
AFH: Why should whatever art reveals about the artist be inherently interesting? Aren't artists only interesting for what they reveal about the world outside themselves?
KG: But by exposing yourself in a vulnerable way, you are inevitably revealing something about the world outside of yourself.
KG: Sure. We are all a product of our experiences, which are often not that unique. We can all understand love, hate, pain, pleasure, death and life. These things can be universally understood, especially when expressed through the notion of the self. That is the power of subjective art. I will always feel something more profound from someone if they tell me something personal. I will feel more for someone recounting to me their experience with the death of a loved one, than if they abstractly talk to me about 'loss'.
AFH: But don't you think the potency of personal stories is diluted when we live in a confessional culture where people talk subjectively more often than abstractly or philosophically?
KG: I never get sick of personal stories! To me, everything is subjective, anyways. We all always are filtering information through our subjective responses. Does this mean we are not speaking abstractly or philosophically? No. I think what it means is that we are taking information or material, processing it, and then creating output that comes through a strainer of sorts, which is the self, and the end result is one's subjective experience, or, in the case of artists, their form of creation. This end product can be abstract, philosophical, and subjective.
AFH: Are all peoples' stories equally interesting to you?
KG: I guess the truth is that I am interested in stories, but not all stories. I want to know what makes you function. What makes you wear that hot pink lipstick everyday or why you are insistent on always brushing your hair at 8:00 in the morning. I want to know the fundamental reasons you have developed into the person you are and why you do what you do. I want to know how your experience has shaped you. But, am I interested in how your day went at work? The answer is, no.
AFH: In your view, it the story or the way it is told that makes it art?
KG: The way it is told. You can not just sit up on stage or in front of a video camera and recount a story. Information needs to be digested and it is the role of the artist to be the teeth who chew what society forces us to swallow. And sometimes it is also the artist who needs to be the one who vomits up the 'real' story.
AFH: Do you subscribe to the idea that artists work somehow outside society, and that their function is to address and engage their contemporary society as if they were outsiders curiously looking in?
KG: Definitely not. I think that is a very romantic idea of artists that they are some kind of social misfits that have this 'special' view of society because they do not participate in it. It is very hard to be critical of something if you can not actually participate in it. How can you know fully about something if you haven't been scarred by it?! My work is very influenced by my interaction with 'everyday society'. That is great inspiration for me.
AFH: Do you believe there are certain intellectual or personality traits most artists share?
KG: Definitely not. Art is as varied as any other profession. There are probably certain characteristics that certain types of artists share, but definitely not on a general basis.
AFH: Do you have a personal definition of what you reject as not art?
KG: No. - I feel like I am answering no to all your questions! - I have a very broad definition of art. I know individuals who are not 'artists' per se, but they ARE art. Their lives, the way they function, their aesthetic, everything is art or an art project. To me being an artist is about making things, but it is also about a way of looking, thinking, and having a critical eye, and one would hope that all artists different ways of doing this. I am interested in people - artists - who take information, chew it up, and spit it out in a unique way.
AFH: Have you ever seriously hurt yourself during a performance?
KG: Thank goodness, no! I am usually in my studio in a somewhat controlled environment. When I did the video where my foot was stuck in a bucket of plaster, I was alone and could not get out of the bucket for hours. I honestly thought that I was going to have to call the police to knock down my door and save me! Since that video, I always have someone close by in case something happens. I have gotten some bruises and stuff, but nothing crazy.
AFH: Do you feel fear when performing?
KG: I really do not like to perform live. I have done it before and it went well, but I am not a 'live' performer. All my videos are performance based, but are done in my studio in constructed environments. I get extremely nervous doing live performances - so nervous that I am not even sure if I can actually do it. I have also been known to have a very BAD stomach!
AFH: Are you hoping to force viewers' to confront their own schadenfreude when looking at you perform your work?
KG: I want my videos to create an intense reaction in the viewer. This reaction can be frustration, annoyance, anger, arousal, whatever, but it is important that there is something to respond to. My work tries to deal with this basic, human element of struggle and survival - making it through the day, through a specific incident, through something difficult. The humor in the pieces allows me to deal with these darker elements without being too heavy-handed.
AFH: But your obstacles are overtly sisyphusian, while most people's daily struggles at least offer the illusion of a goal. Do you feel there is an inherent futility to most daily activities or most people's daily lives?
KG: In my videos I usually have a goal, but I don't always get it... It is often unachievable, but I think the work is really about accomplishing something. In terms of the futility of daily activities, I would definitely say that most things we do in everyday existence are ridiculous exercises in obsession and pretense. It takes me about an hour to get in bed to go to sleep because of all the crap I need to do before I can relax. I remember growing up and my mother having to set the table in a very specific way so that it was just 'right' or demanding that we looked a certain way before we went out in public. We have grown up with rules that in the scheme of things are quite useless, yet we are constantly compelled to carry them out; daily rituals that seem incredible necessary yet completely absurd.
AFH: Has doing this body of work helped you edit out less necessary or un-fruitful activities from your daily life?
KG: Not really. I am much more able to have a bird's eye view of these 'less necessary' activities, but I am still consumed by them. Actually, at this point, I am happy they exist because I now get a great deal of amusement and inspiration from these absurdities. My infatuations with these activities change day to day, however. Today, for example, I am thinking about how people are obsessed with creating the perfect table but I know that by tomorrow I will probably be obsessed with something else!
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My Love Is an Anchor, 2004
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.