The conversation began talking about eccentricity in a cafe with Kashink, a female artist with a drawn-on moustache. It ended with a man cycling past singing, hands-free in a well-tailored business suit at the top of his lungs. In the middle of all of that we found out about her life and work.
The formative years for Kashink can be boiled down to mainly two moments. Firstly, when she first saw the work of Fernando Botero on the Champs-Élysées. The oddly proportioned sculptures seemed beyond odd or surreal, but affecting. It was the human body, but not as she knew it. Not as she had seen it before. She grew up in an artistic family so was no stranger to different types of art, but seeing this on the scale that she did was something else entirely.
The second was the moment that she calls 'love at first sight'. She was a teenager, maybe 14 or 15 and saw a documentary about transvestite performance-artist Leigh Bowery. The impact was profound. It was in Bowery that she saw new ways of being. She began to understand that a body was not just a body and that art didn't have to be a painting or a sculpture. Kashink refers to his work as 'complete'. The way he contorted his body seemed painful, yet it was intriguing. The form he took on wasn't male or female, it was just human - just flesh.
It was news to a young Kashink that this was regarded as art. To her it was an awakening - she decided then that she wanted to express herself this way, that she too would become an artist. As with many people at that age, she had trouble understanding her own body, inside and out, and Bowery showed her that this inability to comprehend wasn't bad. He might have seemed crazy, but to her, he was free.
Kashink's works are comprised of faces. Not distinctly male or female, nor are they distinctly human. They have the recognisable features - eyes, nose and mouth, but that's where the similarities between species and gender often end. It's not intended as a political statement about who can be what, as much as just being what you want to be.
The faces in her work often take on the form of mask-like structures. They are somewhere between Mexican wrestling masks and operatic humanoids - ornamental, yet not decorative. Masks, from the theatric Comedy and Tragedy masks, highlight a duality. They hide something whilst showing something else. Underneath may be something ugly. Covering it is already a profound story.
Once upon a time, when Kashink was reading a book on Siberian masks, she noticed the similarities that the ones in the book had to African ones. What does that mean? Like a piece of paper, a mask is a blank slate for different cultures to work on. That these two seemingly disparate cultures created something so similar signalled to her that either we all come from the same place, or there is something essential within us all that transcends our geography.
These commonalities in masks run deeper than their aesthetic symbolism though. Masks are also deeply spiritual, used as a way for cultures to transcend art. Prevalent in paganism, carnivals and rituals, masks are a way for a person to become something else - perhaps a higher version of themselves, a more honest version, or to give them the bravery required to live a life that they'd otherwise not have. The complexities and power of masks, to Kashink, is something to embrace. It's much more than meets the eye.
Talking about eyes, Kashink likes them. Her painted faces usually have four. One pair set on top of the other. This is a symbolic addition to her pieces that retains the mythic ethos of the mask. As the faces are undefinable by gender etc, they are essentially open-minded, unrestricted beings. These eyes are a literal manifestation of 'seeing more'. Kashink laughs when she tells me that they have 'double vision' - but that's exactly what it is. These things can see and hear more. They are not blind or deaf to situations.
The eye motif occurred when a triptych that Kashink had painted was defaced. Back then her artworks all had the standard two eyes. Usually things being defaced can somewhat upset her, but this time it changed her. The piece was defaced by a political work about a situation in Burma. Although he work was largely devoid of politics - she wanted to symbolise that this didn't mean she was closed off to it. Since then the characters have always had the double set of eyes. Thanks to the overdub, her characters mind's are now open.
Having extra eyes also gives an extra plain for emotion to be portrayed on. Kashink sees all the faces as self-portraits. They're all telling a story about herself and her own conflicting ideas about identity. She wants them to empower the people that see them in the same way as they do for her. Similar to her formative experience with Leigh Bowery - she is giving other people the opportunity of freedom that she once felt.
Are the pieces beautiful or monstrous? Well, they can be either, both or none. The point is the perspective. What is attractive in one culture, might be repulsive in another one. They exist in the borderland of classification. Beautiful or ugly, male or female, human or monster, happy or sad.
Bowery was known as a highly individualistic character - his life was entirely his and he lived as he pleased. Like her artwork, Kashink is working towards this as well. Like Bowery, she wants to create the complete artwork. The only setback is that, unlike her pieces, she is definitely human. With that comes fear, uncertainty, knee-jerk reactions and a plethora of other emotions. That's why it's clear that they are self-portraits. That's why it's understandable that even they are feeling several conflicting things at once. It becomes obvious that despite being distinctly non-human externally, that's exactly what they are on the inside.
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