Alice Naegel: Dress me up, I’m your doll
Alice Naegel is dressed in all-black with a perfectly placed sleek hairband and oodles of eye make-up. She’s in a shared studio in the art wing of Central Saint Martins surrounded by her mannequins. Male, female, headless, leg-less, with wigs and hats, sitting, standing – all types, and all the subject of her creative energies.
The 23-year-old French artist from Strasbourg studied fashion design at LISAA, Paris before she realised that it’s the face and body that she appreciates more than the clothes that adorn them. “I want my art to make people feel confused. Maybe a little scared. Good art is when it makes you feel something,” says an assured Alice in a France-meets-England accent, as she dabs a layer of blue glitter around her grey-green eyes.
The third-year fine art 4D Central Saint Martins student does performance art with mannequins. Note: not just ANY mannequin. “They’re my second family. I started as a collector six years ago. I’m attracted to the perfect-imperfect beauty of mannequins. They’re plastic versions of humans, with extremely symmetrical features. What’s really special and interesting is that in the 60s they had glass eyes, long eyelashes and eye make-up, but today they are faceless. The history and era they define fascinates me.” She gracefully blinks her red, white and blue false lashes. “It’s the French flag.”
“LAURA HERE IS FROM AN OLD SHOP IN BAGNOLET. IT WAS A VINTAGE SHOP AND SHE WAS DRESSED IN RETRO CLOTHES. THE SHOP OWNER WASN’T WILLING TO SELL THE MANNEQUIN TO ME. I WENT BACK THE NEXT DAY, EXPLAINED MY PROJECT TO HIM, SHOWED HIM PICTURES, AND VOILÀ HERE SHE IS!”
The artist’s most recent project had her carrying John the mannequin’s head, peeking out of her backpack while she rode the subway, ate in the cafeteria, attended lectures and even slept in her bed. A metaphor for ‘my conscience never leaves me.’ I want to know her next assignment. “A cast of my face fixed atop a mannequin’s body.” The sculpture will suggest no borders, entering the doll’s body and becoming one with it – “half Alice, half mannequin,” she gesticulates to make me understand.
“How it all started is actually quite a short story,” she laughs. “I was 14, in therapy, dealing with a mother who was absent on-and-off, and the therapist asked me to put my family into objects – anthropomorphism. A fluffy bear for someone I liked and a rock for someone I didn’t. It felt so easy and made me feel powerful. Every artist has a starting point, this was mine,” she says matter-of-factly. Throughout our conversation Alice refers to the Freudian concept of childhood and its effects on adult life – a subject that she’s read volumes on and perhaps even lived.
She caresses the soft bright orange faux fur that drapes her work desk where we are seated. She’s sitting across from me on a leopard print upholstered chair, as she continues: “My parents are both in the food business and own a nice French pastry shop. Their life is a cycle of waking up at 3 in the morning, finishing at 7 at night – so knackered by the end of it, they just want to go to bed. My routine is nothing like that.” I ask her if this bothers her. “Sometimes I think of them in my head and can’t focus on my projects.” But this disdain is nothing new to Alice who moved from Paris to London, because her work wasn’t understood there. “It was thought to be strange and morbid. But here, I can be who I want and do what I want.”
London has been her homecoming.
Although Paris wasn’t appreciative, it remains the origin of her objects of desire. “Laura here is from an old shop in Bagnolet. It was a vintage shop and she was dressed in retro clothes. The shop owner wasn’t willing to sell the mannequin to me. I went back the next day, explained my project to him, showed him pictures, and voilà here she is!” There’s an obsessiveness in Alice’s acquisition of her figurines. “It’s the faces – they intrigue me. I am never satisfied. It’s my mission to find THE mannequin.”
The video aspect of her art is very important. “Without a video, the sculptures would have no meaning. They would be just decoration – not art.” The video is shot against a green screen wherein she interacts with the mannequins. However, the screen is left as is; without the injection of a false background. “The audience can see the construction of the video in its true form this way – there is nothing fake.” And here lies the beauty – in her quest for the truth.
It’s plain to see that Alice believes all things have meaning: a metaphor for everything. Much like her idol, surrealist artist Salvador Dali. “Not many know that Dali was a very sensitive man. They only know him for his melting clocks. But in his surrealist home he had mannequins. It was his way to overcome the loneliness that came with being famous.”
Her choice of practice is expensive. It cost her £300 to bring in a prized mannequin from France to London. “The newer ones with no faces and heads are cheaper – £50 each.” There are storage costs, too. “I was waitressing at a cocktail bar for some extra dough.” After CSM, she hopes to sell her sculptures to a gallery or museum. However, she understands there aren’t many takers for video art. “This is something I need to fix my head on and find ways.”
The good thing is she can use and re-use the mannequins. “I can paint them, add things to them, remove their parts – they are under my control.” Over time they have acquired scars and scratches, and even been maimed, but she claims “…it is part of their evolution, and in a way mine.”