Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics


Appropriating shopping bags, makeup palettes, and candy-colored rockets resembling giant vibrators, Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury has affirmed herself in the ’80s at the center of a new wave of feminism—one of the women embracing that they were women. And while she never intended her work as a commentary on society, her outlook on consumerism, superficiality, and celebrity spectacle feels more relevant than ever in our “post-truth” world.

WHITNEY MALLETTCan you tell me about the show you recently presented at Pinacoteca Agnelli in Turin, which will be on view until January 2023?
SYLVIE FLEURYThe show is called “Turn Me On.” Pinacoteca Agnelli is a funny place if you think of my work, because it was a FIAT car factory and it has been transformed into a shopping mall. Luckily, there’s still the impressive racetrack sitting on the rooftop next to the Pinacoteca itself, which was added by Renzo Piano and looks a bit like a spaceship. I am showing various installations made over the years including a grotto, crystals, rocket ships, and a She-Devils on Wheels environment.
WMWhen I was looking through your body of work, I had this feeling that you are the link, in a way, between the moment Andy Warhol was a part of and now this current mutation of consumerism and celebrity. As you’ve been reviewing your older works and deciding what makes sense to include in this show, I wonder how you see these older works resonating in the current moment?
SFIt’s funny because, in the beginning, when I was clearly looking at fashion magazines for inspiration, I really thought it would become outdated and it probably did, but over the years it’s become vintage so that’s lucky. Consumerism in the early ’90 was just the tip of the iceberg. I remember fashion magazines were looking for art-related content and art magazines featured more and more luxury ads. I got a lot of coverage through these fashion outlets, because they would identify familiar codes within my work—enlarged magazine covers, brand logos and makeup smears—and I think it even created a bit of confusion. Possibly I owe them for receiving free items from fashion brands!
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WMPart of what you were doing was taking content from the world of fashion and commercial products and decontextualizing it in art spaces. But then, as the relationship between art and fashion changes, that whole gesture shifts.
SFI am not sure it was content, it was more like a glossy cover or a coat of nail varnish. I was interested in the mechanisms. It is possible that the fashion industry, after having sold one too many handbags, wanted to add content to make them more desirable. Art can seem an easy way to do so. There has clearly been a kind of jubilation, for the better and for the worse. Sometimes I would almost get paranoid, wondering if brands were looking at my catalogs for inspiration, I probably still do at times. It’s good I have a thing for auras—I find it fascinating to see how changing the context added a dimension to the aura of objects. And all these crossovers certainly make the exercise a bit more entertaining.
WMThinking about whether your purpose ends up understood or not, I wonder if artists expected to explain their work maybe more than they used to be? I feel “art speak” has changed even over the past decade. Do you think artists should have to be the first interpreter of their work?
SFI really don’t like having to explain my work. And I don’t mind contradicting myself. I remember, when I used to teach in art school, other professors were criticizing students for not having developed an articulated-enough discourse around their work. When they used references a lot, the jury would clap. This may have created confusion.
WMThat urge for too much logical explanation can suck the life out. I think of a butterfly, dead and pinned to a board in a natural history museum. When you say, some people didn’t see the whole story, especially in the late ’80s, was that partially misogyny? Did some people just assume your work was superficial because you were a female artist?
SFWhat I remember is being criticized for being anti-feminist because I wore high heels, sexy clothes and makeup. And sure, at that time the misogyny was stronger and I really played with being a woman and enjoyed it. I would really dress the part and go to my openings in head-to-toe Alaïa or Mugler and I never wore flat shoes—sneakers weren’t an option. I remember in 1991, for my first “official" group show, “No Man’s Time” at Villa Arson, I arrived driving my Caprice Classic, wearing the Alaïa Tati outfit with gloves, glasses, jeans, and top in a matching red and white pattern. I opened the trunk, took out the shopping bags called Chanel Riviera, and installed them. I put an electric shoe shiner at the entrance of the show for people to use. I unrolled a long carpet and displayed 4 pairs of shoes on it. There were some stretchers hanging on the wall covered with a kind of plush fabric and I had asked Eric Troncy to find skateboarders to make photos of the spots around Villa Arson which they thought were interesting to make skate figures. I had an urge to highlight what was considered futile or superficial, because that era was also when superficiality cracks—the Reagan years, the fall of the Berlin wall, the AIDS crisis etc. For me, the idea of content, of inside vs. outside, was very prominent. So the shopping bags were filled with garments and accessories and maybe a Polaroid camera; but most people thought they were empty because they had only seen pictures of them. And that really illustrated what I was talking about. When I shopped for those pieces, I was purchasing things that evoked art or that had text on them that would give evocative titles to the piece. One shopping bag, The Art of Survival, is titled after a book Donald Trump wrote at that time.
I also loved to find clothes that had fake paint splatters on them. And I would always buy everything in my size, so I could wear it for portraits or interviews.
2 First Spaceship On Venus Sylvie Fleury 2021 Kunsthaus
WMAnother moment when you’re playing with these expectations of gender is your rockets—totally phallic yet painted pink. I read you’ve compared them to giant vibrators before, and I couldn’t help but think they sort of predicted these pastel-colored, high-design sex toys that seem to be all the rage right now.
SFOh no, I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the colors of the latest sex toys!
I did a small edition of a dildo recently, but it was in crystal in a box lined with fake fur.
I made these rockets because of a Versace fashion show I saw. I think it was in 1993. There were a lot of space cadet-looking girls, and there was this feeling of Barbarella. The fashion world was raving about silver that season, and I did a show at Postmasters, New York, titled “First Spaceship on Venus”, where I showed my first rocket ship, together with a bunch of objects including stilettos all sprayed in silver. I had used Playgirl magazines to cover the floor and I remember the brand of the cheap stilettos was Wild Pair, which gave the title to the piece. I hung some unpainted canvases on the wall and sprayed them silver too, without covering the wall which ended up looking like the paintings had a silver aura around them. The idea was that if you bought one and the next summer the hip color was beige, you’d have to spray-paint them in beige. So in that sense, the exhibition was following the current diktat of the fashion season.
WMHave you always had a thing for shoes?
SFWell, I remember when I was six, I was on a cruise boat with my dad for a day and I lost my shoe. My shoe came off my foot and fell in the water. I felt very, very distressed. So probably yes.
WMThe anxiety of separation! Are there any particular shoes that you’re into right now?
SFThose plastic Crocs that are in fashion give me blisters. I’m definitely not into them! In 2006, I was invited to a project to raise money for the Dalaï Lama. Artists were invited to submit a portrait of him, so I asked if I could have an object that belonged to him to figure out some kind of portrait. The organizers asked his secretary and a few weeks later, when I had forgotten about it, a FedEx box came with a shoebox of the brand Easy Spirit. I opened it wondering a bit and inside was a pair of worn men’s shoes of the brand Dexter, together with a note. I thought it was students of mine pranking me, but as I read the note I realized that the Dalaï Lama, when asked to send an object, went for his shoes. So I took a picture of the aura of His Holiness’ shoes, which ended up being the work they exhibited.
WMI know these days a lot of people are more into vintage clothes compared to what’s on the runway. How about you?
SFI’ve always been interested in vintage. My first consistent purchase was in the late ’80s on Melrose—a black evening gown with impressive shoulder pads, that was featured in Falcon Crest. But I have also kept most of my branded pieces and hopefully they will fit me again at some point. As a matter of fact, right now I’m looking through my vintage clothes in my attic for a project I will be doing with Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen.
WMSo you’re the kind of person that keeps everything.
SFI wish I were... Then I would be able to find the Bernadette Corporation pieces I had bought back in New York.
WMSometimes I feel like if I go on a nice trip for the weekend and I lose my favorite shirt in the hotel room, it’s like a sacrifice I had to make to some god to have that experience.
SFOoooh [laughs]. So when you have a really good time on a nice trip you do not expect to see your suitcase on the belt. Lost and found is a strange place.
WMI read you were a Trotskyist when you were a teenager. Can you tell me about this?
SFYes, I came from a bourgeois family and I was always going out with people that my parents didn’t approve of. Finding them was like a sport for me. The first artist I ever met was the president of the GTS (Groupe Trotskyste de Suisse), and he asked me if I wanted to take part in a revolutionary studies group. I fully-immersed myself.
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WMIt makes sense. Marx’s idea of fetishism, that’s really what a lot of your work is about.
SFI still have all my books by Marx and others. They stayed with me all this time, they’re like old friends.
WMAnd consumer society is this eating machine. The new age stuff we were talking about, people get into it because they desire some escape from consumerism, then gets commodified too. Even in the way people identify as Marxists, there’s this sincere interest in these revolutionary ideas, but then it feels thwarted by the way it just all becomes someone’s personal brand on social media. We all need content for our profiles.
SFYes, escaping consumerism through customization of the aura. It’s funny that today it’s the other way around. You start by creating the identity and then you act in it. Nowadays you have everything at the same time. But when everything is possible, you need to create something that’s going to hold all this together. And that’s about the beliefs.
WMI know what you mean—it really is one of the predicaments of our time. And celebrities are wrapped up in these beliefs too. Celebrities are a thread in your work, from the aerobics videos with Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch, which you’re re-presenting in this new show, to the Harper’s Bazaar cover of Kim and Kanye that you reproduced. I feel like the celebrity spectacle that’s going on right now really reflects this whole “post-truth” world we’re living in.
SFMy favorite statement is YES TO ALL. And I don’t really care. I guess many people are watching the Andy Warhol Diaries on Netflix at the moment.
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WMOn the subject of belief, celebrity, and Warhol, there’s a show at the Brooklyn Museum about Warhol’s Catholicism. It’s well timed, I feel, because there’s also a sort of micro-trend of these downtown and “internet kids” branding themselves as religious. I guess at the end of the day everyone has to believe in something, whether it’s archival Prada or QAnon conspiracy theories.
SFI love visiting churches, even though I’m an atheist. Not only for the frescoes, but the energy there is very special. Once I showed some crystals in Notre-Dame in Paris and I took the TGV to attend the opening with the mayor and the archbishop and when I got up my back was stuck. I painfully made it to Notre-Dame and after a few minutes inside, my backache was gone. One of these crystals will be in the grotto at Pinacoteca Agnelli. Let’s see if it works there too.
Of course, the key is always to remain curious and open. A lot of the time during COVID confinement, I had the feeling that I was losing touch with everything out there, but it makes you go deeper within yourself. I believe that is ultimately the place to be. It’s a strange era we live in, and thank God for art. I think it’s positive that people, whatever their purpose may be, are trying to come up with things that don’t have a use.
WMSo what do you think the role of the artist is in making something that has no use? Is the role that you are ultimately commenting on society, and that’s the value of it?
SFHonestly, I’d rather not put a label on being free.
R Gold Fountain PKW 2003

Sylvie Fleury (Swiss, b. 1961 ) is an artist who lives and works in Geneva. Featuring both existing works and new commissions, in an immersive path exploring the main themes of her research, the exhibition “Turn Me On” is currently on view at Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin, through January 2023.

Whitney Mallett is a writer and editor based in New York.


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