I make sculptures that transform familiar icons of women’s empowerment and entrapment into new objects that confound conventional readings of these clichés, and constellate meaning in a range of emotions: anxiety, ecstasy, liberation, and release. When City Opera General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel asked me if I’d be interested in making sculptures from costumes from the opera’s archives, I was thrilled because recurring themes in my work—explosion, velocity, spectacle—have an energy that might be termed “operatic.”
In my art, I use tension to suspend, stretch, and shred garments and to create forms that I liken to futurist abstract paintings in three-dimensions. Their abstraction is melodramatic, powerful, and lyrical, suggesting continued motion. My intention is not to create a moment of violence, but to transform rigid symbols, thereby reinterpreting the social constructs of my cultural surroundings. The challenge with this installation was to do justice to the retired costumes, which still have a majesty and degree of craftsmanship unlike any I’d ever encountered. I wanted the sculptures to reflect and refract the specific roles the costumes had played. What helped me in imagining new forms for these costumes was all the evidence of life that I found inside them: multiple alterations, perspiration stains, dirt from dragging frilly petticoats across the stage for countless performances, makeup smudged around the collars, and layers of tags sewn inside showing their provenance: the characters, the productions, the stages they’d played. I wanted to reanimate those lives and givethem a future form in the theater’s Promenade.
I worked with a team of volunteer assistants for two months in New York City Opera’s costume archive. From hundreds of costumes, I selected those that spoke loudest to me, about how to approach them, how to connect with their history, and the story they seemed built to tell. Using monofilament and fishing tackle, the principal materials of my process, we first began working on the hem of Carmen’s dress, lifting some points and letting others drape to form a tensile ripple. From the moment I saw that motion, with the gold- toned petticoat flickering like candlelight through the black polka dotted lace, I realized that each sculpture would have its own narrative and the slightest alteration of strings and gestures could re-imagine that story. We listened to Maria Callas’ “La Habanera,” Diamanda Galas’ “Wild Woman With Steak Knives,” and Wendy O. Williams’ “Priestess,” and our work with the garments became performative and improvisatory. With Butterfly, I imagined her as triumphant, ascendant, a victor. With Carmen, I let her wield the bloody knife, leaving its meaning ambiguous. The interplay between the story of the opera from which each costume came, the moment created by the sculpture, and the physicality of the transformed garment—its materials, its shapes, its colors, floating in this celestial space—is the work that I hope viewers of my installation will appreciate.