How did you get into making art?
I got interested in photography and filmmaking as soon as I started high school. For some time, I pursued both but narrowed down my focus on photography in my early twenties. However, growing up, I was part of the broader arts community as I trained and performed as a classical pianist.
What are you currently working on?
I have just completed a new body of work titled Virgin Soap, a series of photographs in which I document myself casting a model’s torso in silicone and plaster. The body of work consists of 26 photographs and a sculpture installation.
What inspired you to get started on this body of work?
I knew I wanted to work with the neon green silicone. From there, I looked to find the right narrative to use this material in my photographs. For the past few years, I’ve been inspired by the how-to aesthetics and instructional photographs, so I decided to stage this body of work as a tutorial, of sorts. In the photographs, I play the role of the sculptor, and document myself casting a model’s torso in silicone and plaster.
While researching for this body of work, I’ve watched a lot of youtube tutorials on how to make silicone molds, and noticed a curious pattern – a lot of the tutorials were performed by men, on women’s breasts. I was fascinated by the uncomfortable exchanges between the models and the sculptors. The interactions seemed stilted, but was the relationship between sculptor and model coercive? What did the models feel about being cast? What kind of touch is it? By mimicking the persona of a male sculptor, I am reinterpreting those gestures through my female gaze, and therefore I am able to see what happens when gender roles are reversed and lines blur between passive and active bodies.
I was fascinated by the uncomfortable exchanges between the models and the sculptors.
Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?
I prefer working on distinct projects as this offers me a lot of freedom– aesthetically. However, I see all my projects connected and following the same line of inquiry. My work dwells on troubling the boundary between portrait and self-portrait: In a number of my recent projects I have hired models nearly identical to myself—body doubles, or doppelgänger’s—applying silicone molds and special effects make-up to reshape them. Through these choices, I treat myself as an object and a subject at the same time, as well as the beholder of the gaze. I thought it was important that all the transformative gestures were performed on someone, who looks somewhat like me and on whom I could easily project my consciousness.
What’s a typical day like in your studio?
My typical day in the studio depends on what stage I am in the production. I take a lot of time researching, and preparing for shoot days, so during that time I might just be at my computer–gathering ideas, reference images and reading. When I move to production, I spend my days either shooting in the studio or on location. During post-production, I am scanning my film, working on color corrections, editing, printing and writing about the work.
Who are your favorite artists?
Some of my favorite artists are Alina Szapocznikow, Gillian Wearing, Matthew Barney and Robert Gober. However I draw most of my inspiration from other types of imagery – vintage stage makeup tutorials, medical illustrations, and books on the development of photography.
Where do you go to discover new artists?
I discover new artists mostly through other artists and former classmates. I love learning about new artists while traveling too — I put a lot of effort into it especially when I go back to Poland, where I grew up.
Ilona Szwarc is an artist based in Los Angeles who was recently shortlisted for The Hopper Prize. To learn more about the artist: