SARAH BAKER:

A MUSE OF POWER

by Gemma de Cruz for The Saatchi Gallery Art & Music Magazine, Issue 22 Summer 2013


When I meet Sarah Baker at St Pancras train station, I am conscious that I keep looking at her face for longer than socially acceptable amounts of time; I apologise but keep doing it, she’s fine about it, which made me think she gets that a lot. I could hear myself saying really stupid things to her like, “You look so normal, you have mousey hair, you look like someone who's natural and doesn’t wear make up”. “Most of the time I don’t", she says. But, my experience of girls and make up is that they either wear it or they don’t and if they are in the ‘wear it’ category you rarely see them without it. The reason I keep staring at her, and making stupid comments, is that I am trying to reconcile this girl-about-town look with the ‘art version’ of Sarah Baker, as she is on our cover and in the photos within this feature: the glossed over, vamped up, made-up, nailed up, magazine pin-upped-up Sarah Baker.

Tall, dressed in patterned jeans and warm coat, Sarah is naturally pretty, she certainly doesn’t 'need' make up; she has a gentle, smiley manner about her and although she's been in London now for 12 years, still has her Buffalo, New York twang. We're on our way to see Sarah's show at the museum of St Albans, in Hertfordshire. It's only 20 minutes out of London, so for me it's actually quicker to get there than it is to Hackney, and as we zip through the commuter belt we discuss Lena Dunham, Mad Men, Lindsay Lohan and... oh yeah, whether provincial galleries are ‘the new East End’.

The first part of the show (a survey of works from 2002-2012) includes a mix of Sarah's self portraits including Sarah Baker Cakes, comprising a cover and spread for a magazine called Vague, and The One, a life-sized cardboard cut-out of her dressed entirely in what appear to be designer scarves. The photographs show Sarah made-up and accessorized to replicate styling commonly found in glossy magazines crossed with the 'type' of person you'd find on reality TV shows. Think Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian - vain socialites, famous for being famous, dripping with glitz and designer labels. In a way, these photographs are meant as a parody of both the styling and of the styled, but more than that they show how easy it is to emulate a perceived aesthetic to read as authentic. Taken out of context, however, it's easy to see how certain techniques incite specific reactions and act as visual shorthand for something to be immediately eye-catching, sexy and provocative.

I had always thought that Sarah's work was related to Cindy Sherman, because it involves in-depth dressing up and ‘becoming’ somebody else, ‘a character’, for the purpose of a single photograph. But, as Sarah points out, although she was re-inventing herself for one specific image, it was still always meant to be her, or, that is, a ‘branded’ version of her.

That is what’s most interesting about this body of work; everything involved in its making from the nails, the hair, the props to the fact that it is first shown in a magazine (rather than a gallery) contributes to turning Sarah Baker the person, into Sarah Baker the brand. Usually, brands use marketing to sell a product; Sarah’s marketing is being used to sell a product too, except her product is actually the marketing itself, she explains. “Sure, there is a connection to Cindy Sherman but my specific intention was to create a brand that would be seen in magazines, and to push the boundaries of what an artist's 'brand' could be", she continues, "But, ultimately it's a superficial endeavour because it's talking about superficiality. It left me with a candy coated shell." When Sarah says this, it makes me think of the Andy Warhol quote, "I am a deeply superficial person."

Sarah's work is filled with ideas about re-invention and disguise; by drawing on social masks and visual manipulation these works discuss the relevance of what many women aspire to be – wealthy, beautiful, overloaded with anything they want – ideas fed to them through TV programmes (of both the reality and fictional kind) about so-and-so's rich, famous, fabulous life, and reinforced by relentless images of them in the tabloids. Sarah deconstructs these supposedly 'aspirational' lifestyles by breaking down their accumulative parts, effectively exposing them as simply that – props. In doing this she also questions views attached to wealth and women, and what women can achieve based purely on their appearance. "These self portraits are about presenting oneself as being really wealthy, or over-the-top, or arrogant”, Sarah explains, “and questions 'what does rich look like?' and 'what does it mean to despise the rich?' The bourgeoisie look down their noses at the super rich and the rich are looking down on those who are not rich but want to look rich."

I'm interested that Sarah is talking about society rather than the media and start seeing a broader feminist slant in her work; not because she's selling it to me like that at all but because of the way she confronts the subjects within it. In many ways she actively turns herself into the kind of woman many traditional feminists would regard as shallow and vacuous, but in doing so she also somehow reclaims those assumptions. This attitude owes a lot to Sarah's interest in how Jackie Collins has portrayed women since the late 60s as strong, willful, and beautiful; they are empowered by knowing how to be in control of their sexuality and appearance and know how to use that to their advantage. This attitude is evident in Sarah's Time Piece, originally made as an online work it's design is lifted from a Tom Ford perfume ad and pictures Sarah as both submissive and seductive.

There's one work in the show that is almost a connecting link between the 'brand Sarah Baker' portraits and the work of Cindy Sherman, a double photograph of Sarah as Laura Palmer the murdered prom queen from David Lynch’s cult TV show, Twin Peaks. We're standing in front of the larger-than-life-sized portraits and I ask Sarah what had led her to making this work. "I was interested in re-creating these images because one shows Laura Palmer at her prime and in the other she is dead”, she says. “In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer is seen more in the form of these photographic props than as a living person - they're always showing the prom photo on the sideboard at the Palmers’ house, and the corpse image is always being taken out of the detective’s folder. The two images become what Laura Palmer is, so I am essentially recreating the props rather than the person". She continues with a smile "I have been told that i look like Laura Palmer by so many people, especially after I arrived in the UK. I think people see me as the American cheerleader 'type'... It's not my face, it’s the brand I represent and maybe the clothes I wear. So it's more in synchronization with the earlier self portraits than it first appears, for me it’s about confronting those superficial judgments."

This interest in branding and character study led Sarah to write, direct, and produce a soap opera complete with overlapping plot lines and brimming with intrigue and corruption. The subject is Buffalo, Sarah's hometown where in 2012 she did a residency at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center (a public art space founded by Cindy Sherman) which is where she produced the one off 35 minute film. "Our Time" is pretty much like any other daytime soap, and with its eerie music and dramatic close- ups wouldn't seem out of place scheduled right after Loose Women on a Wednesday afternoon. Although this is a work of fiction, Sarah included real places and people from Buffalo, and features real commercial breaks sponsored by paid local advertisers, one of which is for a pawn shop and starred Sarah herself. This blurring of reality and fiction isn’t immediately obvious, but there’s definitely a sense of 'real' place that is often lacking in a regular soap opera, particularly those filmed in a studio.

I'm still feeling pretty impressed with the notion that Sarah created her own fictional soap opera as we walk through to the second part of the St Albans show, which includes a new 50-minute film. I wasn't expecting this; when an artist tells you they've made a 'film' (unless it's Christian Marclay, perhaps), it usually implies some kind of three-minute affair. So when Sarah goes off to switch on the projector I'm trying to think of a polite way to say, can you just send me this on DVD? However, by the time she returns, the film is ten minutes in and I'm rooted to my seat; forget the DVD, where's the popcorn?

Impirioso tells the story of the volatile relationship between an Italian fashion magnate, Rocco Rosso and his wife, Luccia Lucci, amidst the backdrop of their decadent life. We see Luccia become a pantomime villain, intent on revenge, after her husband derides and dashes her ambitions to launch a home-wear line by selling off his designer clothing empire. The film is filled with characters that could have stepped out of any Jackie Collins novel: an evil teenage twin, a rich bitch mistress, a psychic best friend, a handsome illegitimate son, a naïve, love-struck housemaid. What's also interesting is that the Rocco Rosso (‘RR’) logo within the staging and costumes is also the same branding used for the film’s idents somehow increasing the plausibility of the RR as an actual brand.

Impirioso brings together many of the ideas that have been bubbling in Sarah’s work: branding, superficial appearances, wealth, conflict, greed and the flip-side – when (and why) having it all still isn't enough. If the themes of sex, revenge, astrology and handbags sound familiar, there is a reason. Impirioso was inspired by the events surrounding the controversial Gucci murder case in 1998 which lead to Patrizia Reggiani receiving a 29-year prison sentence for the killing of her ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci. Also convicted were a hired hit man and Reggiani's personal psychic, Guiseppina Auriemma, along with two further accomplices.

Sarah's script takes the murder case as a narrative starting point but it's fleshed out with additional twists and turns that hook the viewer, all of which could be further developed into an ongoing series, although she points out, "The [original] story is so fucking outrageous it doesn't even need embellishing, Patrizia Reggiani supposedly did conspire with her fortune-telling psychic best friend and a chauffeur.”

This stranger-than-fiction quality, combined with her original idea for the film to replicate “an episode of Dynasty", imbues Impirioso with a deliberate, made-for-TV aesthetic. "I wanted it to have that look and feel, harking back to TV from 20 or even 40 years ago", Sarah explains. "I wanted the aesthetics of the female characters to resemble wealthy women from the ’80s, relating particularly to Joan and Jackie Collins… where a woman could be dressed head to toe in Yves Saint Laurent and walk into a board room and kick ass".

I ask her about the implications of 'borrowing' the plot line of what was actually dubbed in the press a 'real life soap opera'. "I created a totally fictitious story, all fake names, and I invented an entire fashion brand" she replies, "Yeah, the real murder of Maurizio Gucci is the appropriated back story, but because I completely fictionalized the characters I have no responsibility for an accurate portrayal of reality. It wasn't made to be broadcast on TV. I think I'm in the clear".

Impirioso borrows its staging and dramatic tension from TV drama, but within the story there's also an echo of F. Scott Fitzgerald's portrayal of the rich as emotionally destined to fail. These characters were usually set against those who were seduced by the allure of what wealth could offer them essentially a poisoned chalice that would eventually lead to their downfall.

Luccia Lucci could be Dick Diver (from Tender is the Night) or Jay Gatsby (from The Great Gatsby), or indeed any character that ever attempted to 'buy' into a lifestyle. "That's what attracted me to Patricia Reggiani's story", says Sarah. "She came from a meagre background; her mother was a waitress in a diner and her father was a truck driver. She was looking for a rich husband and she found Maurizio Gucci; she embraced the life but, of course, that life is in itself inauthentic. She designed a jewelry line for Gucci that was gaudy; it was giant pieces made with real gems, and the rich who could afford to spend that much didn't want it. She was kind of crazy; I think she lost her mind from being status-obsessed. When they offered her parole she was quoted in the papers as saying 'I have never worked a day in my life and I won't start now'".

As we’re watching the film, Sarah casually drops names of the actors into the conversation; "That's Olivia D'Abo, playing Luccia; I grew up watching her in The Wonder Years". I ask her about the ‘RR’ costumes and props Sarah tells they were designed and handmade exclusively for the film. She designed the 'RR' monogram, screen-printed wall paper and fabrics and worked with costume makers, a milliner, and a fan maker. While she is matter of fact about the process of making the film I sense a steely determination beneath it all. "I spent more than the £22,000 budget, and that doesn't include my time or the Hatfield House location fee which was given to us free”, she reveals. “I could have done a much simpler piece and pocketed some cash- but everything went into the art. Some of the people I collaborated with did things for trade, because I ran out of money. I spent a lot of time on it, I was completely shot afterwards".

Those extra hours clearly paid off as her film greatly exceeds its modest budget. I can’t help thinking that Sarah is so Goldsmiths' once she has the idea she will do whatever it takes to get her work made and, most importantly, get it right. Sarah's approach is what defines her as an artist who is worth paying attention; she is equal parts ideas, ambition and professionalism.

As I'm watching Impirioso I'm thinking about the differences between art films and commercial films, specifically the work of Sam Taylor-Wood, or Julian Schnabel. While some artists do move into commercial film, they often have to leave a lot of what made their art unique behind them in order to fit the commercial mould. What's different about Sarah's work is that it's taken her full circle: her art is already 'about' TV, revisiting the representations of wealth, soft-focus and the kind of camp, melodramatic suspense that kept viewers tuned into Dynasty throughout the ’80s. Sarah's photographs and films borrow a visual language that belongs to advertising and television, and that makes her work instantly accessible but it's how she uses those pre-existing constructs to critique the values that they have endorsed that makes her work interesting.

I ask Sarah if she would ever consider a straight TV project? She thinks for a moment then replies, "If a big TV network approached me to write a TV show, as HBO did with Lena Dunham, I would of course take the opportunity. In the meantime I am enjoying not having to compromise the work to other people's demands and ideas of what an audience wants. I have the freedom to do whatever I want."