I sent some quick questions along before this interview, and you said that you are “building parts of an imagined world to contend with coming-of-age tropes and expectations that socialize us to tamp down our quirks and stifle our sillies.” In lieu of a more serious question, what about silliness is important to you?
I grew up in a military family. Despite moving many times, my constant was dancing — I danced for 14 years, from age 6 to 20. In that time I became sensitive to how the body is given certain roles and scripts to play out, whether in a performance or day-to-day. Now, I feel those scripts heavily. I feel their limitations, their repetition, and question how aware we are of them.
So, the sillies, for me, are behaviors outside of those socially-sanctioned scripts. An example of a silly that is not so silly: I’m struck when a kid is having a tantrum in a store and everyone ignores it. No one pays attention. And I’m like, Fuck, this is a code. A script that's playing out right here: this child is unhappy and the mother or the guardian — or whomever they are with — is trying so hard to tame that child in the way that they should be, socially, in space. And you're seeing that body be tamed in that moment.
And then everybody else just sort of adopts an air of waiting for that child to stop.
Exactly! And I think that pause that everyone else is taking on — this, like, collective agreement — is so odd.
Yeah, because the vibe of the entire space changes the second the child starts crying. Like, everybody's pointedly not looking at the kid.
Yeah, they move away, they direct around. We become so tamed out of those behaviors. But what if we did show, maybe not to those extremes — or maybe to those extremes — if we were really unhappy? What would happen? Would we listen more?
Maybe I'm playing with fire.
I don’t think so, necessarily. But what made you transition from being a dancer to a visual artist in the first place? Since then, what has changed? And — I suppose more interestingly to me — what has stayed the same? Because a lot of your work is outwardly related to the body in a way —
Very much, yes.
So when you said you were a dancer, I was like, That clicks.
Yeah! So it came to a point where I had to decide if I was going to go to a dance academy or college. I went to college.
Initially, I thought I wanted to be an art historian because of the memory and retention skills I had developed from dance. But then I took my first sculpture class and I realized how engaged it was with 360 degrees. And I was like, This is dance. And I still feel like my materials are my dance partners, and we are sharing who leads: sometimes they tell me what they want to do, sometimes I tell them.
I am forever interested in how the body circulates space. And as a sculptor, I get to choreograph how a body will circulate the space I make. Right now, I'm working on a mascot of my seven-year-old self. So, I'm slowly getting back into dance.
Wait, you say “getting back into” dance: did you stop dancing entirely for a while?
Yeah, I stopped. I did a dance club in undergrad, but I was like, [whispering] It’s not really dance, there's no one yelling at me.
Sometimes I perform in other people's art projects, which is always exciting, But I'm not, you know, putting on tights and —
Going to a ballet class anymore.
To stop talking about ballet: you said that you've been working on a mascot of your seven-year-old self, but what else have you been working on in Wassaic?
I’ve been working on this ceremonial landscape that is the resurrection space for my seven-year-old self, who I’ve been calling Sid-the-Kid. Here at Wassaic I’ve been building a slice of this world, a sculptural installation built of many parts. It appears mutable, as if staged for performance, play, or ritual: the objects kind of lean and teeter as if learning to hold their own weight or after an acute, seismic shift. They might look toy-like at first, but are punctuated with wax and wicks marking the scene with this inevitable demise. Or at least the taunt of it.
This work came out of being told I should feel grown up now. I'm really curious about this fabricated distance between child and adult. How there's this time to grow up and then be grown up. But how am I supposed to join a society that, through the very act of joining it, quietly validates its systems as the best possible option? I’ve also been researching this notion of coming-of-age and its origins. Coming-of-age is born out of a white cis man’s story: Bildungsroman. Coined in 1819 by Karl Morgenstern, it signifies following the protagonist's progression toward self-integration and, thus, social integration. So not only is the white cis man’s lifestyle largely the definition of what life is in our society, but our coming-of-age narratives and performances are born from this perspective too. Resurrecting Sid-the-Kid is an act of resistance to this dominant coming-of-age trope, to the formation of a self that would validate American society as it is.
And with the seemingly upward progression of coming-of-age, encouraged by cultural markers like prom and graduation, I have become really preoccupied with those childhood selves that came before. Where do they go? How do we mourn them? And now as an adult, why do we speak about this inner child as if she is sometimes there? What does it mean to resurrect them in a secular way within a Christian-flavored, capitalist-driven, heteronormative culture?
I want to return to something we talked about earlier. You were talking about your work as a silly space, but that is also coming from a place of being angry about these limiting scripts that we play into. How do you think of the relationship between laughter and anger in your work, or more broadly?
I am angry that the child has to stop their tantrum for the comfort of other people, for dominant modes of being.
I think that whatever I am coming to, and whatever I am taking in, it's important for me to see how it operates socially, from many points of view, alongside my own experience — a check on my privileges. It's exhausting to be angry and amused and sad — and whatever other emotions — toward my subject matter, but it's important to me to be able to see how it exists at many levels. This is what elicits so many emotions. This translates to the work.
And I use humor to build an entry point into the work. If I can make a joke in the work, and the person looking at it chuckles or has an internal laugh, there's a trust that's been built that is hopefully disarming. We laughed at the same joke. We’ve built a distinct social tie. Then we can get into the deeper, darker edges of the content.
Does that make sense?
Sidney Mullis is a sculptor who makes work about puberty, the intimacy of forgetting, how we perform ourselves, and bracing for the end.
Her work has been exhibited in a number of locations including Berlin, Germany, Tokyo, Japan and Rijeka, Croatia. She has had solo shows at the Leslie Lohman Museum (NYC), Neon Heater Gallery (OH), Bucknell University (PA), Rowan University (NJ), Future Tenant Gallery (PA), University of Mary Washington (VA), and more. She has been an artist-in-residence at The Wassaic Project, Women’s Studio Workshop, MASS MoCA, Ox-Bow and more, and has been awarded a Creative Achievement Award from Penn State University (2016).
Mullis teaches 3D Foundations, Sculpture, and Advanced Seminars in Contemporary Art at Penn State University. Since 2016, she has been the program coordinator of Penn State's John M. Anderson Endowed Lecture Series hosting 8-10 visiting artists, curators, art educators, and critics per academic year.
Mullis lives and works with her materials in State College, PA.
Now, more than ever
2019 Summer Residency