AIR Cycle 10 Artist Spotlight: In Conversation with Winnie Van der Rijn
Winnie van der Rijn is an epic story teller. Simultaneously she is cracking jokes and ever serious- if you have had the chance to talk to Winnie, you can attest, it’s fun.
The conversation below has been edited for brevity and profanity.
It’s early for me to be in the studio, a little late for Winnie, she is often the first one in, sitting fastidiously working in her wingback studio chair. Though her residency work is hung in the TAC Project Space, Winnie is still on her feet, and on to the next. She tells me of potlucks, fundraisers and auctions in her California based feminist sleeper cell PTA group. Her famed salons and soup nights came about in contrast. No assignments given, just show up.
“Can we just get together and BE together? What’s with all the f*ckin jobs we have to do?”
I should mention, Winnie has put me to work ironing. The ac is acting up and we sweat side by side pressing cloth napkins to be screen printed ahead of Saturday’s Revolutionary Dinner party, conceived by Winnie and her co-conspirator Tiantian Lou.
How to start a revolution:
Winnie’s 5 year old friend Truman gave himself the name super true, an alter ego:
“I make superhero capes for all the kids I know… every day he puts on the cape, he knows he shouldn’t lie, it reinstates that…. When you say mantras to yourself- you embody them, your manifesting that behavior.
I find that if you can try to imagine yourself in a way, that it gives you the power to be that way. Which is why I am interested in revolutionary dinner party. I think if you can in some way see yourself as a revolutionary, you become a revolutionary just by seeing it.”
Winnie and Tiantian quote Mao Tse-Tung:
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
“We disagree. A revolution is a dinner party or rather a dinner party can be a revolution. The only way to start a revolution is through community and community is often built by sharing food.”
The day I got together with Winnie just so happened to be the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks and her husband’s Danny’s first cancer diagnosis, which came a week later.
“The whole experience was one of those things that makes you go to the essence of something and I thought, who am I and what am I about?
I decided, I can’t stop terrorism and I can’t cure cancer, all I can do is love. All I can do is push love into the world, and I’m going to do that any way I can. I’m going to do that by cooking for people, working with people, by letting the lady on the subway fall asleep on my shoulder. I’m just going to push love into the world because that’s frankly all I have to give. And that’s a good enough thing. And necessary!
I’m generally pleasant so I often come across as innocuous, but that’s my in. That’s what makes people comfortable with me…I’m going to f**k some things up, Kelly.”
On her Family:
Winnie tells me of all the people coming for the exhibition, her children, sister, high school classmates, and tells me of her in-laws, a print collector and in particular, her mother in law, a former weaver and labor lawyer.
“If she had been anywhere near a place like this (TAC) things would’ve been super different for her. She’s a complete bad*ss. Danny is the youngest of four and when he turned 12 she went back to school to become a labor lawyer”
On her children:
“My job with my kids is to not f*ck them up and to learn from them because they’re here as the teachers, not as the students.
Finding interactions that are less parental and more equal can only help a relationship… The long term goal is to have a relationships with my children.”
(I’d also like them to not b*tch about me too much in therapy. I don’t wanna f*ckin’ hear it, and I’m not paying for it.”)
She smiles, I laugh, we iron.
“I’m psyched for my kids to come… Part of the armor [impetus] was with my daughter Maddy. She’s so mild, but such a bad*ss. And I thought about her graduating from college and thought what can I do? How can I protect her? I can’t. “
Winnie tells me, when her son Eli was in sixth grade he grew his hair out long, a classmate began to call him Mrs. van der Rijn.
“He yelled to me ‘you don’t even know what I’m going through!’”
So Winnie said OK, tell me.
“So we did role-play… I said, here’s what you’re going to do; I’m going to walk in the room and you say all the things he says to you, and I’ll give you optional responses. We spent a good hour coming up with different responses that were for the privacy of our kitchen. In the end, I told him I wouldn’t let anybody tell me how to wear my hair. Hair freedom is a core freedom.”
On collaborations with her son Eli:
“When Eli was in high school he said to me mom, I kind of have the feeling that people often drink to lower their inhibitions.
And I said that’s true.
And he says to me, ‘so the thing is… I don’t have any inhibitions…’
Well that’s gods honest truth.
He’s an old soul.
Eli is really interested in art… it’s something Eli and I have bonded over, it’s a way I volunteered at his school, and we work pretty well together.
And he’s just so willing, he’s like yeah I’ll climb into that fountain, I don’t care.”
Watch Eli’s performative dissolving of the patriarchy here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCgT12WjR-8
How to play well with others:
“Noah [Pica] is my studio son, luckily he gets along with my real son.”
“Our individual work is aligned; similar materials, similar interests. Our approaches and skillsets are completely different. Together we are creating something entirely new. This project is an experiment in collaboration.
We make men’s shirts with soluble material. How far can we push this fabrication? Does the patriarchy dissolve with the fabric? Does masculinity? Does Gender? What’s next?
What I’ve learned collaborating with Noah:
If you want to collaborate you need to be patient & flexible.
If you want to collaborate you need to free your ego.
If you want to collaborate you need to change your thinking from I and me to us and we.”
Winnie And Noah have future collaborations in the works, so secretive that I’ve been asked not to tell my coworkers at Textile Arts Center. So clearly you won’t read about it here and now, but stay tuned…
Our conversation turns into a brainstorm on different ways to sweat off a dissolvable shirt, apparently this is where Eli draws the line- though when push comes to shove I actually doubt it.
“You want to sweat off a shirt? You know it’d be gooey right?”
We finish ironing the massive pile of napkins (“If it’s for 30 I’m cooking for 60,” says Win.) and head to the gallery to cool off, seated at the foot of Winnie’s menswear alter in various stages of deconstruction and reconstruction.
On living her best life:
“Every week in my date book, I write key words to myself. And every week I write a deliberate manifestation, because I want my life to be deliberate, so whatever I do in my work it has to be intentional, purposeful, and ambitious.”
On critique and growth at TAC:
Sometimes critique can feel like an attack, and you have to process how that feels or why that feels that way, and some of those harder critiques completely changed my work and lead to much better work, or different work.
One of the reasons I started to rebuild some [shirt] pieces is because I felt irresponsible- if I’m personally dismantling the patriarchy- which I obviously am doing- if I’m not offering up alternatives.
It’s not really about the answer, it’s about the question and the ideas, and the possibilities, and putting the question out there. Why are we accepting [what is]?
So that’s been personally interesting, trying to break down some of those things, on my responses to some of that, and to think to myself OK, where is my ego in this? And since I’m a maximizer, as we all know, what can I get out of it, what can I get out of it, what can I get out of it, and how can I push it forward.
I said I didn’t come here to f**k around, but I absolutely came here to f**k around let’s be honest. Noah said to me, you interfere with things- is that bad to say? No! That’s not offensive to me, I do interfere with things! “I never could’ve imagined this [work] when I started.”
On the evolution of her work:
Winnie points out one piece in the middle with its back to us. All their backs are to us but the one with the directions. The rest face towards the future.
“It was really this one in the middle, the front of it was so beautiful, so it was really hard for me to flip it, But this is the intention of the piece and since I see it as a unit, it has to play its role. you can’t just be swannin’ around because you’re pretty! You’ve got to do your f**king job!
I didn’t study art, My degree is in sociology from Berkeley, which means I’m a troublemaker, and I studied Marxist theory because I’m all down with that, I’m fully a socialist. But to have my artwork come to a place where I am actually using all of that. It was latent, it was sitting there, it was waiting it’s turn while I was doing whatever work my life was and now it’s coming out more in a bolder way. I’m not hiding anymore, and we don’t have time to f**k around people!
My first job out of college I was a tech writer, I wrote how to manuals. Breaking something down instructionally is something I have always done in my life and I think it’s hilarious that it’s now in some of my work! Well this is how you dismantle the patriarchy, this is how you play well with others, and this is how you start a revolution. And it gives me great pleasure….
‘Oh you’re a fashion designer’
well not really no I don’t have any of those skills…
‘Well you make wearables’
Or they could go on a body but they’re in no way stable. You can’t actually wear that.
And that’s fine with Winnie, ‘Because I did start with something that I then usurped.’
Winnie grew up in a very Republican military family on a military base, and describes herself as 100% outlier.
On being a Socialist:
Everybody does what they can and is taken care of. It’s not what’s for me or what’s for you it’s what’s for us. It’s the only way we are going to survive. I think that it’s irresponsible that we’re not looking globally at all options, or options that haven’t even been invented yet. I grew up in a very patriotic family my mom sees a flag and she starts crying, if I see a tatty flag that pisses me off, and I make my own flags cause I can’t cut into a flag that has been made, but proud of my country? Not for a while now.
I’ve always been interested in propaganda. Messaging is powerful and we’re doing it irresponsibly.
So part of me is like oh yeah? You’re going to say that all I’m gonna say this, I can make this completely made up statement about where the power is in menswear, I’m gonna make myself some fake science to support it, I can make some graphs. I can overlay some sh*t. You’re gonna to do, I’m gonna do.”
How to Dismantle the patriarchy:
‘This work is an examination and deconstruction of patriarchal power in menswear. I often wonder about power. I view menswear as symbolic of power – that maybe somehow the power is inherent in the clothing/costume/uniform. I wonder if the wearer brings the power or if the power is imbued in the clothing. I wonder if power is given or if it must be taken. Is it finite? Power is about influence, access, control, security, confidence, strength, self awareness. It’s authenticity without doubt or fear. Power is individual and institutional. Power is problematic because it is, in general, unevenly distributed. I wonder if it needs to be. If power dynamics/relationships are constructed can’t they be deconstructed? I wonder what would happen if everyone was able to access their power. I think the power is hiding in the seams and edges of the shirts because they hold all the labor and energy of the making. I am interested in finding vestiges of power in menswear, extracting it and reimagining/reforming/redistributing it. I am dismantling the patriarchy one shirt at a time.”
Winnie reads me the directions aloud, hand stitched on the central garment:
“My idea, because it’s a uniform, is to; Adopt, Assimilate, Adapt, Evolve. If women enter into taking on the clothing as the power that’s how I would proceed. And then with the power you’re gonna wanna find it, extract it, and redistribute it. The instructions also warn to question the legitimacy, amplify absurdity, and offer up alternatives.
“And they’ll never see us coming” she whispers with a mischievous smile.
On being herself:
“All of this happened after the election for me. Have I been complicit and this is the world I offer to my children? I’m not satisfied, and I need them to see me fighting in any way I can.
..I’m a voter and I am gonna stop hiding who I am or making it more mild for people because it makes them comfortable.
I don’t have all the answers but I’ve got a lot of energy, to make people hopefully feel comfortable about talking. I don’t want to have negative or aggressive interactions, that’s not how I roll, but I want to create some safety to say what if? Why aren’t we? What can you do?
I added Another question to the dinner party questionnaire:
What’s one thing that you could do today? It could be anything, it could be be kind to people, that’s revolutionary. What if everybody did that?”
How to Model Adulting:
“If we don’t pause and start with kindness we’re all f**ked anyway…relationships are the only thing.”
“People sometimes say things like oh it doesn’t matter if you recycle because it’s really this ruining the whatever – yeah but that’s an action I can take! And I’m gonna take it!
And I’m gonna use my reusable cup, I’m gonna compost even though the city makes it really hard. That shows my intention.
And I am my intentions.
One of the responsibilities to my children is to show how do you do relationships, how do you proceed in this world, how do you do your part, how do you decide what your priorities are and live them. I’ve been given this job and it’s really the only job that matters.”
Long live the matriarchy!
Lost/Found Exhibition Dates: September 12 – 24, 2019
Gallery Hours: Sat-Thu, 11am-9pm
Revolutionary Dinner Party: Saturday, September 21, 6-8pm, RSVP
Artist Talk: Sunday, September 22, 5pm, RSVP
Artists in “Lost/Found” are Romina Chuls, Dance Doyle, Familien Iglesias, Tiantian Lou, Erin Palumbo, Noah Pica, Winnie van der Rijn and Shihui Zhou. Learn more about them here.
Curated by Isa Rodrigues and the artists of AIR Cycle 10, Lost/Found is self produced by TAC with support and collaboration of The Vanderbilt Republic, and curatorial advisory, technical direction and lighting design by George Del Barrio.