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QUEER CONTEMPORARIES: In Conversation with Madeleine Ismael

MI (about their own practice):

My practice exists as many disciplines and forms that all encapsulate my interests in themes of sex, dysfunctionality, puns, mirrors, social interaction and relationships, and how our world seems to be changing both rapidly and at a snail's pace.

SS: The idea of a muse has an interesting and controversial history in contemporary art. Does this work aim to redefine the idea, or make fun of it?

MI: Absolutely not to make fun of it, it’s mimicry but it’s not pastiche. I wanted to challenge the default setting on the idea of a muse. As much as that idea has evolved, the general public is always behind. This idea of a passive, eroticised, manic-pixie-dream girl character as a muse is an idealisation of femininity/beauty that ignores the muse’s own self and glorifies and mystifies the artist. It sees them through the lens of the artist and the art, and I want to humanise the muse as their own agent within artmaking. I want that role to be less subject to expectations of sex & race & gender, to be able to exist outside of some possible psychological analysis of art. That’s the kind of stuff that turns me off engaging with the idea of having a ‘muse’.

It’s partly redefining, partly just bringing to light what a muse IS and what it can be. Tattooing as a medium helps drive this home. As I said creative relationships are something really important in my work and the creation of a tattoo relies on the collaboration, it brings forth the personal reasons for the tattoo as well as the tattoo artist’s design and desires. In a way we’re trying to redefine the word, but it’s more adapting it for our own purposes. It’s something I love about body-modification; you’re in charge of what it means to you, and it can be a harsh reminder of women’s place in the history of art, but it can also be a proud label to accept things about yourself.

SS: What is your stance on tattooing as a medium in the context of contemporary visual art? Could it stand a chance as being reinterpreted in that capacity, or is it maybe too commercial to be seen that way?

MI: It’s always been closer to illustration & fashion, so that kind of combination is a bit trickier, but contemporary art is already commercial enough itself. I don’t think commercialism is as much of a limitation as people’s own viewpoints. I’m no expert on people’s opinions but the world of tattooing has a lot of traditionalism, and with good reason, it’s part of what’s kept it alive.

Some people might see melding tattooing and contemporary art as bastardising the craft or trying to elevate it above ‘craft’, but it’s already being mixed up and played with! The map of tattooing has changed so much over the past half century and there’s still room for more. ‘Ignorant style’ tattooing has helped open this up a lot.

Artists like Rixard Tattoo (@rixardtattoo on Instagram) & Julim Rosa (@julimrosa) are already playing around with the performance possibilities of tattooing and I’m really behind it, cause a tattoo is always an event and a process so why not play with performing it? Douglas Gordon and Santiago Sierra did some cool stuff as well, it’s like any other technique or material in art making, you can’t escape its context, but you can use or ignore it in creative ways.

In short, I’m all for merging tattooing and contemporary art, it’s just another door to open and at the moment it’s pretty draughty anyway.


SS: There are so many fascinating excerpts of text in this work, how did you come up with the idea and how does the text accompany the “performance” (if that’s even how you would consider it!) of the tattooing?

MI: First of all, thanks! I hope they don’t sound too self-indulgent but it’s an important hobby. I’ve been using Meg as a skin canvas for a couple of years now, she’s good at inspiring me and encouraging my ideas, so calling her my muse seems pretty appropriate. While I was trying (unsuccessfully) to convince my Uni to let me tattoo myself with the word ‘artist’ (to go with my signature on my right ankle), I was considering a pre/post performance putting ‘muse’ on Meg.

This is in the same vein as the previous performance LIKE WHAT YOU SEE//SEE WHAT YOU LIKE. We did a simultaneous tattoo performance, marking each other on the ankles in a ‘69’ kinda position. My aim was to play on the implications that come from performing this subtly sexual act on each other to bring those prejudices to light. It’s rooted in issues I have with straight-washing and over-queer-reading, with the annoying expectation that I as a bisexual, want to bone everything in sight, or that my sexuality is a lie because I don’t want to.

In terms of the words I’d originally planned a faux interview with some disembodied 3rd person voice, but it didn’t sit right with me. I would want it to feel authentic rather than just try and imagine myself as being interviewed about my work (funny, that), so I backtracked and just tried to write what I would honestly want to say, and asked the same of Megan & Leon. I wanted to present the creation of the tattoo as a whole event with multiple players and perspectives, not just a detached male gaze or a feminist critique on art. Leon put it best - ‘the modern artist-muse’ - reimagined in what articles on artists and their work COULD be, imagining a future where we consider the muse as integral a cog as they are and the way we publicise it reflects that.

Maybe it’s my theatre background but I feel attached to a live audience. I really want to do a performance with no audience and play around with live videos etc. and stretch that expectation of a live physically present audience, but I’m undecided whether I’d call this one a performance. Tattooing is always an event, but performance is hard to define, especially in art.


SS: How do you feel about conceptual art as a genre? Is this piece attempting to expand on that, or is the conceptual outcome inconsequential?

MI: As much as conceptual art made me fall in love with the idea of studying art, it’s a bit of a many-headed beast - things can get a bit too much metaphor stuck on them & you begin to lose control of it, things get clogged. So, there’s definitely a bit of frustration, but that might have a lot to do with the hangover from graduating. Sometimes Art can feel a bit pretentious & depersonalised & glib, especially conceptual art, and I worry people will lose interest in another profound point being made by an artist. I don’t want my art wearing a suit & holding a briefcase, if that makes sense? Maybe a brightly coloured three piece, but not office attire.

That being said, the conceptual element is always really important. My own conceptual ideas about it might not be why someone gives a damn about my work but they’re a part of what drives it. As literal as the word ‘muse’ is in this instance, It’s also a reclamation and a taunt and an affirmation and a joke and a bunch of other things.

SS: Could you talk a little more about your collaboration with the “muse”? Are they an artist too? How do they feel having a tattoo that functions as part of an artwork?

MI: Well she was very pleased with it which is always a wonderful thing to hear! All tattoos are a collaboration really, or at least I think they should be. The positioning, font and the actual work never would have happened without the exchanges me and Meg had. A lot of my ideas behind the work only developed through conversation with those two & I want to pay respect to that by calling it a collaboration. Leon’s ideas while he was taking photos gave me a lot to consider about how to actually package it and what photos to use, the process is always more fun than having a finished work so why not make it part of the work?

I don’t think she’d call herself an artist, but she has as much right to as anyone who identifies as one. She says she quite likes the tattoo being part of an artwork, even if it might be out of vanity. She says it ultimately expands the reach of the work: every tattooed body is essentially a walking portfolio or exhibit. I guess it’s not a far step away from having a piece of work lovingly created by a tattoo artist with their own practice. At the end of the day it is what you make of it cause it’s your body.


We would just like to thank Madeleine for taking the time to answer our questions and for allowing us to share their work through our Queer Contemporaries Showcase!

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