Naomi Fisher’s latest video and installation, Jungle Sweat, Roseate, is a site-specific work commissioned by the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami as part of its Contemporary Arts Project (CAP). Here Fisher discusses the show, which is on view until January 16, 2012.
VIZCAYA IS a historic house that was built in 1916 as part of the Gilded Age expansion in Florida. It’s a miniature Versailles plopped in the mangrove swamp. When I was growing up in the tropics, it became a symbol for me of the balance between nature and so-called civilization. I was born in Miami, and I mostly grew up here; we also lived in Singapore. My dad’s a tropical botanist, and he was on a sabbatical collecting plants in Southeast Asia for a year. We’d go on rainforest expeditions in Malaysia and Indonesia.
While I was in school at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, I frequently found myself thinking, “Wow, there are a lot of brick row houses here, like the kind you’d see on TV––neat.” For me, conventional Northeast architecture was like the other, whereas for nearly everyone else, it seemed, the tropics were the other. So I had very different ideas than most of my friends about what is wild, what is natural, and what is primitive.
In the video portion of Jungle Sweat, Roseate, a woman comes out of the woods and finds Vizcaya. She then gets knocked out and ends up in a cage. The people who live in the house clean her up and dress her up and try to civilize her. She encounters the lady of the house, who tells her all of these stories about history that are not completely accurate.
Temporally, Jungle Sweat, Roseate twists around in a way that doesn’t resolve itself but puts things into question. The video starts out with everyone in period costumes. The costume that the woman is wearing is an antique ballet dress that looks like the dress on Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, but she’s covered in mud and it’s tattered. Having the woods creature dressed like a Degas dancer raised by wolves is, for me, a way to talk about the tragicomic element of the voiceless female subject. I know that my love for Gauguin, Nolde, and others who have depicted the female nude is definitely tied to an interest in the nostalgic depiction of nature versus female, and tropics versus conquest. But it also more simply connects with deep admiration for beauty and paintings that resonates with the life I’ve lived straddled between the tropics as my psychic reality and the American/European academy as my educated reality.
In the video, there are three women dressed in Grecian gowns with their ankles chained together. It’s based on a performance by an Isadora Duncan revival troupe that I saw at Vizcaya when I was in high school. The dancers were sixteen and seventeen, and they told me that doing the dance felt very restrictive. Later I read Duncan’s biography and was struck by how radical she was in her time––dancing barefoot, wearing diaphanous Grecian gowns without clothes underneath. She had this personal vision that was all about freedom. The reenactment that I saw was completely for aesthetics, and not a philosophical one. Duncan would never have performed like that. But to historically experience it, you have to restage it aesthetically, which is ultimately restrictive. Is something real because it looks real? Or is it real because it’s philosophically true?