We meet the artist behind Miami Art Week’s most Instagrammed artwork
On November 21st, my inbox lit up with a press release. Subject line: “A 12ft Orgasming Vagina is Heading to the Nautilus Hotel for Art Basel Miami Beach | You’re invited”. An editor forwarded me the same press release, a simple “eek” written in the body of the email. Said missive detailed that a 12-foot-tall neon sculpture of a vulva in the throes of orgasm – created by artist Suzy Kellems Dominik – would be displayed in the lobby of the Nautilus, a Sixty Hotel for Miami Art Week. The orgasm would be conveyed using movement and light, and in addition to the vulva, the sculpture would include little firework-like structures, a bird in flight, and the work’s name written in script: “I Can Feel.”
I met Kellems Dominik at the Nautilus on an especially sticky Miami day, where she told me that “I Can Feel” is “the reclamation” of her “emotional and physical independence.”
“I would say that (the work) is a piece of personal empowerment,” she continued. “Which, sadly in our political climate of entrenchment and hatred, is really a privilege as opposed to a right.”
“I would say that (the work) is a piece of personal empowerment. Which, sadly in our political climate of entrenchment and hatred, is really a privilege as opposed to a right” – Kellems Dominik
In the winter of 2015 at a Brigid Berlin retrospective in New York City, former Warhol Superstar (and Beck’s mother) Bibbe Hansen told me that she was sick of the omnipresence of what she referred to as “big dick art.” “It’s just refreshing to see some big titty art, you know?” she continued. “Or little titty art, or just tit art.” Cut to two years later, at Art Basel Miami Beach: Princess Nokia raps about her “little titties” and “fat belly” onstage at the Prada party, my friend Laura Bannister writes that legendary feminist artist Carolee Schneeman’s depictions of female flesh are some of the very strongest works at the fair, and the dubious honour of “most-Instagrammed work at Art Basel” goes to “I Can Feel.” Vag, like “Cat Person”, appears to be everywhere.
They key word is “appears.” It is not exactly like women are much better off in general than they were two years ago. The current campaign against sexual harassment hit the art world hard. At the Art Basel Miami fair itself, 72 per cent of the work shown was produced by men.
In its press materials, “I Can Feel” was described as something that “explores the need for strong feminist symbols,” that is “genderless and ageless,” and that the piece “translates exceptionally well within social media.” The email irked me. So much of popular modern feminism centres around purchasing symbols that advertise said feminism – it seems widely misunderstood that purchasing a “Future is Female” t-shirt or wearing a Handmaid’s Tale bonnet at Halloween are not inherently radical acts. Displaying a giant vagina for sale in the lobby of an expensive hotel is only “feminist” within the bounds of capitalism, something shiny and surprising that looks good on Instagram. It is a good shock tactic that gets people into a lobby to buy a drink.
While I was cynical, Kellems Dominik was earnest and open, which are both braver. She was inspired to create “I Can Feel” at the end of a relationship; after whirling around a dancefloor with friends, she felt happy for the first time in a while, and wanted to make something joyful. She designed a section of the work to take selfies in because she wanted people to “wrap (themselves) up in it, feel the experience.” Gender identity is not dictated by body parts, but “I Can Feel” feels undeniably female – even so, Kellems Dominik insists that the piece is totally genderless, an example of the rights of all people to feel pleasure. She was excited to show the piece to her two daughters.
Kellems Dominik tried to create stamps bearing the image of “I Can Feel,” but she was turned down by the US Postal Service. People did gawk in the hotel lobby, taking pictures on pictures on pictures. I saw a frat guy in a button-down shirt and cargo shorts giggling as he Snapchatted. The initial email did raise my eyebrows. People are mostly just bigger versions of five-year-olds, and so genitalia will always be inherently amusing to many of us, especially the more Adam Sandler-inclined. But the fact that “I Can Feel,” a pretty straightforward depiction of anatomy rendered in lovely, soothing colours, can still be seen as remotely controversial, in some part proves its necessity.
After speaking to Dominik, I poked around the Nautilus for a few minutes, looking for a friend. I saw a group of high school girls, some still with braces, taking a picture in front of “I Can Feel.” They were beaming.