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Alexandra Marzella

New York artist Alexandra Marzella confronts the narcissism of a generation head on. Here, she speaks out on body hair, banality and borderline pornography – and why having a sugar-daddy beats therapy

Taken from the Autumn 2015 issue of Dazed:

The first time I met Alexandra Marzella, I kissed her. About two years ago, I’d been asked by designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, of Eckhaus Latta, to act in their Friends opening sequence-inspired fashion film, and I was to play Marzella’s lover. We were shooting in a tiny Chinatown apartment. She arrived late, announcing that she’d been having lunch with her sugar daddy, who had just bought her a pair of pink Ugg boots. She should have just asked for the money, she said, but she really wanted the Uggs. At the time, Marzella had spontaneously quit a paid internship at Calvin Klein to focus on her art and dancing. She sounded tired. Her life was hinged on false intimacy, and kissing was what she did to pay the bills.

Marzella – or some combination of ‘artits’, ‘artburp’, ‘thot catalog’, ‘artwerk’, and the repeated number six – has taken selfie-ing to a new level as part of her art practice, creating uncomfortably inward-looking portraits. “I’ve definitely gotten critiques like ‘What are you showing that’s new here?’” she says of the nudes that frequently result in her social media profiles being deleted or suspended for content violations. “Selfies are a generational phenomenon that I’ve gotten really good at. Now it’s at a point where my selfies are taken for entirely different reasons than they used to be. I find myself doing it less and less. And that’s partly informed by my feeling that my image doesn’t make enough impact... I’m still just a skinny white person.”

The fact that Marzella’s features are, as some have observed, “perfect”, give her images more poignancy than if she was not classically beautiful, for better or worse. A social-media Venus de Milo in variously sexy and ungainly poses, Marzella’s art explores the ambivalence underlying a generation’s selfie obsession. We cannot look away, and yet we want to fix what we’re looking at: smooth it over, or straighten it out. An imagined perfection seems to hover tantalisingly within reach, pulling our yearning tighter until it becomes a confusing, sexualised emotion akin to the feelings inspired by pornography. Looking at Marzella’s images is like looking at something too expensive to buy, or feeling jealous of art you know you could have made. But look closer: Marzella is staring at herself as intently as you are, and she feels the same way.

“I had thousands of friends on Snapchat,” she tells me. “A lot of them were underage girls sending me nudes, being like, ‘You make me feel good about my body.’ I was being such an exhibitionist, and receiving their pictures and responding to them made them feel comfortable. I don’t know if it’s because I have a good body or because it’s a naked body being put out there by a personality they find interesting. Then again, I’ve had friends tell me they’ve unfollowed me because they don’t like seeing pictures of me naked. It makes them mad or gives them body dysmorphia. That sucks.” Marzella is no longer on Snapchat, and her beautified, backstage model shots on Instagram have been replaced by pictures taken at home. In fact, she says, she doesn’t leave her apartment very often.

When I buzz Marzella outside her Brooklyn building, a disembodied voice sings, “Come up, come into my house,” and the door unlocks. I’m surprised to see small chandeliers and fake marble in the stairwell, and even more surprised when Marzella’s boyfriend, Jasper, and his puppy lead me up to the fourth-floor apartment. It looks like a dance studio. Roommate and model Michael Bailey Gates walks by and waves. Some guests on the couch are preparing to leave. Marzella greets me in flesh-colored bra and panties under a sheer dress and green knee socks. She leads me to her bedroom, which looks like a fabric store, with spooled clothing stacked on open shelves. It’s hyper-organised chaos. Dozens of scarves and hundreds of necklaces hang from pegs above her bed. Another shelf is filled with piles of platform pumps.

That Marzella is able to be in this beautiful space without leaving home puts an elephant in the room. She still has the sugar daddy, she confirms, before stressing: “I am financially independent, and I have tons of friends who aren’t. Who doesn’t? That’s New York, right?” She considers dates with her sugar daddy sex work, though no sex is involved. She describes their relationship as that of therapist and patient, but, although she is making the money, he is the one acting as counsellor. “I talk to him about my shit and he tells me the few things in the world he can’t tell his wife.” Before I can ask, she says her boyfriend isn’t happy about this arrangement. To her credit, she’s transparent, and it’s almost common knowledge that incomes like this one, only secreted away, are what make the NY art world turn.

“(The sugar daddy) wants to have sex, obviously,” she emphasises, afraid I might think her naive. “Why would he still be paying me to hang out with him? He’s asked me a million times. He’s offered me enough money that it would make sense to do it, but I don’t. I used to dance for him, years ago. He’s almost like a patron, in a weird way. I really care about him. I love him, I do. But to be honest, and this is terrible in a way, I think I would be fine without him as a source of income.” Right now, she’s getting enough modelling work.

Marzella studied fashion design at Rhode Island School of Design. She commuted from her “starving artist” mother’s house nearby (her father is a businessman in Hong Kong), and the summer after her junior year, she interned in New York while dancing at an exclusive gentlemen’s party. She moved to the city after school, taking internships at DIS Magazine and VFILES, where she met then-aspiring model Hari Nef, who was attending Columbia and performing in a drag troupe. This year, Nef became the first transgender model to sign with agency IMG. A few years back, though, Nef wasn’t at all sure what she wanted to do for work. She and a boyfriend had moved into two of the rooms in Marzella’s apartment.

“I don’t try to make myself appear cooler than I am... I try to be like, ‘Look, I broke out or I’m PMS-ing or I’m in bed and smoking cigarettes again.’ These things happen” – Alexandra Marzella

“When I met Ally,” Nef recalls, “she was working as an exotic dancer. I remember when she told me, casually after work one day. At that point she had also worked with the design team at Calvin Klein. She talked about the various aspects of her work as if they comprised a gradient. I was still a teenager when we met, fresh from the suburbs, so I hadn’t met very many sex – or sex-y – workers in my life. She owned that aspect of her work. It was another creative endeavour. She changed the way I looked at sex, then work, then sex work. I was electrified by the idea that she included exotic dancing as part of her practice, not just a side gig to pay the bills. I view her work as a gesture of militant self-love, aggressive body positivity, sad-girl catharsis, a parochialisation of the ideal female body. I think she’s kind of a hero, proof that punk is alive and well. She was one of the people I met in New York whose work helped me to feel OK about being myself.”

Today, Marzella sporadically performs in shows put on by other creatives in her crew, like photographer Petra Collins, who featured the artist in her first monograph, Babe, this year. If she could do anything forever, though, it would be everything she’s already doing.“I don’t even want to design clothes, really,” says the 25-year-old, lying back on her bed with a cigarette, gesturing towards a closet that apparently holds collected garments intended for a design project. “The thing is, I’d do any of these things if I had to, but if I can get away with doing whatever the fuck I want, I’m gonna do that instead,” she laughs. “I want to be an artist. That’s a vague term and I use it because I want to do a lot of different things within that umbrella. It’s coming slowly. I do do a lot of things. I’ve been conceptualising a solo show for a long time that needs to happen... It doesn’t need to happen at all, actually. But it would be cool if it did, because I’ve talked about it enough.”

The concept behind this solo show would rely on the very idea that someone like Marzella having a solo show in New York City doesn’t quite make sense. “Ultimately, in the contemporary art industry, you follow a pattern: you follow certain steps, you climb a certain ladder. I would basically just be skipping a bunch of steps.” She has made drawings, some of which scribble on prints of her mother’s oil paintings. And she has cried, heavy make-up leaking down her face, in a performance with Collins at Art Basel Miami Beach. The collaboration that generated the most heat is a set of images Richard Prince made of her. They’re not the infamous Instagram frames from his New Portraits series, but the artists did meet through Instagram, as did, tangentially, Marzella and photographer Mario Sorrenti, who shot her with her friends in a CK One series referencing his own 90s Kate Moss Obsession ads. Sorrenti is “a sweetie”, she says. Prince, on the other hand, is “a really great bad guy”.

Prince came to her apartment and talked for two hours before he shot her for ten minutes, she remembers. “I was a big fan of his before I became this, like, anarchist feminist artist-type,” she says. “I (still) like him, because I think appropriation in general is fascinating and amazing, and it’s happening constantly. Some people are obvious about it and some are more stealthy, but it’s everywhere. Richard Prince gets away with murder because he does it really well. Do I think he’s a good person in general? I don’t know, not really. I don’t think he would say that he is.”

Marzella shows me the Prince prints on her phone. They are black-and-white nudes collaged with aggressive line drawings that cover Marzella’s face. He sent her a canvas printed with one of her Instagrams, she mentions, but it may never have shown anywhere. Underground art pornographer Richard Kern, too, has shot Marzella a few times before this shoot for Dazed. “We’ve talked a lot about Richard Prince together,” she laughs. “Richard Prince appropriated a ton of Richard (Kern)’s photos when they were younger. Kern said Prince was cool to him the way he was cool to me. He charms you and then he kind of uses you and drops you and it’s like, whatevs.”

In some ways, Marzella is exactly on- trend without trying to be – growing out her body hair, for example, at the same pace as Miley Cyrus. “I had a dream about Miley once,” she laughs. “The night before, I’d had a dream about Rihanna. We were in a club and Rihanna ended up being mean to me because I think we were wearing pants that looked similar and mine were way better or something. It was stupid. But then the next night, Miley took me into this dope-ass house in LA and she was just really fucking cool, really chill. We smoked weed and got along really well.” Like Cyrus and her stoned, goofy-faced and zit-creamed Instagram account, Marzella reaches a young audience afraid of its own shallowness, from closer to home.

“I don’t try to make myself appear significantly cooler than I actually am, if that makes sense,” she explains. “Like, I’m a cool person, you’re a cool person, I know a lot of fucking cool people. I’m jealous of everyone all the time, it’s terrible. Instagram doesn’t make it easier. But I try to be like, ‘Look, I broke out or I’m PMS-ing or I’m in bed and smoking cigarettes again.’ These things happen. There are plenty of people whose Instagrams I find it hard to relate to.”

Marzella’s rejection of the celebrity and art worlds she navigates with such ease is part of what attracts artists to her. There’s something alluring about how unaspirational her images are. Her photos are about the same things as everyone else’s – comfort, food, friends, new underwear – but there’s a messy self-awareness to her work that makes it more interesting than any other hot girl on your feed. Unlike most models, she uses her Instagram as a gallery, not a calling card. Her body of work, which is most easily represented by her own physical body, explores the way that people – from uptight teenage girls to salivating sugar daddies – experience desire. Where does the insecurity stop and the sexual attraction start? If you were completely satisfied with your own body, would you feel any less anxious? Is cataloguing that body – or any body – inherently narcissistic?

“She’s an artist, yes,” says Hari Nef, when I ask what catchall best describes Marzella. “And she’s a model, for sure... But I think she is too active and opinionated to be a muse. Ally is not malleable. She inspires people. She’s not sitting on anybody’s stool.”

Hair Takuya Sugawara at WSM using Bumble and bumble, make-up Michael Anthony using M.A.C, nails Katherine St Paul Hill at WSM using Butter London, photographic assistant Colin Sussingham, fashion assistant Kuschan Hojjatian

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