Mette Sterre is a Dutch performance artist extraordinaire. In her work she explores the grotesque and tries to break away from the human form. She creates alternate worlds through costumes and interactions between characters.
I think in performance I can do everything that I desire to do. So I can make the costumes, I can create a narrative, I can write a song. There is freedom. There are also many images that you can make so you don’t have to stick to one. There is tension. There is an interaction with your audience. There’s liveliness. There’s activity. It’s really honest and also when it’s done it’s done. I’m kind of an obsessive person so if I have to keep on going I just do that. In a performance there’s a lot of energy, you have to build yourself up and then after it’s done you can’t change it. So there is also the aspect of failure. I’m a thrill seeker so I kind of need this. I also do photography, I do drawing. When I exhibit those people like it, and its great, but it’s not a shared experience. I keep just making all these things and they go back to the studio. What happens to it when you die? It’s not like an experience. I like to make an experience. I feel like all the mess and chaos in my head I can structure in a performance and bring my energy out to the audience and engage with them. Love it!
In your artist statement you mention that you are fascinated by the grotesque. Where does this fascination come from?
I think that my fascination with the grotesque started from being a kid. I always heard people talk about children as innocent and I did not feel like I had this innocence or that people were to be trusted. I never thought that the world was a perfect place. I never trusted grown ups and I did not see this pretty perfect picture of youth. I always was kind of the weird one. I think that’s where the seed was planted, then of course the 80s where flamboyant and strange. I think that children’s television in the Netherlands was quit grotesque. I think those television programs really feed me. Also my brother influenced me. He would listen to metal music and had this interest in skeletons and death.
What is the grotesque to you?
In the notions of the grotesque there is this duality that everything is both, that it’s not black or white but making a statement is about questioning everything. Like considering values and morals that you have, that been put onto you by society. There are so many ways how you can look at the grotesque. I remember when I was writing my thesis my tutor was like “Your work is abut the grotesque” and I was like “No, no, no” because I thought about Gothic and I thought about gore but then looking into it, it is so much more about the experience of the viewer. This category jamming that you experience, it’s about things not standing still, it’s about dynamics, it’s about the spirit of the time. I am drawn to it because I can make statements that aren’t statements in a way. I know it’s such a cliché but the audience can think about what they want to take from it. So it’s not me telling them. I’m not a messiah but I do have these questions. Then there’s also the notion of nature. There’s this problematic idealization of nature like in Walt Disney cartoons. Nature is cruel, and mean, and dark, and beautiful at the same time. I never really read Nietzsche but we had these philosophy classes and I like the way he writes about the artifice, which is also kind of the sublime and is connected to the grotesque. It’s that something can be so beautiful that it’s overwhelming. In my thesis I wrote about feral children, disability and South Park and the portrayal of the other in a way that it’s not making the other but just questioning what the normative is. I think the grotesque is the ideal vehicle for that. The grotesque is also about mixing high and low culture. Even now in my work I am interested in these different contexts. In the grotesque I found a way where I can be direct and also use humour in a way.
What strategies do you use to construct the grotesque body?
First of all I cover the whole body. I mix and create hybrids. Noel Carroll talks about this category jamming, when people get this feeling that it doesn’t fit. I think that’s a huge part of making this body something else. Maybe you see the hands through the costume, or maybe there’s a physique. I think the best work in terms of the grotesque body is the structure realist one. It’s this white pointy creature that is based on crystals and sea creatures, this rhythm in nature that you find, like Fibonacci. I find it interesting to find these patterns in nature. We know there are certain ground rules to our natural laws, like gravity, light, but also these rhythms. So I also take these patterns from nature and apply them to the human body. In terms of the restrictiveness of the costumes, you can’t just walk normally, it’s really heavy sometimes. This is also questioning what it is to be human by living a new physique. The performer has to surrender to the costume. In the structure realist costume you really can’t define where the head is or where the legs are. Once during a performance there were two old ladies who were arguing “There’s a robot inside. It moves to the music and there’s a machine in it.” They were just standing there completely fascinated by it even though there were a lot of other things they wanted to see. I think that was the most successful work in terms of this artifice. Then I think another important point is humour. So the characters can be funny and they can mimic things that we know, connecting to archetypical things that we know. The work that everybody appreciates is the rubber band man. They all understand that there are rubber bands but when you see it on the picture it looks like wool. You see it as human, but it’s not human. I think this connects to ancient practices where we use everyday materials and anthropomorphise them into something else, like into a creature. Africa has the biggest tradition in this, but also in Europe and especially Eastern Europe these costume traditions still exist to chase away the evil spirits. It’s shamanism. I think this practice is also related to the grotesque.
How does the grotesque influence the construction of femininity in your work?
I think Long Tongue Sally is the piece that really questions this. It’s using the femininity aspect of being submissive and enlarging this quality by crawling on the floor with this real cow tongue in your mouth. It’s pretty grotesque, but there is also this weird sexuality. Sometimes it’s interactive, sometimes it’s not. There are all these deformed feet and she’s licking them, which of course is a very sexual act and is really submissive. She is one of the characters that’s really hybrid because you can still see that it’s me. She is a woman with huge eyelashes that is being gagged by a horse rig which also relates to BDSM aesthetics. Her ability to speak is being gagged and she’s objectified by the audience as well. Sometimes I get really emotional during that performance because it makes me really angry being this woman on the floor, being looked at and touching these people and their feet and them enjoying it. Nobody says “Stop it”. Nobody picks you up. Everybody is the onlooker. Then there’s also this weird game between me and the audience. In that work, it’s like making a hyperbole of the presumption of what it means to be feminine, that you should not speak and just do as you’re being told. Just be pretty. That experience makes me hate being a woman.
What do you dislike about femininity?
Being 10, I wasn’t really a tomboy but I always hated this concept of what it means to be a girl. So I wasn’t really girly and my build is chunky. There were all these expectations to what you should apply to being a girl. You should be quit, you should be neat, your house should be clean, you should be structured, you should be polite, and you should not be loud. (I’m quit a loud person.) And also you have to do different things because you’re a girl. I love that in my work I can question those values and determine my own rules.
How does femininity influence your other characters?
The rubber band man is like a man to me. So in a way it’s cross dressing. I don’t think that people would recognise me as a woman when wearing this costume. I feel like I’m a man, the one who’s in charge. He’s the manager, he takes care of everything. He’s making these power postures. So I think as a woman to change gender, it’s also about reversing the roles. Actually by questioning the other gender, by becoming that gender for a little while, you also can experience what it means to be this other gender. The flasher man is also about this sexuality of what it means to be a man and how you walk and change your physique.
How do you relate to gender in your personal life?
I’m really happy that gender is a hot topic. I was really happy moving to the UK. There is this whole debate about being queer. I feel at home in this gender identity. I’m happy that I can just be without these normative ideas about what it means to be my gender. There’s this space where you can just be something in between.
What is your point of view about the influence of disciplining mechanism of power on women?
People do say “Oh she fucked her way to the top”. You would never say that about a guy, because the patriarchy is in charge. If you are a woman there could be the assumption that you made your career because you are pretty, or you had sex with someone, and not because of your qualities. I find it very interesting how Marina Abramovic for example got attacked for selling out, and losing her integrity when she became an iconic artist. Or we know Yoko Ono more for her “role” in breaking up the Beatles, and less for her own successful career and artwork. Or Courtney Love being a star fucker and being accused of killing the father of her child, being a bad mum, whilst her band Hole had even a better record deal than Nirvana. People hating Courtney because of her being a bitch, whilst Chris Brown who’s knowingly abusing Rhianna is still the face for Nike or Johnny Depp being used in advertising when being proven to have been beating up Amber Heard. Amber being attacked for being a “Gold Digger”. But it’s not widely known, or a first associated fact that Hugo Boss designed the costumes for the Nazi’s, but we do know that Chanel was on the wrong side of the war. Marina Abramovic is supposedly to be such a bitch because she overpowered Ullay by excluding him to use some of their collective work and their shared history but so many women get dismissed, erased, eradicated. We get eradicated, we get written out of history. So even if there was a big movement, it really terrifies me because now we think that there are more women going to art school than men, but still, in 50 years time who will be remembered? Because the art pieces that get sold are more expensive when they are made by men so they are more likely to be taken care of. It’s interesting seeing more new media, video art and photography that are made by women. But even like Lee Miller and Man Ray, she invented the photogram, Man Ray took it and he got the credit. I’m pretty sure Gala had much more to say than just being Dali’s muse. In recent events there’s also been all this talk about Daily Mail writing about Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon “Forget about Brexit, look at Leg’s-it. Who’s got better legs?” These are two female leaders and you’re writing about what they’re wearing? You’re writing about whose legs look better? Why don’t they just write about what those women have to say? I find this so problematic!
In the performance It’s a Recognized Fact II you use gazing and red light as your tools. These elements also connote the practice of prostitution in the Netherlands. How does this connotation contribute to what you were trying to achieve in this performance?
Interesting, it’s funny that you ask. To me the performance is about questioning the position and portrayal of women in slasher movies; their vulnerability having to call someone else, the phone not working, and their fear. I used the music from one of my favourite horror movies “Susperia” by Dario Argento. I really like Argento’s movies because the women and girls are empowered, they are not victims. The leading characters take action, they are in charge. But Argento, like a lot of slasher movies, is attacked for his portrayal of these screamer girls. I personally think he does create strong female characters. You know when you watch slasher movies and the girls are so helpless, waiting to be saved by someone else and you’re watching and thinking like “Oh my God, woman, FIGHT!” This weakness arouses pity that we have with the girl behind the window or in the slasher movie. Being helpless and having to call somebody else to be rescued, having the phone, like a call girl… Interesting. I used the red light because it’s this gloomy attribute but not intentionally make the connection with prostitution. Although I really like that you make that link. I always wondered what it would be like to pay somebody just to have sex. I don’t understand what makes it attractive. I feel it’s not about having sex with the person, it’s about the ability of buying sex. But yeah, that work is about looking and being looked at, seeing this person struggling on their own and witnessing that fear and aggression. It raises the question “Who is doing this to her, who is responsible, or is it in her mind?”
In the performance Drop Dead Gorgeous there is a group of women dressed up in prom gowns lying on the floor while a man in a suit is leaning against the wall. What is going on?
So basically the exhibition it took place in was called “Drop Dead Gorgeous” that also relates to the objectification of women. The women are basically being reeled in by the man that is kind of an undertaker. So he wheels the women in and just dumps them on the floor. So it relates to the idealization of beauty that’s fading, and being used, and beauty pageants. Beauty pageants are super camp but again it is addressing women based on their physique, on their presentation and how feminine they are. Like you will never see a punk girl, they must be well spoken, and behave, and give the right answers, fitting in with the patriarchal structures of being femme means. I also find the shaming aspect interesting. Like for example the public outcry and shaming of Miss Texas being called stupid because she was really nervous, and gave an incoherent answer to the question. It’s about being disposable, a body, an object, becoming irrelevant when not meeting up to the standards. The role of the performers-audience relationship was that the audience would support their objectification; the woman as an entertainer, to play with the expectation of the audience that something should happen; but nothing did; they just lay there. The aim of the performance was for the audience to forget that they were there and just continue doing their own thing and step over the bodies, making them disposable as voiceless bodies.
Did you want the audience to become aware of dehumanization?
Yeah. I hoped that they would forget that these were women lying on the floor but then somehow realize that these are actual persons. I wanted them to become aware of the systematic oppression they have somewhere in their subconscious. I was hoping to make them conscious by doing this, to create awareness or even just a moment of “Oh shit! Did I just do that?” without spelling it out to them, because maybe they don’t realize what they are doing. Or maybe they are worried; maybe they are concerned even though there is the awareness that it’s being staged. You know these women choose to be in that way. It’s again about this gaze and also consumerism, when you consume these bodies and you’re like “Oh look at these bodies. Now I get bored and want to look at something else. I want something exciting.” So it’s like a spectacle but also addresses time. There’s also this connotation of older women who become invisible because of the cultural expiring date you have being a woman, being your utmost beautiful when you’re young.
You have done several collaborations with other female artists. How do you experience working together? Do you experience a sense of sisterhood?
Oh yeah. For example with Samantha and Nikki. I totally feel that we are strong women that are loud, intelligent. I feel that connection of being vocal together. I feel as well that there is a sisterhood between female artists. I feel that women in general are a lot about supporting each other. I know there is this misconception that women are really jealous and bitchy, but we’re not. At least that goes for the women I know. Something I also became aware of is that I used to say “I don’t like girly girls” and I thought “Oh my God, that’s such a misogynistic thing for me to say about women that do enjoy being feminine or happy in that position. “Why was I judging them? Do I want to be one of the guys?”, that’s pretty bad. I should celebrate everyone in whatever form they want to be. I think it’s possibly connected to my own problematic relationship and fear of being feminine and internalised misogyny. Because we have; for example, I recently was at a party dancing in a bikini top and another woman said to me: “maybe you should put some clothes on”. Actually realising this has made me embrace me with my more feminine side. So I think from this perception it’s really liberating to work with women, embrace your female identity, be really supportive, and talk about these subjects. I also remember doing an exhibition with friends. As I was hanging my drawings my male friend said “You make female art” and I was like “Well, I am a woman. You make typical male art but if we would rule the world you would be called out for making male art!” So even that notion, when you don’t have to fight for a space to be equal, you understand the work of another woman because you understand certain aspects of the body, things you deal with in life, also the feminist debate. Of course you have male feminists, which is super good and they are so invited to the table but I also remember going to a conference about feminism and the people who spoke the most were men. In a room full of women there were still three men leading the conversation. On the other hand I think my reaction might be paranoid, maybe I see it like that. People say that women talk much more than men but we get hushed so much and when you call people out they are so offended, because it’s so accepted to behave so, it’s hard to realise that thing you were learned that it was ok, the norm has shifted. I also wonder there’s also a sexist thing about judging men based on their gender and isn’t that the same thing but on the other side of the coin?
On your website you describe your performance I Object I Subject with Samantha Thole as a feminist beating up procedure. Can you specify the struggle that you are addressing?
I think first of all the aesthetics of it is that we are wearing transformer outfits, which is not something associated with the female body, as well as physical fighting, to have power and to be mechanical, analytical. But then we also use stereo typical, humoristic feminine elements such as pulling hair, and posing for the camera. By mixing these elements with rougher physical fighting we are stretching the notions of femininity. We use our bodies to attack each other. It also relates to defining who is the subject and who is the object because we’re two women and there is of course the gaze from the audience. There is spectacle. There is the association to female wrestling that is also quite sexual. But then we destroy our masks, we destroy our costumes. So it’s also about breaking down these borders that we have and being aggressive women but we are also kind of ridiculing this. Samantha did a very extensive research into female wrestling and boxing and used that. Then there is this sexual aspect, we are out in public space getting naked. I guess it is questioning the female relationship and reconciliation because in the end we shake hands. Using kind of male language, made for boys to play with but using that to underline feminism.
In the performance Double Helix, making a Golem you end up in a fight with Samantha Thole again. Why do you fight in your performances? Why is it a recurring theme?
Physical fighting is not associated with being female, then there’s also the power play that we use, like who’s the strongest. Samantha is really strong. In fighting there is also the aspect of who’s going to win? In this performance there is also the connotation of mud wrestling where women are perceived as sexy when they fight. It’s like performing sex between women in porn is considered sexy but for men it’s unnatural (in mainstream media). Then there is again this risk of getting hurt. Women are expected not to rip their dress and be careful but we are showing that you can have physical strength and you can fight back. So I think the fighting is important to show women’s strength. That breaks with the assumption that women can only be strong and be valuable through having babies, as if this is our only superpower. We can be strong in other ways and we can resist as well so that’s why I think that fighting is important. It irritated me when people said “Mad Max” was such a feminist movie, but the women that are being saved are valuable because they can give birth and are beautiful enough to be saved, but couldn’t save themselves. I feel fighting as women is important cause it means you can stand up for yourself, you are independent. This can be physical or mental. I don’t want to ignore that it can also have benefits being a woman. I feel for example when people are fighting in the streets that I can jump in because I am a woman, it’s less likely that I’d be physically attacked in that context.
In Cotton Balls Empire you frolic around in nature with Nikki Rosa Ootjers slightly covered by thongs and nipple pasties. The laughter and cheerful movements remind me of the Spice Girls infused girl power attitude of back in the day. On your website the accompanying text starts with: Attack, Attack! Abort, Abort? Withdraw… What do you react against?
I think we create a playful space where we can just do whatever we want outside of whatever is expected of us. So we created a place where we can play. It is actually funny because we filmed it in London in this Orthodox Jewish area. So we were feeling really intrusive and were like “Sorry, we’re just making this movie.” There were boys hiding in the bushes and looking at what we were doing. When it got dark we were like “We need to get dressed now, we can not walk around naked now.” And it was fine; we just needed to get our clothes back on. There was this kind of self-shaming/self-censoring because of these Orthodox Jewish people passing by. So I guess that by liberating the body in nature, when it’s all of a sudden also vulnerable and being aware that you are in public space breaking the law in a post-Victorian country. So I think that the notion of public space is really important for the work. We are not in an art gallery where nudity is accepted/legal but there is this challenge and shame to overcome. We did not want to insult people with our naked bodies but then there are all these religious connotations, like Adam and Eve. In Christianity women were fucked from the beginning but if you look at what agnostics say that Eve was cool because she wanted knowledge, she was actually the one who wanted to know more. So why are we being shamed? It’s also interesting that woman as a non sexual being is a recent invention. When the Church got lower in their followers they were like “Ok, we are going to include women for not just being sinners. We’re going to make them the virgin and invite them. They just have to say no to their sexual desires.” So they portray this controversial ideal of the virgin that just got a baby without having sex. It’s crazy! So I think that by having this playfulness in the performance where we are just celebrating the body and just being in public space without overcoming the desire to excuse yourself (even though we did outside the camera). Enjoying our curves and being playful without being sexual. Celebrating the female nakedness besides it being an object of desire.
Would you call yourself a feminist or is it an outdated term?
I definitely would call myself a feminist because I think we should own this term. I think it’s not about exclusion. I don’t think it’s outdated, I think it’s really current. Look at current events where we have a president of America saying “Grab them by the pussy!” Of course it would be great if we would be like “Oh, but it’s all about people” but it’s not yet all about people, when women in India get raped and they are the one who’s shameful, not the perpetrator but the victim is shameful. And I’m saying India, but of course victim shaming is still here. Through a conversation about sexual violence with a friend they used the term “survivor” instead of victim and this term is so much more empowering cause within the word it means you are still here, you’ve endured it, but could overcome. I wouldn’t want to say that that means you can’t be still be very traumatic, but it seems better than to be a victim. Cause you want to be more than a victim. I’d like to underline can happen to everyone and isn’t excluded to only women, There’s so much ground for feminism that needs to be reinforced and discussed. If men feel excluded from being a feminist then they don’t understand what it’s really about. It’s about equality; it’s about addressing issues, and celebrating the differences in gender without saying the one is better that the other. It’s not about hating men; it’s about systems that we have that are based on our history. Sexism and racism are engrained in our subconscious thought and we need to address this and talk about it. So I feel there is a huge danger and division in being scared to say the wrong thing and therefore not speaking about it. It’s problematic when people don’t communicate with each other. That’s what people in power want because divide and conquer is the most powerful instrument if you want to keep the people small. So I think it’s really good that there is a lot of debate about feminism but it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong because we’re all in this together. When political correctness of what you should say, think and how you should address things prevails, then you have to be so familiar with the right terminology that it makes it inaccessible for people to talk about and creates and exclusive environment and possibly a moral dictatorship.
When did you start think of yourself as feminist?
I was raised by a single mom and my grandmother is a strong woman so there is this matriarchy. My mom says she’s not necessarily a feminist but she always had this Dutch feminist magazine called OPZIJ. So, I was aware that there was something available talking about women other than beauty magazines. My mom is this powerful, strong, working and independent woman. My dad would stay at home when they were still together and my mom was earning the money. So I guess this whole concept of role division between men and women was reversed for me from the start. I did not know that there was a word for that. I think I became aware of feminism in art school although I did not feel strongly related to it yet. Now there’s this whole debate about feminism and there is room to position yourself. But I don’t think there was a word for that feeling until one time I had a talk with my brother’s girlfriend who was an academic feminist. I was like “That’s all man hating” and she was like “No, it’s about equality, understanding and valuing feminine traits in the same way as we do male traits and try to make those come closer together” and I was like “Oh, then I am a feminist.” So I think that’s when I realized what feminism actually means. I think it was back in 2008.
What is feminism for you?
Feminism for me is about acknowledging the differences and trying to validate both without exclusion. It is a framework, but it shouldn’t be set.