Vincent Tiley: Fiber, Fashion and Performance

Blending fiber, fashion, performance, painting and sculpture, artist and designer Vincent Tiley creates daring, sensitive and innovative pieces, broadening the horizons of fiber art in Brooklyn. Tiley has been extremely busy this spring and summer participating in a variety of events and performances including his recent solo exhibition Look at the Moon at City Bird Gallery and Beauty Without Intention at the Tenri Cultural Institute. I visited Vincent Tiley in his studio to speak a bit more about the role of fiber techniques in his work, as well as his relationship to fashion, notions of the body and performance.

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How do you think about the role of fiber art in your work?

I think what an intense investigation into the study of fiber and materials gave me was a sensitivity to how multiple individual things come together to form a larger unit. Now that isn’t necessarily anything profound; it’s quite simple. It’s how everything is made. Everything is a collection of smaller things that amount up to a unit. And that’s certainly the truth about fiber. Countless fibers come together to make thread, which combines in different ways with lots of other fibers to make fabric, or rope etc. I’m trying to bring this logic to the body. Can a body be made up of multiple bodies? How can they combine in different ways? And what would clothing made for that body look like? I think also fiber arts is always investigating labor. There is a lot of labor involved in making anything from fiber, whether that labor is industrial or domestic or perhaps some other kind of labor all with varying degrees of visibility. My bodies that combine together in these suits are very much about visibility and concealment, but also resistant to a capitalist notion of labor. They can’t work, or even move most of the time. They are stuck touching one another or themselves. The work is in existing.

I see that fashion is definitely an influence for you. Does this stem from fashion’s relationship to the body? Do you look to contemporary fashion designers in the same way you look to fine artists for inspiration?

Fashion is a huge influence, but more so than fashion is style. Fashion can feel like a very top > down situation, in which a designer or brand sells an image of what life is like for their shopper and it is the buyer’s job to live up to that. I may be oversimplifying, but I think that is very real. And I still love fashion. Comme des Garcons, Hussein Chalayan,Walter Van Beirendonck, Margiela, Viviene Westwood and so many more designers really changed the way I look at clothes. But I’m also totally blown away at what creative people who want to transform their body through dress can and will do. That’s style. Style moves in the opposite direction. It’s harder to pin down where the voice is coming from with ‘style.’ But now we have so many artists working in fashion! I thought I was here all alone or that I was breaking some sort of code about the separation of art and it’s evil sibling, “design.” That being said, I’m not about to fold fashion into art or vice versa, but I’m happy they can come out of the closet already as partners.

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How do you feel that your work fits in with other notions of performance and fashion in fine art? Nick Cave is certainly the most famous example that comes to mind here… Who are your influences in this vein?

Nick Cave is a superstar. I saw his soundsuits for the first time in 2006. It felt brand new to me. I immediately started working on wearables and costumes. I later found out that art worn on the body is not exactly new. But I had grown up in West Virginia, which is not a bustling contemporary art scene. Although I had a mom who really pushed me to pursue making art and to work with local artists and art teachers in the area, I still left believing art was something hung on the wall and not meant to be touched. Then I found out about Leigh Bowery, Terence Koh, Rebecca Horn, Lucy Orta, Jorge Orta, James Lee Byars and the suits that Louise Bourgeois made. But I’m not just influenced by people who make wearables.

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I love Paul Thek’s work and his history in New York and how he connects to Andy Warhol. I’m also very influenced by Brakhage and his films. I think about how he uses paint and the eye of the camera a lot. He remains a huge influence!

As for how my work fits in… I mean, I think there is a lot of room for my work. I think sometimes a performance that relies on a wearable depends too much on showing off the garment. For me the garment and the movement that happens in it are equally important. They inform one another. I also am trying to work toward something that isn’t a costume. This isn’t a character I’m making. They are very much about their surface, what they are made of, and what can happen inside of them.

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How do you see the role of performance in your work?

I said earlier that the performative actions are conceptualized with the garment. Usually the garment forces the performer to stay in a certain position or interact with the other performer in a new way. They are usually not choreographed. They are choreographed only in that the suit limits the kinds of things that can happen in it and perhaps opens up new possibilities. But that is all for the performer to discover on their own.

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I noticed that when your body suits are occupied in the gallery, there is a tension as to whether we are meant to view them as performances or as objects in the same way as the paintings and sculptures on the wall. How do you think about this relationship? Is the objectification of the performers important to you?

The objectification of the performer is a huge part of the work. The suits are also very much about turning the person inside into a sculpture or a painting. This highlights the power structure that is built into the act of looking, and looking at a body. I’m turning people into things for the visual pleasure of the audience. But at times the performer squirms or breathes heavy and the audience is reminded that there is a person there. This leaves several doors open as to how to enter the piece. Many people imagine what it would be like to be in the suit. While others feel sympathy or perhaps an erotic attraction to the performer. But you are constantly pushed back out by the painted surface which partially blocks the viewer from what they might really want to see when they come to a performance, which is a naked body. This implicates the audience members through their eyes, their imagination, and their desires. They are a part of the work. My work isn’t autonomous. It’s dependent on the audience for content. Even when the audience isn’t present, if the performance is happening it’s waiting for the audience, it’s still playing into that power system.

Whether by goggles, wigs, or full facial covering, you seem to obscure the likeness of your performers. Why is this ambiguity important to you?

It’s about obscuring the gaze of the performer. The performer has power in other ways, but not the gaze. The performer must have power through endurance and presence. This also helps the audience enter into that objectification space. However I do have some pieces in which the performer’s eyes are not covered: like Sad Pretty Boys, in which three young men sit in chairs and weep for three hours, and Baby You’re Never There, in which I dance to music for 24 hours. They still are about desire and objectification and the body as a sculpture or mental image, but is achieved in a different way.

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I read your body suits and performances are clearly exploring notions of personal identity through the body. I think they are extremely successful in creating a visceral, even shocking, re-imagining of the body that inspires reflection about how notions of identity shift; defining, enclosing and consume individuals. For this reason I’m interested in how the experience of viewing them would change if a performer were absent. Have you ever shown them hung in a gallery or on mannequins?

Yes. I always create an installation of the suit when it’s not being worn.

The suits become more instructional. They are easier to imagine yourself wearing them. This is part of what I take from a fashion shopping experience. Part of shopping is looking at the clothes and imagining how you would look wearing them. The suits, when empty, function similarly. I usually hang them up limp on the wall (like an empty skin) and then, because everyone has an everyday experience with clothing and knows how to put on clothes, the suits become instructional. A sleeve now becomes an instruction for where to put your hand. Pant sleeves show you how you’re able to get around, etc. You’re still implicated as potential performer. The suits challenge you to put them on. I remember at Look at the Moon, I had a suit on the wall that had the sleeves sewn to the crotch which would force the performer to lay on the floor touching his genitals. This very fancy uptown woman asked if she could handle the suit. I told her she could. It took her a minute to see where the hands would go and also noticed the sheer backside of the suit and let out a good laugh. Her husband pointed out another piece on the wall and made a remark on how similar it was to her undoubtedly very expensive ensemble. She shot him a look. And with that they left the gallery. I really loved that.

For more information on Vincent Tiley and his work, click here.

Interview by Janina Anderson.

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