Beneath a cardboard facade, this conceptual artist explores romance, pop culture and feminism
In January, a young Las Vegas artist named Lauren Adkins married a cardboard cutout of a dreamy Twilight vampire — actual chapel and ceremony, real well-wishers and reception — and called it art. Now: Does that make you go, Hmm …, the ellipsis suggesting an openness to such a nontraditional idea of art? Or did you go, WTF?, because, you know, WTF?
Adkins’ project, “Love Is Overtaking Me” (her graduate thesis at UNLV, by the way) was about several things: the contested nature of female fandom, the allure of romantic escapism, the grip that pop culture has on our lives. But before you got to all that, it posed, for many, a more fundamental challenge: Can you accept this as art?
After all, there is art we all recognize as art: painting, drawing, sculpture. We may dislike individual examples, but the argument isn’t about their standing, only their quality. However, Adkins, 25, a bit introverted, quite unprepared for the international media spotlight, shot past those disciplines (“I can paint and draw; I just don’t enjoy it”) toward a style of performance in which the boundaries between art and other possibilities — hype, high-concept ruse, eccentric behavior — are more permeable. Marrying a cardboard Edward Cullen: How many people are going to understand that?
“I’m probably a person who didn’t fully understand what I was doing,” Adkins says, lightly but not kidding, leaning forward in her chair at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Maryland Parkway. It’s the response of an artist committed to an exploratory frame of mind — that is, committed to remaining vulnerable in the pursuit of new ideas rather than neatly settling into a style. “If I knew exactly what I wanted to say,” she allows, “I guess it wouldn’t be art, right?”
To be clear, Adkins knew what she wanted her performance to do: examine female fandom through the phenomenon of Twilight. Partly because she’s not done working with feminism, pop culture and romance, and partly because she’s a stone Twihard herself. She’s seen how fanboys, that vast nerdocracy that gave us The Avengers, endless iterations of Star Trek and Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern tights, rebuffed Twilight fans because they were mostly women. She’s also seen how important it is to real women, no less valuable in identity-formation than Star Wars or the Yankees are to guys.
“It was actually quite brilliant,” says UNLV women’s studies professor Lynn Comella, who was on Adkins’ thesis committee. “I mean, what better way to showcase just how powerful the narrative of happily ever after is than to marry a fictional character who is the object of desire for so many young women?”
Much of the press she got didn’t see it that way. Especially in Europe, the media tended not to explain that this was an art project, instead presenting Adkins as a daft Twilight fan engaged in a bizarre, narcissistic stunt. “I was getting more the kind of criticism that celebrities get,” she says. “People calling me crazy, people calling me ugly.” Sure, the vitriol neatly illuminated aspects of her project, but for a young woman who calls this “the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” it also stung.
“I like the idea that it challenged a lot of people’s belief about what art is,” Adkins says now. “Even if those arguments are never very fun, I think it’s essential to keep the dialogue going about what art is.” This makes her worth watching, here in a city where feminism, escapism, pop culture and romance are so enticingly up for grabs.
Adkins is spending her post-Cullen downtime focusing on photography, video and writing. She’s continually adding to “The Look,” a video compilation of moments from popular movies in which a woman trembles as the man she loves is about to reveal his feelings. (See www.laurenadkins.com.) Eventually, she’ll be game for another big, splashy project. “As long as I’m honest about what I’m doing,” she says, “and as long as I put myself out there — I think vulnerability is really important to me as an artist — then I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere.”