Narcissister, Organ Player, 2018, digital, color, sound, 91 minutes.

Narcissister’s neo-burlesque performance works seem to spring from a limitless body. Masked and anonymous, she transforms herself through acrobatic prowess and ingenious stage and costume design, as she plays with themes of race, sex, gender, and pop culture. Her documentary Narcissister Organ Player––which explores her relationship with her mother, who occasionally appeared in her work––is on view at Film Forum in New York through November 20, 2018. There will be a Q&A Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 7pm with Narcissister and Lissa Rivera, the Museum of Sex Curator. 

IN 2012 I WAS WORKING ON ORGAN PLAYERa performance piece about the body and the organs of the body. It so happened that creating this show coincided with the last six months of my mom’s life. She was sick, and I had been contemplating what it would be like to lose her, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. I wanted to go back and remount that work and come to a deeper understanding of how it had so much to do with my grief around my mom, with processing my relationship to her and her death. And I wanted to do it in the form of a film.

I was so intertwined with her that I didn’t have the perspective, when she was alive, to understand her impact on my work and me. I had to do a lot of inner investigating to find out what that was.

I was exposed to certain aesthetics through her since childhood––I loved assisting her in the kitchen, all the combinations of textures and colors and layers. I marveled at all the things we could make ourselves: We could make these beautiful breads and watch them rise; we could make pasta and cut it and hang it off of broomsticks in the kitchen. This approach to making is so central to the Narcissister aesthetic, this low-fi, handmade quality. I love for people to see the edges on the costumes. I love making the costumes myself.

My mom also had such innate sensuality, though as a Jewish woman from Morocco she didn’t always express it in the most obvious way. I think I subconsciously picked up on that: a joy of being in the body, a basic sultriness that has to do with dressing oneself in a way that feels lovely and allows one to move freely.

In my documentary Narcissister Organ Player, I talk about wanting the kind of power that I didn’t observe her having, about aspiring to be an independent, successful woman who made her own money, had her own opportunities, traveled widely—who didn’t have this ball and chain of a conventional marriage or family. This desire compelled me to create the life that I have, for better or worse. I talk about her struggles with her health, the illnesses she had, and how I tried to differentiate myself from that. I wanted to be healthy and athletic—to feel that my body was full of possibilities. The eroticism in my work is very much about telling myself and telling the world: I don’t want to be limited. I want to be free. I’m an American woman, and in contrast to my mom’s experience of being so un-American, I want to enjoy all the liberties I have.

I’m dedicated to being this character, Narcissister, indefinitely. Some advisers I’ve worked with said, “The film has to be totally revealing to be relatable.” And I thought, This film is a huge milestone for me, but I don’t want to throw out my beliefs around what this character should be, and anonymity is so essential to that. It was exciting to find ways to navigate this, specifically through my voice-over work, so that you can hear my vulnerability, and how I use my hands to obscure my face in old photos, just partially. I still wanted to reveal when I was smiling in photos with my mom, or what I see as distress in my face in photos of me as a teenager. What’s important to me is the intention of anonymity and the politics that come with that; whether it’s really achievable is less important to me.

It was pretty easy to go back and embellish the material from Organ Player, the live performance piece, with details about my mom and our relationship. I always struggled with feeling consumed by her. Jokingly, I called my mother “my smother” to my friends. I think all of the eating in Organ Player—the puppet eating me, me eating things—had to do with that feeling of consumption. The part where I play the heart, but also the surgeon who heals the heart, was a nod to her; she had a heart condition her whole life. The hand puppet I made also felt connected to her. She was very affectionate, and we would sit close to each other and hold hands. That’s one of the things I miss most: that sweet, simple affection. So, even if they’re oblique, there are many lines from the work to her.