Jessica Voorsanger is a multimedia artist who has just joined the teaching staff for the MFA at Wimbledon. While she uses a wide range of media, her work throughout her career has revolved round some constant themes related to popular culture.
And this was her starting point: yes, 1980s teen heartthrob David Cassidy. Jessica was a huge fan and collected memorabilia related to the TV series in which he starred, The Partridge Family. When she moved to the UK, this collection came with her and became the basis of a series of works about the relationship between the idol and the fan.
Jessica is a great story teller and her account of being commissioned to interview David Cassidy in 2002 for What’s On in London was hilarious. Needless to say, things didn’t go smoothly, in the tradition of people-meeting-their-teenage-idol-later-in-life but that just seemed to renew her enthusiasm for exploring the role of idols in our lives.
One series that ended up with ramifications in her real life was her mail art projects. It started around 1995 when she wrote to 77 celebrities asking them for an autographed photograph for a supposed teenage fan. She didn’t send an envelope or postage for the reply, wanting to see how people would react. She got 33 responses ranging from mass-produced ‘signed’ cards to handwritten letters.
For The Birthday Party, she got her father to write enclosing a (cheap commercial) birthday card, asking for the celebrity to sign it as a birthday surprise. Some just signed the card; others altered it – Jeff Koons drew a birthday cake inside; while others sent a different – better! – card back – Nicolas Serota sent a Turner postcard. These replies formed the basis of an installation that also involved balloons and cake.
Things got a bit out of hand when her husband, the artist Bob & Roberta Smith wrote to 55 celebrities claiming that they were thinking of naming their new baby after the celebrity and asking them to return a ‘best wishes’ card. Jessica was touched by the kind replies and felt a bit guilty about the manipulative nature of the request. The upshot was that while they chose their daughter’s first name, she also has 8 middle names from celebrities with the most personal responses!
She went on to talk about projects that she described as having a performance element – Fanagrams where people could be sent an instant fan club of screaming teenage girls wanting an autograph – to a Star Trek TV set where people could dress up as Star Trek characters and act out scenes. She was both questioning what it meant to be a celebrity and offering everyone and anyone a chance to ‘be on TV’. She wants to create a dual sense of laughter and fun, alongside some discomfort about the set up.
The idea of ‘dressing up’ was the basis of a project with young people at the Louis Vuitton academy, where actors were invited to be photographed as other celebrities. Jonathan Rhind Tutt became Sophonisba Anguissola and Louise Bourgeois; operator failure on my part resulted in this photo combining both.
When she was having cancer treatment through 2012 (and after I think) she didn’t have the energy to do much work. But she was able to organise a series of ‘dressing up’ photographs where, taking advantage of her baldness, she took the part of famous bald men. And then after chemotherapy, as her hair grew back in tight curls, she made another series of Curly-haired Men. Both series were a response to feeling that she ‘wanted to look like me’ again, not like someone else.
She ended with a section on her collage and drawing practice, which she contrasted with her other work by saying that this had no set outcome, so there could be no failures, no disasters. She works on vintage photographs of buildings and streets, adding collage images and then drawing. The collaged images are again drawn from popular culture, mostly faces of actual or would-be celebs.
I’m left with the impression of an artist with huge energy and enthusiasm for subjects that some might consider peripheral and low-brow, but which she uses to raise questions about the function of celebrities in our lives and our own wish ‘to be somebody.’