GREATEST / ELIZA DOUGLAS

The Balenciaga muse and multimedia artist talks NYC adolescence, media misrepresentation and Demna’s prolific creativity.

WRITER: Harriet Shepherd PHOTOGRAPHER: Michael Marcelle STYLING: Eliza Douglas HAIR & MAKEUP: Jakob Sherwood PHOTO ASSISTANT: Brian Galderisi STYLING ASSISTANT: Kerry McCabe
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Eliza Douglas is a living insignia of Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga. Over the last six years, the New York native has opened or closed every one of the house’s shows since the creative director’s tenure began in 2015. Between countless fashion commitments and the demands of a burgeoning solo career, the seemingly imperturbable artist is unfathomably booked and busy.

On April 3, Eliza was on a rooftop in Ridgewood, Queens, posing for a shoot with her former Bard roommate, photographer Michael Marcelle. Five days later, she was in Paris with Demna, doing fittings for both Balenciaga’s ready-to-wear show and upcoming couture presentation. Simultaneously, six of the artist’s new paintings—a series of swirling, psychedelic Disney distortions rendered like scrunched up T-shirts—were on display at her facetiously titled “WHITNEY BIENNIAL” show in Oslo. Before we could even finish our conversation, she was stateside again.

Some artists aspire to inimitability, but that’s not Eliza’s style. Her paintings appropriate motifs from pop and consumer culture, and she often employs others’ handiwork to raise questions about authorship and authenticity. Last June, her face was cloned 43 times for Balenciaga’s SS22 digital runway. But the initial buzz about Eliza stemmed from an energy no algorithm could replicate. She is magnetic, embodying the ineffable aura some call “star power,” first coming to the art world’s attention for her confronting performances in the work of her former partner, Anne Imhof. 

Meeting for the first time in 2015, Eliza quickly became the artist’s closest collaborator, and has played a critical role in shaping Imhof’s era-defining work. In Faust, a perturbing critique of power that earned Imhof the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion in 2017, Eliza crawled beneath panes of glass the audience walked on, dancing and screaming. In Sex, her haunting vocals reverberated through the Tate’s subterranean Tanks gallery. Discussing the performance, Imhof told Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco, “There's an energy release I haven’t seen ever [before].”

Styled in head-to-toe Balenciaga, Eliza reflects on the makings of herself, the transformative power of her first nightlife experience and what it means to be a muse in the era of the Kardashians.

You’re currently in Paris, and based between Berlin and New York. As someone who moves around a lot, do you feel like your surroundings affect your sense of self? Especially when you’re residing in cities with such strong identities and energies, do you feel you shapeshift?

When I’m in Berlin, I am very hermetic; I basically just spend time with a few friends. I am not integrated into the city at all, which is partially inevitable, and partially due to the lack of effort I have made. But it can be pretty alienating. New York is different. I grew up there, as did four generations of my family. I was raised in the same house my grandmother was! I still live next door to her. In NYC I have so many memories, relationships and I know how things work here, so I feel more like "myself"[...] whatever that means.

We can’t talk about self-discovery without touching on adolescence. There are so many generic things I could ask: What age did you get your first tattoo? What’s your most regrettable teenage style phase? Who was your first crush? How was your teenage disposition? What music did you listen to? What was the first club you went to? What’s the first book you read that you fell in love with? But these are clichéd life “milestones” for a reason. I’ll let you expand on whatever you feel is relevant.

I have had crushes on women for as long as I can remember. There was Carrie, my nursery school teacher. There were babysitters [...] I loved older girls. My first tattoo is an "N" for my friend Nellie that I got when I was 17; a kid at my school made a tattoo gun out of a toothbrush and a Walkman motor. I am not sure if this was my first nightlife experience, but in high school I went to this lesbian bar called Meow Mix. I was so nervous and completely blown away by it.

You were scouted for modeling at 12, something that opened you up to a lot of rejection at an early age. How did that kind of rejection and criticism affect you?

Despite the fact that in my recent life I have ended up in contexts that would presumably be very validating to my appearance, I still often see something grotesque when I look in the mirror. Being told various parts of me were somehow wrong at a young age probably contributed to this, but I assume it is more a result of gender dysphoria and other stuff relating to my childhood. I also was not considered good-looking by my peers. In grade school I was voted the "ugliest girl" in my class when the boys took a poll. My androgyny was not something that was celebrated until much later in my life.

In your teenage years, you decided to go to Bard. I want to talk about what led you there. If I’m not mistaken, your mom was a schoolteacher and your father was a lawyer. Were you always creative? 

I chose Bard because I loved photography and that was what I wanted to pursue. I spent all my free time in high school in the darkroom. It was the first art form I really connected with. My mom is not a professional photographer, but she could have been, and it was very present in our lives, so I assume that had a role. But yes, my family doesn't really have artists in it, and I didn't grow up knowing any. Of course, what your parents are not can be just as developmentally formative as what they are. 

People often think of “self-discovery” as something that comes from within, but there are so many external influences that inspire us and allow us to better understand ourselves. Are there any particular works of art, literature or music that stand out as pivotal examples of that for you?

I had Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York on cassette and really loved that. My high school was near the Guggenheim and I saw The Cremaster Cycle [by artist Matthew Barney]. I must have been very impressed because I kept going back and saw all five of the films. I still wear a Cremaster hoodie that I got in the museum gift shop. Then, when I was around 20, I started touring in bands. I was really lucky that I was exposed to so many amazing bands and musicians in that time, and got to see and play so much live music. Antony and the Johnsons, Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie, Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, Bert Jansch...

Similarly, our relationships with others awaken different parts of us. You said you never really performed in that way until you met and worked with Anne, for example, yet it’s something that seems so instinctive when watching you. That must have been a significant moment in your self-discovery.

Yes. When I played in bands I was usually a background member, and I had to get really drunk to be able to go on stage. After that, there were quite a few years where I didn't do anything in front of an audience. Anne encouraged me to perform in her work and also had confidence in me that I couldn't muster for myself. Performing in the context of Anne's work is so specific; there is nothing else like it. I am uniquely suited for it, and have become more and more so as I have increasingly helped shape the nature of the work itself. I think that me functioning well in it also has something to do with the fact that I am able to stay myself when I perform. 

Anne has been very open about the impact you’ve had on her art. What parts of yourself and your personality do you feel you channel into performance that ultimately shape the way it’s read and received? 

In addition to performing and working on the music, I have also done the styling and casting for a few years now. There is a lot of me in there: my taste in music, my sense of style, people I have sought out or met along the way. And while I get Anne's feedback, everything I do performance-wise is self-determined. I am, of course, keeping in mind what will work well within her world, but I come up with the ideas for some of the scenes, and I decide what I do in them. I choose the text that I speak, I write the music I perform, and I decide what I will do physically. 

I don’t have a very detailed sense of how it has been received—in general I try to avoid reading press. Clearly it has been successful though. And while I have been a big part in shaping it, if Anne had never met me, I have no doubt her work would still be successful. 

You mentioned on set that a lot of people haven't really been able to "figure out" what you do or who you are as an artist. Where do you get this feeling the most? Is it more from the general internet population, or have you often felt misrepresented or misunderstood by journalists?

I’ve gotten my share of negative Instagram comments, but I have learned to avoid looking at them as much as possible; I think that is a risk one has to assume as a public figure. Some journalists' perceptions have probably been what has hurt the most, because they would presumably be more informed, and be giving deeper thought to the work. 

How do you deal with that?

All I can really do is try to adjust my expectations and reactions, because the only thing I can change is myself. I can also focus on the good more, because there have been people that have made me feel recognized and appreciated for what I do. I am especially grateful to Catherine Wood, who was the first curator to really get that.

In the same vein, what do you want people to know about you?

It depends on the person and context. I try to keep in mind that what other people think is none of my business.

How do you feel about the term “muse,”and how would you describe your relationship with Demna Gvasalia?

In this context, I don't find being called a “muse” problematic; I take it as a compliment. It’s funny, I don’t think Demna himself would call me his muse. I am proud to be associated with Demna and his work, and it has brought a lot of joy to my life to be a part of these projects; especially given that I was there from his first show at Balenciaga and have gotten to witness the evolution of his tenure at the brand firsthand. But Demna is almost freakishly prolific, a fountain of creativity who is always one step ahead. Demna doesn't need a muse.

I’m quoting a tweet from fashion journalist and critic Rachel Seville Tashijan, who said: “I don't think we fully appreciate that Balenciaga went from having Eliza Douglas as its primary muse to Kim Kardashian. A wild and unprecedented pivot from cult Berlin-based icon to irrepressibly omnipresent celebrity whose existence turns every place in the world into Calabasas.” How do you feel about that, and about the intersection of fashion and celebrity?

It’s a strange statement given that I seem to have the same position at Balenciaga as I’ve always had, and I don’t feel replaced. I think [Kim] and I have very different implications and functions within the brand, and if anything it shows that the brand is broad enough to encompass a real range of representative identities.

A large part of Balenciaga’s success has been its ability to speak to these different identities through platforms like Instagram. How much of the time do you enjoy social media, and how much do you view it as a necessary evil? 

I enjoy it sometimes and also think it is evil, but I don’t think it is necessary.

I saw on a corner of Reddit that someone has one of your hand-paintings tattooed on them. What’s been the most surreal moment of career recognition for you so far?

That is definitely surreal, but nothing beats my first show, which was at [the gallery] Air de Paris; the transition from something being a dream to it being actualized was profound.

Talk to me about your show, “THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL.” It’s the second time you’ve transformed the inside of a gallery into another institution.

Yes, I covered all the walls of the gallery with images of the Whitney Museum, and then hung my paintings on top, which creates an optical illusion of sorts. I chose the Whitney partially because I knew that the actual Whitney Biennial would overlap with it. I like weird, unusual titles, especially titles that cause confusion. Because of this, some people have thought my work is in the Biennial, which is funny. And I joke that now I can put "the Whitney Biennial" on my CV.

As an artist, your output is visible and traceable. You’re always growing, but you’re perhaps not afforded the same leeway for making “mistakes” as people whose work unfolds outside of the public eye. Do you ever make something, and then regret it once it’s out in the world?

There are definitely some paintings I like more than others, but so far I haven't experienced much regret. I am not very precious about art in general.

What work are you proudest of?

Again I can't help but think of the beginning of my career, because that was also the time when I made a radical change in my life and took on a lot of personal risk. The first paintings I made were abstract and not particularly good, but I know how brave I had to be to make them, so I am proud of them. I am also proud that I composed the music for [Imhof’s] Natures Mortes, because I had to teach myself so much to be able to do that, and again, it took bravery to take on the kind of responsibility that the project required.

How would your parents describe you?

I figured I might as well ask one of them. My dad says, "loyal, creative, demanding, intuitive, energetic, empathetic, smart."

How would your friends describe you?

Sincere, sensitive, generous, anxious, cozy, sometimes preoccupied.