From Berlin, to Bowie, to sexual frustration, the artists discuss the experiences which fuel their creative projects for Document's Fall/Winter 2015 issue.

Known as much for her multiple personas as for her category-defying artistic practice, Vaginal Davis has been disrupting ideas of cookie-cutter drag and queerness since her early days in the 80s LA club performance scene. Ms. Davis single-handedly created and assembled dozens of black-and-white Xerox zines like Shrimp and Fertile LaToya Jackson while working at UCLA in the 80s. She developed a number of on-stage acts such as ¡Cholita! and Afro Sisters. On top of that, she mounted a number of exhibitions and multi-media performances at HAG, the gallery she founded in LA in 1982. Three years ago, she had her first American solo exhibition at Participant Inc. Norwegian artist and enfant-terrible Bjarne Melgaard has also disrupted notions of queerness and infiltrated galleries and museums with his unique visual assault. His work has appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, recent solo shows in Paris, and in Oslo alongside Edvard Munch. Now based in Berlin since 2006, Ms. Davis catches up with Melgaard to discuss her amusing history and oeuvre.

Bjarne Melgaard: I’m a long-time admirer and collector of your work. I’ve followed it from Fertile LaToyah Jackson to ¡Cholita!, to Shrimp, to several things.]

Vaginal Davis: Oh my God, that’s a long time! It just shows you that I’m a very old person!

Bjarne: Well, it just shows that you’ve had this long and continued career being very uncompromising. [Laughs].

Vaginal: Well, I just sort of do my own little womanly thing.

Bjarne: I am interested in talking to you about your art from a formal viewpoint. At Participant Inc. gallery your solo exhibition HAG—small, contemporary, haggard in 2012 really functioned well formally; it was very resolved. It didn’t feel like you were just reconstructing a space from the past.

Vaginal: I don’t believe in nostalgia; I didn’t want to recreate the old HAG Gallery I did in LA in the 80s. I’m about the “now.” I wanted the look of the space that when people walked into it, they walked into my crazy brain, and see how my nutty brain works.

Bjarne: And the bread sculptures, where do they come in?

Vaginal: My mother was the artist. She used to make a lot of strange art out of everyday things—she’d make little toys out of bread. The stuff I do with my art—the paintings, art objects, or sculptures—I’m basically copying what my mother did to keep me amused. Of course she didn’t make the bread sculptures as big as I made. I wanted mine to be almost life-size; Dirty Mariah, I wanted to have this classical feel of the Venus of Willendorf. I was actually surprised that it came out so well!

Bjarne: With that show at Participant, what is your thinking about having a space in the past and bringing it to the present?

Vaginal: I did HAG gallery in the 80s because I didn’t have any romantic entanglements—no boyfriend or anything. I could never get laid! I wasn’t much of a drinker and never went to bars. I thought, “How can I meet boys? I’ll open up an art gallery!” But like everything I do, it backfired and I didn’t meet any boys—everyone else met their girlfriend, lesbian lover, gay lover, straight lover; everybody connected. That’s the story of my life. Whenever I do something with one purpose, it always turns into something else.

Bjarne: Same with me! [Laughs].

Vaginal: Doing the new version of the HAG Gallery, I didn’t want to bring out [the same thing]. Not many know I do visual art, so I wanted to do an exhibition that was only painting and sculpture with no performance. Even at the opening at Participant, people were waiting around saying, “When is the performance going to start?” There was no performance, and of course other places wanted me to show some of my video films. I didn’t want to do any of that.

Bjarne: But your artworks have a very performative aspect.

Vaginal: Almost everything I do does. As you get older, it’s less of a thrill being on stage and feeling like you’re a trained seal. When I get on stage I give everything. I can’t give a half-assed show. It’s hard on your body to perform. It’s exhausting being Vaginal Davis. After doing a performance I’m always on the verge of committing suicide! I have a sense of humor about myself, which keeps me from being depressed. I can laugh at myself and not take myself so completely serious. Sometimes it can get to you, but that’s the nature of art. I’ve been artsy-fartsy since I was three or four years old. That’s just the way my life has turned out.

Bjarne: I often see your drawings, paintings, or sculptures portraying a singular image. There are not so many paired images.

Vaginal: That’s because I’m such a loner. I like going to the movies by myself, taking walks around the city. In Schöneberg where I live, I get up very early in the morning. it’s so quiet, so peaceful. You can get so much done. Here in Berlin, nobody gets up that early. We’re the party city: People like to go out all night, smoke and drink too much, take a lot of drugs, hangout. I’m not a hangout kind of person. If I could have my way, I would go to bed around 9:30 pm, because I get really sleepy and tired, then get up at 5 am. By 7 am, I usually work in my little studio. I wish I had bigger space, but I believe in “available-ism,” making use of what’s available to you. So I work very tiny. I spend a lot of time by myself. I think that’s why these paintings have a lonesome quality to them. I’m a lonesome little girl.

Bjarne: They have this solitude to them. It’s very apparent when you see your “make-up” portraits.

Vaginal: They’re like self-portraits. Even when I’m painting historical figures or actual people, it’s sort of self-referential. All my paintings also take on an aspect of my mother; she is such an overriding figure in my cosmos. She was such a powerful force—small but really packed a punch. She never spoke louder than a whisper, but everybody was afraid of her where I grew up in South Central LA. Nobody wanted to get on her bad side.

Bjarne: My mom is my biggest muse too. Could you mention some of the artists you were showing at the HAG Gallery?

Vaginal: The very first artist I showed was my neighbor, John Barrymore, the actor Drew Barrymore’s junkie father. He made weird art object-y, assemblage-y things out of hypodermic needles. That apartment where I had the HAG Gallery had a lot of cockroaches, so he made a lot of art out of dead cockroaches.

Bjarne: So, you started the gallery by choosing an outsider artist, somebody not a part of the establishment.

Vaginal: He didn’t consider himself an artist at all. Most people thought his stuff was junk. I thought it was really interesting, so I decided he’d be the first person I would show. It was a huge hit! People loved it! This was a really different time and age. I didn’t think people were going to be interested in buying any of the stuff, but they did.

Bjarne: Which other artists did you show there?

Vaginal Davis wears knit top and jewelry by Miu Miu.

Vaginal: Some work by Gorilla Rose, Tomata du Plenty, some of the people were part of the LA punk scene like Alice Bag. Fertile LaToyah Jackson, who was the cover girl of my magazine, she’s an artist and she painted and made art objects. I showed Fertile LaToyah’s work, I showed Wagner Vieira’s work. Oh, Charles LeDray! He’s now a big name, but he had his very first show at the HAG Gallery with tiny things made out of porcelain from old toilets from Montana.

Bjarne: Tell me more about Fertile LaToyah Jackson magazine.

Vaginal: When I first started to do zines, I was bored and needed to do something to get rid of my sexual frustration. I wanted to distance the magazine from myself, so I wrote as Fertile LaToyah Jackson, a character I created for one of my oldest friends in junior high school. I was gay and he was straight. We were best friends.

Bjarne: Was it always connected to the queer, post-punk movement in those days?

Vaginal: It totally was. But at that time you weren’t thinking of what you were doing as connected to anything—you were just doing it! Every issue had Fertile LaToyah Jackson on the cover. I wanted people to think that Fertile LaToyah Jackson was the voice for this magazine, of a generation who had an opinion about everything. For most things I used other names or aliases, when in fact it was all me. It appeared like I was just the editor of all these other people talking. I liked the idea of being different people at the same time, creating these different characters.

In the 80s, I had a job working at UCLA where I had a Xerox machine. This was before desktop publishing, so the magazine was cut-and-paste and Xeroxing. The very first issues weren’t even sold; I just gave them out at my Afro Sisters shows, a music group I had.

Bjarne: Was this at the same time that you had ¡Cholita!?

Vaginal: First it was the Afro Sisters in the early 80s and then ¡Cholita!. With the Afro Sisters, I presented my Black side, making a commentary on African-American things. With ¡Cholita! I was making a commentary on my Latin background—I’m part Mexican.

Bjarne: You were pretty popular as a band, right?

Vaginal: We were never a mainstream group, any of my art-rock band projects. I can’t play an instrument or sing very well. But I always liked singing and trying to do it. Letting the fact that I couldn’t do it very well didn’t stop me. When I get an idea in my head, I always do it! Maybe sometimes I should let people stop me! Now people try to get copies of the records, and I don’t even have copies. I have no archives of anything; I never thought that there’d be an interest.

Bjarne: Let’s fast forward a bit. Rod Bianco Gallery, [my gallerists in Oslo] had you at the NADA booth this year?

Vaginal: That was really a lot of fun, Flirtation Walk, (The Ho Stroll). I’m into stuff about male and female prostitutes throughout the ages. I read a lot of history when I was young. All the librarians knew me. That’s what happens when you’re a loner: You get into drawing and painting, reading, doing all these research projects for yourself! [Laughs]. It looked really perfect. I wanted a tiny door that people had to walk through, to feel how it is for me being so tall.

Bjarne: Which comes back to that idea that even when you work with issues about the entertainment or pleasure industry, you always incorporate precise, formal elements in your work.

Vaginal: I hear you, baby! I like to do something that’s a bit different each time, amusing myself at the same time. I’m not really so much about mainstream entertainment, even though I really do like the cinema and film. I hardly ever go see the big blockbuster movie. I do like old movie stars. The new stars are not as interesting as the stars of the golden era of Hollywood. I like to combine those elements in the work I do, whether it’s performance, art videos, painting or sculpture. I work with things you may not necessarily expect.

Bjarne: I wanted to talk about the phenomenon of “shrimping.”

Vaginal: I love big feet, really manly feet! Ever since I was a child I always loved to see men’s bare feet. The bigger the feet, the better! So when I came up with Shrimp—the magazine for licking and sucking bigger and better feet—I had no idea that the whole idea of “shrimping” would become a much bigger fetish with people. People are really into it now, but back then people thought I was disgusting!

Bjarne: You incorporated “shrimping” into performances?

Vaginal: Oh, yeah! I used to do a shrimping ritual where I made “sacrifices” to the goddesses of the North and the South, and a ritual for the Scandinavian goddess Freya. I would have a young, beautiful boy surrounded in flowers. I’d take off his shoes and socks. Then we would “sacrifice” him to Freya. We would have his bare feet, put maraschino cherries and whipped cream between each toe, then some Aunt Jemima Lite Syrup—that’s not so fattening. Then I’d lick it all off and get other people too. I’d do “shrimping” rituals where we’d wash people’s feet. I’d wear a wig with long hair and dry the feet with my hair like Mary Magdalene. I was all for conjuring up these Biblical images. I’m crazy that way! [Laughs].

Bjarne: Do you still have your obsession about big feet?

Vaginal: Of course! I love in the summer when men wear flip-flops showing their feet. I love looking at different kinds of men’s feet, the shapes of their toes, the bottoms and the tops of the feet. I’m much more interested in feet than I am in things like dicks. They can keep their dicks—give me the foot! I could suck on a foot for days!

Bjarne: Nothing sounds better to me!

Vaginal: Doesn’t that sound good? A footbath with a tongue! Just slowly licking. Licking each toe very carefully for hours. I’m very sensitive, so when I do things I really like to take my time. Sometimes I’d do endurance licking that would go for days. But, you know, I’m kind of crazy! You have to be crazy to be an artist, don’t you think?

Bjarne: You need to have a certain madness to be an artist.

Vaginal: You have to be completely mad. I’m lucky—I am mad! But I don’t do shrimping rituals anymore.

Bjarne: What are you up to these days?

Vaginal: I love people watching. I go to an area and spend hours looking at people, taking little notes about them. Sometimes I can obsess about somebody’s knees or ears. Sometimes I’ll do what I call “art-stalking” where I’ll follow all over the city doing little drawings. Sometimes when I get invited to teach at colleges and universities I get some students to “art-stalk” too. They really get into it because it’s something so new and different. At first they don’t really want to do it, but I make them. Then they realize, “Oh, this is really good!”

Bjarne: Because everybody wants a stalker!

Vaginal: Yeah! That’s how I feel!

Bjarne: What about the current transgender scene in Berlin or America? What is your viewpoint on that?

Vaginal: I don’t really have a viewpoint. I know a lot of transgender people and have always known a lot of transgender people since I was really, really young. My mother was a femme lesbian separatist who ruled a bevy of butch women. I’m the youngest—I have four sisters. I think that’s one of the reasons why my art is very feminine-driven, because of this background. I find it’s quite a phenomenon the way that the mainstream has become so preoccupied with transgenderism. With anything in the mainstream media, they just focus on the genitals of people. I’m intersex. I’m so happy that when I was born, the doctors told my mother she had to pick one or the other, she allowed me to be both. She didn’t let the doctors mutilate my genitalia, but rather to keep it the way that it is. It left me with very strange genitalia, which has also contributed to the fact that my art is so different, and the way I think is so different.

Bjarne: When you say you have different genitalia, do you have male and female?

Vaginal: My genitalia is very much male and very much female. I’d probably be one of the truer hermaphroditic individuals. I think I’m one of the truest of the hermaphroditic variety [Laughs]. Yahoo!

Bjarne: Do you have any contact with other artists in Berlin?

Vaginal: I’m part of the CHEAP Collective here. Susanne Sachsse, the actress and director who starred in Bruce LaBruce’s movies, started it with Marc Siegel, aka Marcuse Siegelstein, and Daniel Hendrickson. Now I’m at the offices, because I don’t have internet access at home. I have no computer, no TV, I have nothing. I’m not very technical. I’m very analog. I’m very much the last century.

Susanne and I are staging a version of The Magic Flute in New York in November. The Magic Flute has a real significance. When I was growing up in South Central LA, I was in a program for mentally gifted minors. I got to go to the opera when I was little; my first love was opera. Most people don’t know that. The very first opera that I saw was The Magic Flute, so the fact that me and Susanne are going to stage this version as a performative installation is like coming back home. It’s coming home, sweetie pie! I got rid of the libretto! I wrote my own and decided to have someone modern to do the score. We have Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu doing the music. I know a lot of purists are probably going to hate it, but so what! [Laughs].

“They can keep their dicks— give me the foot! I could suck on a foot for days!”

Bjarne: What inspires you right now? 

Vaginal: At this moment? All these cute Turkish and Arab boys.

Bjarne: Film, art, visuals, books—What references do you have?

Vaginal: The films of William Holden, the American actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Golden Boy. He did Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson. He’s a complete inspiration and I love the fact that as he got older he got more alcoholic. You can really see it in every movie, how he aged and how the alcohol soaked into his skin and his face. He died tragically.

I got inspiration for writing from writers like Ntozake Shange, who wrote for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and Sonia Sanchez—Black Nationalist writers. Lorraine Hansberry. Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones. I love James Baldwin. I also loved the writing of Jean Genet—he supported the Black Panthers and also the Palestinians. Occasionally those big-dick Black Panthers and big-dick Palestinians would give him a mercy fuck. I love that! I also like Pier Paolo Pasolini. And Fassbinder. My idols. The director Vincente Minnelli, Liza’s father. George Cukor. Jayne County: “(If You Don’t Want to Fuck Me, Baby) Fuck Off!”

Bjarne: “Fuck off!” I know Jayne.

Vaginal: That was a big influence on me, because I couldn’t be me without someone like Jayne County to come before.

Bjarne: She was on the forefront of things that still go on today.

Vaginal: Oh of course, David Bowie—if there wasn’t an Angie Bowie, there wouldn’t have been a David Bowie, because he was just some hippie. He’s so conservative now. [Laughs].

Bjarne: You do less performance and more visual works now?

Vaginal: Now that I’m an old lady, I’m doing more visual work. I haven’t ruled out completely doing performance, but it’s hard on my old bones. They’re rickety and breaking! I don’t have such energy to keep up doing the performative stuff anymore. I’d rather just do things where I’m creating stuff quietly all by myself at home. It just takes so much out of me to do performances, you understand?

Bjarne: We’re all a little bit bored of being entertained in general.

Vaginal: Well, I’ve never really been into entertaining people. If people happen to get entertained by anything I do, like a performance, then it’s by accident; that’s not my goal at all. [Laughs.] I’m really into “failuretics.” I love it when something fails.

Bjarne: That’s something that has a specific quality to it.

Vaginal: Exactly, I love failure as an aesthetic.

Bjarne: Failure is one of the most underestimated qualities. 

Vaginal: It’s so important. You learn so much when something, when everything goes wrong. It’s just a lot more interesting. Things just continue going more wrong, more wrong, more wrong, more wrong! I’m like that. I’m so about failure; it’s so important to me.

Bjarne: Because you can’t create without failure.

Vaginal: That’s so true. In 2010 I was invited to ARCOmadrid with José Muñoz. Have you ever tried to do a performance at an art fair? From the beginning to the end it just kept getting worse! It’s so difficult because people walk in and out, so many other distractions. I don’t know what I was thinking when I tried to do this piece. It just was not working, but it was great because as it got worse and worse it developed a life of its own! The most fun part of being at [the fair] was the eating! They had a VIP area with all this great food. I love eating. It’s more important than sex. Food is more reliable than sex.

Bjarne: That we can agree on! You can at least rely on a takeaway.

Vaginal: I never have any love in my life, darling! I’ve never been in love or had a boyfriend. I’m just too bizarre for anyone to have to be around for any length of time! No one was interested in me for love. I get some sex here and there but not regular sex—even when I was young. Nobody was interested in me for that. I don’t think I’m very sexy. I don’t really exude sexy qualities. Because I have such weird genitalia, it really freaks men out.

Bjarne: What do they get freaked out by?

Vaginal: Because I’m in-between—not a complete woman, but not a man either. It’s too freaky for most to understand or accept. That’s why you have to have a sense of humor and be able to laugh at sex. Sex is actually quite hysterical. The reason I’ve been just devoted to doing art is because I’ve always been so sexually frustrated!

Bjarne: I think that all great art comes from sexual frustration.

Vaginal: Once in a while a man might be fascinated by me but for a very short period of time. I need a lot of attention, so no one wants to give all that attention.

Bjarne: It’s been a very interesting conversation. Is there something you would like to say that you haven’t said?

Vaginal: I think I just ran my big mouth and kept talking. Honey, I have a big mouth and fat titties. I have enough milk in these they could feed all the dying nations of world! Nobody would go hungry! Meine großen titten! How is that for a closing remark?! [Laughs].

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