INTERVIEW BY RACHEL ELLISON
Allie Pohl’s work, on a broad scale, is driven by the commodification of femininity. In more basic terms, she’s inspired by pubic hair. Her first exhibit consisted of a woman’s figure, constructed from porcelain, dismembered, and sprouting chia from its armpits, legs, and pubic region. The installation took the figurine from pre-pubescence to womanhood in the context of its chia growth, playing with the juxtaposition of the porcelain doll against the process of natural growth.
Her work since has embodied a similar tone, almost exclusively dealing with modern perceptions of beauty, dating, and gendered cultural stigma. She continues to produce the mid-section from the chia exhibit in an array of colours and materials, which she calls “the ideal woman.” The figure is modelled after Barbie, scaled to size with a 24” waist and 36” butt, and represents the various forms of a societal rejection of womanhood. Last week she took an afternoon to speak with me about art school, feminism, and Tinder as art.
Was the “ideal woman” figure the first thing you created?
I was always interested in hair and hair removal and why we follow certain cultural trends. So I did explorations in my undergrad at Hamilton, exploring social constructs and why we abide by them and then I went to the university of Denver for my MFA in Electronic Media Art and Design. It was kind of about how technology affects society and humans and how we understand that [relationship]. While in Denver I came up with ideal woman and the first rendition of that was the chia series where I had chia growing from where unwanted hair grows.
When did you become aware of this conversation about feminism and femininity?
I think I wasn’t attuned to body hair until college. Hamilton is in the middle of nowhere, there are 3 traffic lights, and girls would drive 45 minutes away into Syracuse to get waxed and I just thought, why do people feel this need to routinely go do this? I think that’s when I first started thinking about pubic hair specifically. But I have always thought a lot about these expectations. I’m really short, my mother always encouraged me to wear heels. But I think that there’s these things while you’re growing up that you’re pushed to do to make you more attractive or endearing or appealing in some sort of commercialized way, and I think hair is just part of that.
Feminism is often used as a weapon against celebrities, asking them if they consider themselves one and attacking them when they answer wrong. How do you feel about this setting people up to fail?
I think setting people up to fail is a bigger issue in general. I think when females say they’re not a feminist, it blows my mind. That is normally one of the first questions people ask me, do you see yourself as a feminist artist, and like, I am a female who functions in the world as a female. It’s the only thing I know so everything I say is coming from my experience as a female.
Tell me about your photographic series.
The series is called Hot Seat and it’s about the over-documentation of culture. I went around LA and took pictures of myself going to the restroom in places you go to see and be seen. I started that two years ago. In the past two years there has been a huge jump in Instagram users and the play-by-play of what you’re eating and what you’re doing and what you’re seeing and the idea of mini-celebrities being like mini-brands. I started the Hot Seat series as a way to talk about that. We’re narcissists, we’re just creating this society where your appeared value is based on numbers. Within that it’s very easy to see what generates higher numbers. For a girl, the sexier clothing will get you more likes. Now I’m more interested in following the trends of hashtags, from the #KylieJennerChallenge to the arm wrapping around the waist. It’s created this platform where these ridiculous trends are able to spread in such a fast and furious manner.
And your series on online dating?
I’ve done two different series’ on online dating. One series I did in 2011. Online dating had just become something that was almost socially acceptable. All my friends were doing it and talking about it so I went on to a bunch of different websites and documented what words were used the most. There were these sweeping trends. I’m happy, ambitious, worldly, driven. So I did an exhibit with the most common words used in online dating in which they are written on mirrors, so you see yourself in these words. And then the most recent project I did was called Peacocking and it used Tinder. I was so interested in Tinder because you’re limited to five photos. So what were the themes in these photos? I went all over Los Angeles and spent a week just Tindering all day. And there were some very clear themes in the images that guys were putting up.
One of my favourite artists is this woman Sophie Calle. She’s French and she really puts herself in the work. Her boyfriend of years broke up with her in a letter so she photocopied the letter and sent it to all of her girlfriends and had them open the letter, read the letter, and interpret it. The exhibit was these different women reading the letter on a video, reacting. She’ll go to the airport, pick a business man, and fly to the same place and stay in the same hotel and document things he does.
So for this project I decided to go out with whoever would go out with me on Tinder and ask them how they define masculinity, what did they see as their role or their duty, and at the end of each date I took a photo of the bill, them paying with their wallet, to be the caveat of all these dates. And so in the show I had these male merit badges, which were the common narratives that men wanted to convey and they were based on Boy Scout badges. So there was confident, successful, athletic, worldly. It was the images I took and then what they would say on the date that made these seven badges.
How many people did you go out with?
I went out with like 45 people. I did it like a job.
Were you up front about what you were working on?
It was really easy. People would be like, oh what do you do, and I’d say I’m an artist. Oh what are you working on? Actually I’m working on this project about how men market themselves on Tinder. I had just broken up with a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in dating anyone at all. But Tinder had this clear moment where everybody was using it, everybody was talking about it, and I just felt like I had to make work about it. Because I’m most interested in what we’re doing in contemporary society.
So how do you feel men marketed themselves?
I would say, very universally, there were specific themes. Everyone said they felt like it was their job to take care, whether it was mentally, financially, emotionally. This is actually how I met my fiancé.
Are you still creating work based on the “ideal woman”?
I feel like “ideal woman” is my staple and women will constantly change and alter themselves in ways and I will need to use this symbol to address these things.
Do you ever feel pressure to create?
All the time. I’m just leaving a [creative block] now. I was in that for like four months. What’s more challenging for me is because I’m not a medium specific artist my process is very much thinking and seeing what I want to talk about. Researching that, formulating that, and I think that every artist goes through this, but because of that I can’t just go into the studio and paint, that’s just not my process. So when I’m done with a body of work, doing the next body takes a long time.
What is your process and material choice like?
Some of them are made from resin and chrome because I love the idea of seeing yourself reflected. The size and the finish is very much determined by what each piece is trying to do. Normally you chrome metal and it’s hard to chrome plastic, but I love the idea of faking. I make the ceramic ones from a “my size Barbie” and the chrome ones are cast. The foam ones are pretty much the same technology as Nerf guns, but the Nerf guns are really small, so it takes forever. In the cold it contracts and then they would get cellulite and I had to massage it out.
When did you start working with molds of men’s bodies?
That was part of this Peacocking project. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man but I do know how men market themselves to women. So I started thinking about mannequins and I found that in 2007 the male clothing industry accounted for five percent of sales. Since 2007 they account for 35% per year. I felt like I had to address this shift. And then also, the shifts in body image. The male mannequins were from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, painted in the most popular car colour of each decade. So the 80s are red, the 90s mannequins are white, and the 2000s are silver. These pieces show how the idealized form has changed.
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