For the past two decades, sculptor Sarah Sitkin has used materials like silicone and latex to play with hyperreal configurations of the human form. Some focus on absolute replication, while others play with abstract ideas and science fiction fantasy. Sitkin’s projects include commissions like a mask of Billie Eilish’s face split in half for the cover of Garage Magazine, an ear phone case, and grim sculptures for Syfy’s Channel Zero: No-End House.
Sitkin’s striking show and most recent body of work, Bodysuits, is now on tour at Superchief Gallery locations. The show started in LA last year and is currently on view in New York before it heads to Miami. Sitkin got on the phone with The Verge to talk about her molding process, finding body models, and rejecting mainstream beauty standards.
Content warning: This story contains photos of nude human body models.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
In this show, you started working with the whole body rather than pieces sort of stacked together as in some of your previous work. It’s very related, but had a completely different feeling. Can you tell me about that thought process?
Previously, I would approach my artwork more in an intuitive kind of way. I would assemble things until the concept emerged, and then refine it. Whereas Bodysuits was a whole concept for the show — what I wanted to do and how I wanted them to look and feel was already engineered from the beginning. The blueprint was there. I knew exactly what size molds to make, what type of molds I had to make, and how much time I had to make them and the materials. It was a new way of creating for me, and it took a lot of discipline.
Bodysuits felt like the culmination of almost my whole life as an artist.
The show looks incredible. The first thing that I felt when I walked into this space is that in our culture, you don’t often see bodies in a non-sexual context. And that was really awesome.
Isn’t that so shocking! We’ve all had bodies for millennia, but there’s this huge point of controversy. So like, you’re kind of uncomfortable when you walk in a room and you see a bunch of just unclothed bodies. But it’s the most common thing that we all share, and that we all can relate to, but we’re all uncomfortable by it. It’s just wild to me how much controversy just a simple, unclothed body still holds in 2019.
Can you walk me through that planning process of creating the molds and finding your models?
I knew that I wanted to make these pieces that were the husk of people. And after going through it in my mind, and knowing that there’d be so many different body shapes, and to make it be able to be a wearable garment, certain design choices had to be made. In a perfect world, I would’ve loved to have the suits be full all the way to the feet, and the whole head as well. But, obviously, those wouldn’t be wearable garments, so I had to just refine it down to the most necessary parts of the body, which would be the torso.
I made a prototype suit in October of 2017. Just as, like, a proof of concept. I had a bunch of friends come and try it on and talk to me about their experience. We started the process of making an open call for who wanted to participate in the show. And we got a lot of initial response from people who wanted to be a part of the Bodysuits project, but we had to narrow it down to people who were healthy enough to do the mold process, which is really demanding on your body. Because you have to hold perfectly still in a standing position for just about an hour. You have to shave your entire body, you can’t have any kind of allergies to materials latex or silicone. You can’t have any respiratory issues, you cannot be a smoker. From there, we had a core group, I think, of eight people that were up for the challenge.
We take a mold of the person in the studio, there’s a team of three people in a very choreographed and very quick action in which we cover the whole person’s body in silicone, and then we cover that silicone in plaster, and then we eventually separate it and cut them out of the piece. And from there, we assemble the mold back together. And we do many, many flush coats of thin layers of silicone until we filled up again.
The experience of the visitor is so intimate — not just viewing the work, but the experience of trying on these suits. I imagine it’s a very intimate process to create them.
It’s an extremely intimate experience. If you can imagine being completely naked and completely shaven in front of a team of three essentially strangers covering your body in a weird toothpaste consistency thing, you really get to know someone. You’re already forced into an intimate place, so you really start talking. You’re just immediately in a different, more vulnerable place. During the molding process, I get to know somebody and there are certain things that they tell me about their life, or certain feelings that they have about their bodies or insecurities, or to see them struggle with how their body has changed over time, or what they would like their ideal body to be. I keep note of all of those things. And those come into play in the more final stages of the mold.
Once I have the mold and a cast of the skin, I can add weighted pieces to the suit, like steel ball bearings or weights or sand. I can mix silicone very heavy and make it very squishy. I can customize silicone to feel and weigh and behave any way I want to. And so I made choices on the design for every unique suit on how I wanted the suit to feel, based on stuff I learned about them when we’re in the molding process.
Is this sort of model something you want to do again? Or do you feel like you’ve exhausted this way of molding?
The process of molding is an ancient practice, and I’ll never stop doing it. I grew up doing it in my bedroom, it feels almost like it’s a part of me and my existence in a way. I always catch myself like thinking about things in terms of molds and how they’re made. I’m always inspecting objects for where the mold seams are and how it’s fabricated. As far as the Bodysuits project is concerned, I would have loved to have a huge range of body types — a body suit for every archetype of human body that exists on Earth. But I think at some point, I would like to move on and see the next step in the evolution of my artistic practice.
One of the suits available to try on was a woman’s body who, I was told, was specifically requested to be made because it was the “average” American woman.
The show at Superchief Gallery, Los Angeles was really well received and it led to the Museum of Health and Medical Science (MoHS) bringing my exhibit to their museum.
As part of the terms of the exhibit, they would commission two new bodysuits and would choose exactly what body. We did a very intense casting where we reached out to 300 applicants. MoHS really wanted the exact average American female from the most recent census, which was 2015. Thankfully, being in Los Angeles, there is a casting type for actors in which part of their resume includes all of their measurements. So it was very easy for us to find someone who had the exact measurements in every way of the average American woman, and she was extremely excited to be a part of the project.
About the male suit, can you talk a little bit about why that individual was chosen?
Yeah, these were chosen by the Museum of Health. They commissioned the suits, they got to make the decision about who was cast. A lot of the central theme of the museum at the time was about colon health. And so when we were casting, we really wanted the oldest person that could safely do the mold process, because it’s a very demanding process. We found this man and we didn’t even discover his beautiful scar until we were doing the mold and he was undressed. He’s a colon cancer survivor.
One of my favorites is the pregnant woman. It’s just so wonderful to see that included.
I was so excited when this woman wanted to do it. I was so scared. She was 38 weeks pregnant. And I was like, nothing can go wrong on this one. I mean, we need extra crew in here. We did this one a little different. We actually had her sitting. And that’s why her suit is cut so high. I was too nervous to have her stand. She wanted to, but I just couldn’t, I was too scared.
She was a trooper, she never once had any problem. She had said that the pregnancy was so difficult on her body and that she had learned to tolerate so much pain and discomfort that nothing could faze her.
I also really loved some of the details that you put on the inside of the suits that were really beautiful, too. It was like an extra little prize. If you turn around the suit there’s these little stories inside and you can imagine what they represent.
I think that was definitely one of my favorite parts of doing the interiors, because there’s so much discipline that goes into doing the silicone work with the chemistry and the timing. But with the interiors, I can approach this more free-form and sew things in by hand. And if I don’t like it, I could just cut it off and it’s no big deal. So doing the interiors was a lot of fun for me.
Your work is being picked up by some fashion entities like designer duo Fecal Matter. I would love to hear what you think about that.
Yeah, I’m kind of mystified and I’m thrilled that it’s resonating with people. I actually often work as a fabricator doing commission work for other artists, executing their ideas. I really loved working with Fecal Matter. We had a lot of conversations about how fucked up the fashion world is, and everyone’s relationship to the human body. And so I think everybody wants to almost eliminate their humanity from their body.
The body is such a point of contention and stress and anxiety and loathing for almost everybody. Especially people in the fashion world, who maybe understand that acutely more than most people do because they work specifically in that field shaping bodies.
I also loved the fashion shot where it’s this very calm, pretty scene and the model is holding a bunch of limbs.
That was a Gucci campaign. Yeah, that was rad. I’ve been working with this fabulous photographer named Petra Collins and we’ve been doing a lot of stuff together recently. And I love what she comes up with. That was Petra’s idea. We wanted to do something that was kind of an homage to a vintage horror movie, kind of behind-the-scenes type thing. So I brought the most obvious-looking props that I had in my shop. I love working with Petra, she’s fabulous.
I have read about your conscious avoidance / rejection of mainstream beauty standards, and the ways your work is a reaction to that, which really resonated with me.
I was raised in Los Angeles, which is an epicenter for the entertainment industry. There’s a lot of attitudes and cultural stigmas about bodies. It was an interesting time and place to be a young person coming into themselves because there were kind of two worlds: the kind of mainstream highly visible world of the entertainment industry, and then the other side, the punk, skate, counterculture movement that was going on, which I identified with so much more. It definitely shaped me a lot as an artist. I definitely developed a resentment toward the pressures that the world and that culture puts on having these idealized bodies.
I grew up working in an art store seeing the same celebrities come into the shop that I would see on-screen and in movies. So seeing these people in real life, versus like the airbrushed and Photoshopped version of them on billboards was such a huge divide. Like, some fantasy was lifted and I knew that it was all just a farce. Knowing that definitely is still a huge part of my work, my old work, my current work. The Bodysuit project definitely is wanting to lift the illusion. It’s a weird intersection to be in an artistic practice that is all about making illusion, but also wanting to use it to illustrate the illusion.
Bodysuits is on view at Superchief Gallery NY until May 5th. Contact the gallery Info@superchiefgallery.com to make an appointment to try on a suit.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge