Interview with the Hackney girl turning heads in the art world
Zöe Buckman is the mind and hands behind ‘Present Life’, a body of work largely inspired by the birth of her daughter Cleo, who’s turning four in May. It addresses the process of life and thus, death in all mediums from photography to sculpture.
Born in Hackney in 1985, Zöe bounced around different media, experimenting with textiles and art in school. Moving to New York to study photography in 2008, her focus tended toward stories of women. Buckman found lens-based work limiting: “I felt I wasn’t using my hands as much.” Now she’s combining all those skills to form her ventures.
Having grown up in an activist family, this translates into her work. “My family has a theatre background and I think that feeds into my work because a lot of it is quite dramatic, quite staged.” She tackles the relationship between feminism and hip-hop with second endeavour ‘Every Curve’, currently kept in her East London studio. Rap lyrics from Notorious B.I.G and Tupac are hand embroidered onto vintage lingerie. At times, the rap artists’ words suit the clothing, while other times the statements are contradictory.
‘Present Life’ is a sort of time capsule, as Zöe takes elements from the time she became a mother. Dreams she had while pregnant inspired poems embroidered onto lace while photographs of decaying flowers given to her postpartum, wrapped in a bin bag, represent the moment something living begins to die. Having been told her placenta had started to deplete following the delivery of her child, the organ has been preserved through plastination and encased in marble. Several hand-blown hourglasses feature “all flawed and a bit wonky,” symbolising time passing and the female form.
We speak to her a week ahead of the end of her ‘Present Life’ show at Garis & Hahn gallery in New York, joking that when she has another child she’ll have to do another show or they’ll feel left out. “Too bad,” she says. “Mum, I’m mortified, my older sisters placenta is in that artwork and I didn’t get a look in.’ Oh well,” she giggles.
Do you have a favourite medium or do you keep it mixed up?
I like to work with whatever feels right for the given project. If it’s something quite expressive and playful then neon might work best, and if it’s about frigidity or if it’s from the body, I feel like glass is good for that, because it feels quite organic. Other times, a photograph is a perfect way to express something, as it is that documentation.
Had you thought about doing a project on mortality before childbirth?
Zöe: No. It was something I was thinking about and definitely dreaming about when I was pregnant. My experiences of the birth and with the placenta started that exploration about mortality and death. That cycle. Before I was pregnant, I really didn’t think about it, when people would bring it up, I thought: “What’s the big deal thinking about that shit? Here we are, we’re alive now.” And finally, I got it. We’re definitely 100% all going to die. Even my beautiful daughter – this perfect little being. It’s inevitable, beautiful and unfair.
When did you decide to get your placenta plastinated?
Zöe: After the birth I remember thinking: “Wow, I didn’t know anything about that organ, I can’t believe it almost depleted and almost led to a stillbirth and I had no idea. I want to find a way of making it permanent,” because it’s kind of in between life and death. I took a photo of it and put it in my freezer and started looking into how I could embalm it. I came up against nothing. I think lots of people thought I was a prank caller, places literally just put their phone down on me. Then I remembered the Institute for Plastination in Germany and they took it, no questions asked. It was completely mind-blowing.
Zöe: After I mentioned something about having to go the gallery for a meeting, she recently said to me, “Oh yeah the gallery for your show, with your period in it.” I told her, “I don’t have my period in the show.”
Being told your placenta may have depleted made you want to focus on it?
Zöe: Yes. Not because I think placentas are particularly interesting or amazing, more taking that organ and its journey as a metaphor for life. We have a job to do and hopefully we do it, then we deplete, we decay and shed.
You’ve stitched lace with dreams during your pregnancy. Do you keep a dream diary?
Zöe: Only when I was pregnant, when I woke up from something, which felt very vivid or powerful, I would jot it down. Generally, I don’t. During pregnancy, your hormones are going haywire and obviously there’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. I’ve spoken to lots of mothers who had dreams they’d given birth, but what they’d given birth to wasn’t human. Being pregnant for the first time, you feel like this thing is off your body but not. It’s very strange.
I read your grandmother told you in the dream that having a child for a mother is like entering the nighttime of your life. Was that a very vivid dream?
Zöe: Even now I remember every detail of it. I wrote it down and then typed them up at some point. I completely forgot about them until I was getting the show together and thinking about how I wanted to use the space. Then I realised if I was going to use the downstairs as well, I wanted to enter a deeper, lower level of the project and myself. So I started thinking about the subconscious and then I remembered I had that document. I re-read them, this was only last October, and saw all this text and it felt right because I’d been using embroidery for ‘Every Curve’ anyway, so I was kind of in embroidery mode.
Since childbirth I imagine your daughter inspires you massively, do you feel you’re in the nighttime of your life?
Zöe: I feel in a way I’ve fulfilled a certain human inevitability or imperative. One of the things we’re put here to do is procreate, we have a choice, but I chose to do that. I feel I’ve entered this other stage. In some ways, it does feel like a later stage, where I’m responsible for someone. Having said that, it’s amazing, it’s so much fun and creatively liberating as well.
What started the concept of ’Every Curve’ for you?
Zöe: I’d always wanted to do something with feminism and hip-hop, those two influences within myself. The vintage lingerie just felt kind of perfect, with the lingerie being representative of the female form and being so intimate with women throughout history. It was always just going to be Biggie and Tupac, because they represent for me, the two pillars of rap. I took a pair of knickers and I stitched in some lyrics from ‘Dear Mama’ by Tupac and I thought, “I think I’m going to like this,” and just kept going.
What’s the connection you are trying to make?
Zöe: Allowing people to examine it as text, therefore really letting the words speak to them. The really misogynistic, violent words are more resonant and powerful when you see it written out, as opposed to when your brain sort of skips past them when you listen to the song. I’m also interested in showing that there is a side to hip-hop that is very positive and uplifting, and people shouldn’t be so judgmental.
I want people to look at the effect of it, I also want them to realise just because someone’s a rapper doesn’t mean they hate on women.
There is the dichotomy within the work, these polars. I want people to look at the effect of it, I also want them to realise just because someone’s a rapper doesn’t mean they hate on women. That’s prejudice in itself. I’m trying to show both sides with it.
Do you have any ideas for the next theme of work?
Zöe: I’m putting together a public art project. Taking text from movies and TV that depict sexual violence against women and hopefully laser cutting those out of mannequin legs and powder coating them. I just have to work out how to create these sculptural pieces. The idea is they will stand like an army of them. It will hopefully be quite an impactful, public art piece.