Interview with Erica Prince

Canadian artist Erica Prince would not appreciate the Mattel playhouse I had as a kid, filled with floral furniture, plastic appliances, and female dolls to ensure that the household was running smoothly. Prince’s version, recently on view in Philadelphia, is my playhouse’s conceptual opposite—and that’s a wonderful thing. Prince is more inspired by science fiction than by domesticity. Her sculptures, installations, and drawings have a space-age aesthetic, and the artist has a lot to say about a future devoid of gender roles and conservative boundaries.

Erica Prince. Dollhouse​, 2015; ​​installation view​.​ Courtesy Vox Populi, Philadelphia​.​ Photo: Joseph Hu

Erica Prince. Dollhouse​, 2015; ​​installation view​.​ Courtesy of Vox Populi, Philadelphia​.​ Photo: Joseph Hu.

Ashley Stull Meyers: Your most recent exhibition at Vox Populi was titled Dollhouse. Tell me about dollhouses as spaces for play or performance.

Erica Prince: There were two dollhouses in the exhibition: a giant six-by-eight-foot, empty, white sculptural dollhouse, and on the opposite wall, drawings of the interiors of the dollhouse—specific design decisions, action, and metaphor. Dollhouses are understood as gendered spaces for speculation and idealization. They are interpretive play spaces for the enactment of social and identity constructs. The empty dollhouse is a vessel or a tool for speculation about our lives. It invites viewers to project themselves into the space—to fill and activate it. It becomes a mirror.  

ASM: Did you construct the house with any specific architectural form or reference?

EP: It’s a pretty loaded framework. I was thinking a lot about Miriam Shapiro and Sherry Brody’s Dollhouse in Womanhouse, the “Room” drawings in Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, the utopian aspirations of Modernism, Jung’s model of the unconscious as the rooms in a house, and feng shui. There is also the aspect of the miniature—and the relative interpretation of scale. With a dollhouse, suddenly a small gallery seems huge—the work contains worlds larger than the sum of its parts.

Erica Prince. Dollhouse​, 2015; ​​installation view​.​ Courtesy Vox Populi, Philadelphia​.​ Photo: Joseph Hu

Erica Prince. Dollhouse​, 2015; ​​installation view​.​ Courtesy of Vox Populi, Philadelphia​.​ Photo: Joseph Hu.

ASM: Tell me a little about the accompanying drawings and paintings. Are they contingent to the ideas you’re exploring with the sculpture, or do they function as something completely separate?

EP: Drawing is the foundation of my practice, it is the purest and most instantaneous form of visual thinking. Everything I do begins with a drawing, and I often draw out sculptural concepts that will never exist in three dimensions. For this exhibition, the drawings illuminate or activate the sculptural ideas; they assign functions to the rooms. They activate theoretical space and break it down into layers of time and self. The basement is the unconscious; the next level up is a young girl’s interpretation of domesticity (the most “traditional” layer), and the next levels are communal work spaces, etc. The drawings are more of a narrative offering, where I walk the viewers through my interpretive scenarios of the lives that could exist there. I love how direct and honest drawings can be.

Some Sense of Comfort With Some Sense of Confusio​​n​, 2014​, (performance still). Courtesy of AUX Performance Space, Philadelphia​.​

Erica Prince. Some Sense of Comfort With Some Sense of Confusio​​n​, 2014​ (performance still). Courtesy of AUX Performance Space, Philadelphia​.​

ASM: Aspects of your practice are participatory (illustrated by Some Sense of Comfort…). Does your practice originate from a place of performance, or is this an outgrowth of making objects and installations with interactive elements?

EP: Performance came along much later for me and in an unexpected way—my first performance was actually an amateur wrestling gig. A friend asked me if I would participate, since I have a background in costume. I totally surprised myself and I still do it; my alter ego’s name is “Forever.” That’s for another interview, though!

After that gig, I was inspired to make work that made the audience feel considered and integral to the happening. During the Some Sense of Comfort with Some Sense of Confusion (2012) event, I was acting as a hostess, greeting people, and serving food and drinks in between the programming. No one knew I was going to perform in a more overt sense between Part 1 (a guided meditation), and Part 2 (the reading of Anais Nin’s erotica in the dark). It was completely impromptu. In front of the audience, I transformed myself from the extremes of “Erica who is a spiritual being” to “Erica who is a sexual being.”

I’m currently working on a relational project called Transformational Makeovers. It’s not performance for an audience—I’m alone with a participant who is letting me alter their physical appearance. It’s very intimate. This was something that I was already doing with friends, and it slowly became clear that I wanted to broaden the scope.

These projects require a type of awareness that is so drastically different from making drawings or sculpture. I think that’s ultimately why I perform.

​Erica Prince. ​Transformational Makeover Advertisement​, ​2014; pencil, gouache, collage; ​11 x 18​ inches.​

​Erica Prince. ​Transformational Makeover Advertisement​, ​2014; pencil, gouache, collage; ​11 x 18​ in.​

ASM: Let’s delve a bit more into the making of sculpture and installations. Your installations seem focused on exploring the potential of “othered” spaces. Other Ways of Being and Extragalactic are both explorations of utopian futurism and nomadic behavior as they exist in communities outside of our own. What are your hopes in constructing these sorts of environments?

EP: I always make work with the hope that it will, through comparison, aid the understanding of our current cultural and personal moment. The “othered” spaces often serve as a contrast to what is familiar here and now. They allow us to examine what’s been latent in our ideals. I became interested in the convergence of sci-fi and utopian ideologies because although they seem to be about a distant future or an impossible existence, they’re ultimately a poignant reflection of the desires of the people and social context for which they were imagined. Art is the only realm in which utopianism can exist in an uncompromised fashion, and therefore it is the perfect place to play around with our options.

Erica Prince.  ​Erica Prince. Other Ways of Being​​, 201​2​; ​​installation view. Courtesy ​Temple Contemporary, Philadelphia​.

​Erica Prince. Other Ways of Being​​, 201​2​; ​​installation view. Courtesy ​of Temple Contemporary, Philadelphia​.

ASM: How do the politics of the gallery space influence those options?

EP: If a space has an architectural specificity, then that is something that needs to be acknowledged. If it is a white cube, then I feel a responsibility to create an energy flow that might be absent. I don’t mind the white cube, but I am obsessed with the proportions and energy flow between walls, doors, and windows. I guess I’ve never really shown my work in non-art-specific spaces, but it’s something that I am open to. I want my work to be accessible to many different audiences with various layers that can be peeled away, depending on the level of investment.

Erica Prince was most recently in residence at the Banff Centre in Alberta.