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Sarah Sitkin's work lets you try on another skin

Fresh from the launch of her latest show, Bodysuits, we talk to the LA based artist about her obsession with human bodies and all their imperfections

From digital artists to photographers, body sculpturists and hair stylists to makeup and nail artists, in our Spotlight series we profile the creatives tearing up the rule book in their respective industries.

“It’s a tragedy that our selves must be defined by our bodies, limited by our abilities, and that our bodies will ultimately kill us,” says LA-based artist Sarah Sitkin. Working with a variety of different materials including silicone clay, resin and latex, Sitkin’s sculptures offer visceral depictions of the human figure, often distorted into grotesque and nightmare-ish forms.

For her latest show Bodysuits, which opened at LA’s Superchief Gallery earlier this year, Sitkin created hyper-realistic simulated-skin suits. Molded from the naked bodies of real people, who she found through an Instagram open-call, visitors were invited to try these wearable sculptures and parade around in another person’s skin.

Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? How has your background shaped who you are as a person?
Sarah Sitkin: 
Growing up in Burbank, CA (basically ground zero for the entertainment industry), definitely influenced me in terms of my issues with artifice and personas. My peers were all descendants of that industry. There was a commonality we all shared that our parents were incredibly body conscious, and obsessed with creating the image of perfection. There was this plastic-wrap layer of bullshit that seemed to cover over everything. My parents having a retail business illuminated the hustle of branding and packaging, and I felt like I didn't have the same veil over my eyes as a lot of my peers.

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Sarah Sitkin: I remember more being conscious of my mom’s body before my own. I remember my mom going to battle with her weight using fad pills, diet clubs, exercise machines. She only had a couple family pictures where you could see her full body. One was her wedding photo and one picture is burned into my mind forever, where she is wearing a blue colour block one-piece in Hawaii on vacation, her impossibly trim figure lounging in a shallow hotel pool. She kept this picture on the wall for years, in fact it’s probably still up in her house now. The reason she was so thin in the pic was because she was taking a diet pill that ultimately destroyed her health and left her with a heart murmur. I remember my dad pointing to it on a couple of occasions to make a remark about how beautiful she looked in that photo.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Sarah Sitkin: I was very anti-celebrity and anti-brand. I was definitely all about trying to be as original as possible, as an act of dissent. Logomania was the trend era that dominated my childhood. I remember being so acutely aware of the artifice and disingenuine facade that celebrities, magazines, advertisements, and mainstream pop culture was trying to peddle. My friends were collaging their entire bedrooms with pics of Calvin Klein ads and Hanson posters, while I was weaving computer cables into my bed frame, glueing rocks and and shells to everything, and painting abstract murals on my walls.

What made you want to be an artist?
Sarah Sitkin: 
I just always have been an artist. My earliest memories are of being creative. There’s a piece of paper my mom has from second grade, in which I declared my ultimate aspiration was to be “the best artist in the world”. My parents fed the dream with a steady stream of damaged merchandise from their arts and crafts shop, Kit Kraft. I grew up pinching crusty clay into weird shapes, taking crude molds of my body in my bedroom, and smearing craft paint over every item I could get away with. When I was a teenager I started working at Kit Kraft and stayed active within the business until I was about 25, which was when I decided to make art my full time bag.

Where did you hone your craft?
Sarah Sitkin: I dropped out of high school in my sophomore year, and I continued my education on my own terms. Having access to the internet was everything. Having constant access to learn about anything, the ability to acquire any material from any corner of the earth and delivered to your door, to communicate with so many people across the world and share ideas. I still research and learn something new every day on the internet, I also love giving back and contributing to the same network that made me by giving tutorials and answering questions for other artists and craftspeople.

Tell us about your creative process.
Sarah Sitkin: I visualise a concept in my mind, and I examine it from a lot of different angles: emotionally, visually, and conceptually speaking. I keep editing it in my mind until it feels worth the great undertaking to create it. Then I make sketches, which become prototypes, and when I finally have the complete and solid concept, and the tools and process to execute it. I dive into it and make it happen with a fierce unshakable focus. I will work for weeks or months straight, no days off until it's done.

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject?
Sarah Sitkin: 
I’ll be honest, I really don’t ‘get’ the obsession with beauty. I am not moved by beauty, motivated by beauty or drawn to it. Of course we all use the word in our own ways to describe things that are pleasurable, but the consensus of what is beauty is desperate and absurd. I’m embarrassed when I have to use conventional beauty as part of my presentation or artwork.

How do you perceive the relationship between the physical body and individual identity?
Sarah Sitkin: I think about this all the time – the divide between my body and my Self. I feel the self exists outside the context of my body, and that I’m still myself even if my body changes beyond recognition.

You use the most universally recognisable parts of the body, things that we are very familiar with and mostly all share. So why is it that people are unsettled by your work?
Sarah Sitkin: 
Right, I know! Aside from obvious taboos about nudity, the body is the source of so much painful insecurity. People look into the mirror and instinctually contort their faces and bodies; raise the eyebrows, pout the lips, tilt the head, arch the back, tighten the abdomen, etc. Everyone has a ‘mirror self’ that they involuntarily express. We are inundated with selfies from everyone in our lives – pics of everyone from their best angle, best light, living their best life. Seeing a body presented in a natural state without regard for beauty can really trigger an insecure person. It poses questions that some people don’t want to be asked.

You’ve mentioned being embarrassed by having to censor genitals and nipples in order to share your work on social media. Why do you think people are so shocked by the naked body?
Sarah Sitkin: It saddens me how we are forced to maintain the sexualisation of bodies though social customs like censorship and fashion. To be real, I totally don’t understand a lot about people in general, life feels like a rave where everyone is tripping on their own version of reality.

Do you intentionally try to be provocative with your art?
Sarah Sitkin: To say I’m not aware that my work is provocative would be outright bullshit. If an experience does not interrupt the norm, it has no impact, it facilitates no growth. I’m not intentionally and explicitly making exclusively provocative work- the things I’m exploring creatively are reflections of my dilemmas, my own issues, my own questions. And I’m really happy to know I’m not the only one struggling with these concepts, that I'm not alone in the darkness.

What’s the most significant thing you’ve learnt over the course of your career? Would you have done anything differently?
Sarah Sitkin: I’m still learning, growing, and changing. I’m sure the purpose of this question is to help inspire someone else to make better choices – but honestly I learned everything from allowing myself to fail, making bad decisions, and working under shitty circumstances. I wouldn’t change anything, mistakes are where you learn how to do it right.

What is the future of beauty?
Sarah Sitkin: Probably everyone living as idealised rendered digital avatars in a digital universe and nobody leaves the house because everything is delivery only.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?
Sarah Sitkin: Jim Swill is a video artist in LA who is making some really great spoken word pieces narrated over video clips. Joe Holiday is just a living and breathing conceptual piece of art that never ceases to make me rethink everything. Brad Troemel helps keep my sanity with a much needed dose of art world humor. Andy the Doorbum is an incredible performing artist and will make you weep openly in a room full of strangers.