Minisode: Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
Minisode: Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
Narrator: Welcome to Artists Among Us minisodes from the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following recording is an abbreviated conversation from a public program that took place on July 24, 2023 at the Whitney between artist Ilana Savdie and writer Carmen Maria Machado. The talk was moderated by Whitney Curator Marcela Guerrero on the occasion of the exhibition Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions. To view the artworks referenced in the discussion, please visit whitney.org/ilanasavdie. Savdie and Machado speak about a range of subjects including trickery, horror, and the uncanny—fitting topics for the month of October!—and how they wield them as forms of resistance.
Marcela Guerrero: So I thought that perhaps we could start with a pretty basic question that might be on the minds of everyone, which is: how did the two of you meet and what sparked this moment that we are living right now?
Ilana Savdie: I had read In the Dream House and fell in love with it and was in the process of working on a series of three paintings for my last show. And I started reading “The Husband Stitch,” and there was a specific moment in that story—the main character gets what is called the "husband stitch" which is an additional stitch given to women against their will. There's a really horrific, very unsettling moment in the story where the doctor casually goes, “it is nice and tight, everyone is happy.” I was working on these paintings dealing with the kind of horror of being on an operating table or the horror of being in a performative state like that. And so the three paintings were titled after “The Husband Stitch,” one is called Nice and tight y todos felices—all three were titled after that piece. Yeah. So I think from there.
Carmen Maria Machado: It was a story that I had heard from my aunt who was an OB/GYN nurse many many years ago. It was horrifying and it really stuck with me that husbands would make this joke when women were getting stitches after childbirth and they would say, “put an extra stitch in there to make it tighter.” And I was like, “well that’s the most horrifying thing I have ever heard in my entire life,” and she was like, “oh ya, they call it a husband stitch.” And I was like, “no, that’s the most horrifying thing that I have heard in my entire life.”
The story is weird because—I call it my hit single. It is the story of mine that people have read the most and referenced the most. It was fascinating to see it have this sort of impact in various places. Then, of course, to see these phrases pulled out—unstitched if you will—from the story and used as colorful paintings that have these organic, unsettling, uncanny shapes in them. It was a really beautiful and interesting experience to see that transformation.
Guerrero: At what point did you feel, Ilana, that you wanted to delve and dig into aspects of the body?
Savdie: I have always been drawn to things that delve into both the ideas around existence and having a body—the audacity of it, the offensiveness of having a body and the offensiveness of taking up space with it. A huge point of reference for me has been—I grew up in Colombia, which is home to the Carnival of Colombia. A four day event where four days before Lent the entire country basically comes to a Barranquilla and delves into this reversal, complete reversal of social norms and it’s a huge festivity.
I have always been drawn to the Marimonda. This figure comes from the combination of a monkey and an elephant and behaves like a monkey. And has this trickster quality of being vulgar and perverse and offensive but also bringing the joy of the Carnival. I have always been drawn to it in terms of its uncanny qualities and phallic quality. But it also has this history I discovered upon researching it. It is part of a costume meant to mock an oppressive elite. It mocked politicians, the upper class.
The idea of the trickster as an agent of change has always been interesting and the idea of humor as a mode of resistance and as a mode of inversion has always been interesting. I root in a really Queer form of resistance through exaggerating the body—and mimicry as a form of transgression. And so I kind of locate that back into the work.
Guerrero: Another agent that makes an appearance are different parasites. If you have seen the show, you have seen the protagonist role that one specific parasite has in the show. Do you want to speak to that?
Savdie: I like to find parallels between the trickster and folklore and the trickster in nature. And the behaviors of the parasite are, by nature, very trickstery. The sort of body-snatcher aspect of entering into a host and forcing it to change. The parasite is an agent of change and that feels like a trickster quality. That was always interesting as a concept. Then looking into them visually, there are so many different kinds. I think something that these paintings have been able to do is seduce through color and texture and force the viewer to look at something that they may not want to look at—in this case a disgusting parasite.
Savdie: There is a word in Spanish, empalagoso, which I think in English “cloying” is the closest. But it is this excess of sweetness and sugar to the point of disgust. I think that place before it gets to disgust is exactly what I seek in colors. For me, this work has become about modes of seduction and finding a way to draw you in to look at something that isn't quite as beautiful or pleasant as you might expect.
Guerrero: Can we also go back to something that you mentioned when you were talking about “The Husband Stitch”— I think I see in both of your works these bodies that are unresolved. They are excessive in some ways. How do you see your work as expanding discourses around the body?
Machado: I am thinking about an essay I wrote a few years ago. I was interested in writing about the fat body and fatness. Eventually I began to think about fat bodies as volume and fatness as an expression of literally demanding more space and cleaving the air more than somebody who is less fat. And I was finding a lot of references. I had been reading the Shirley Jackson biography from a few years ago. There was this horrible line—the biography was wonderful—but in an interview the woman said she was so fat she took up half of the couch but so charming at parties that people hardly noticed. What if the fatness is a part of the expression of this artist and the person that existed in the world? To me those feel inextricable from each other. And bigness, excess, opulence—that is something to be embraced and revered and not feared and shied away from whether speaking about a piece of art or a piece of writing or a person's body.
And I wrote “Eight Bites” and I was thinking about a woman who gets gastric bypass surgery, loses a bunch of weight, and then this ghost of the body that she lost is haunting her in her own home. And she beats it and at some point she tries to kill it. And it is really sad and horrible. When she dies years later the thing that comes to take her away is the body that she lost. I feel like there is, for me, something about the body that feels ungovernable. Capitalism resists it ya know. But it insists upon itself and demands things and I find that beautiful and interesting.
Savdie: I want to say something about “Eight Bites.” You had this one line: “I couldn't make my body…”
Machado: “I couldn't make eight bites work for my body, so I made my body work for eight bites.”
Savdie: I think about that all the time. Sometimes your words come out of my mouth when I try to explain something. That is one of them. I come from Colombia which in general is one of the places with the most constricting beauty standards. There is a lot of talk about la cirugía, the surgery. “Just get the surgery. Put these little boundaries around your organs so that you can make sense in this space.” And I was like I am just going to make ten-foot paintings instead. It makes me want to make bigger paintings and take up more space. There are moments when we were talking about the audacity of my making these huge paintings and putting them in the Whitney. And how dare I! I have these moments of anxiety and stress about it. At the end of the day, it is the only way to understand. The paintings are made to the proportions of my own body. So I can use all of my joints to make them, as angry as that makes my joints.
Machado: I feel like there is related discourse about who gets to write giant fat novels or books that are a million pages long. And I love the idea of something that becomes so big but you are demanding something because it is also so excellent.