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Richard Prince, Audrey Wollen, and The Sad Girl Theory

Imagine receiving a text message that one of the world’s most prominent artists had appropriated your work, divorcing it of its original meaning. That’s exactly what happened to Audrey Wollen, a Los Angeles-based artist whose recreation of Diego Velázquez’s 'The Rokeby Venus' as a self-portrait was recently used by Richard Prince as part of his New Portraits series. Prince’s series of inkjet Instagram “paintings” was exhibited at Gagosian Gallery’s Madison Avenue bookshop and on a corresponding Instagram account, @richardprince4, which has recently been deleted.

In using her work without consent, Prince gave Wollen a reason to be sad, but she’s no stranger to sadness. In fact, much of her conceptual artwork revolves around a concept she calls the Sad Girl Theory. This research project of sorts situates female suffering as an act of resistance, with imagery like twisted selfies showing a melancholy Audrey in undergarments. Realised across several media, notably Instagram, Wollen reinserts herself into a masculine narrative, giving her vulnerabilities power.

What is Sad Girl Theory?

Sad Girl Theory proposes that the internalised suffering women experience should be categorised as an act of protest. We have historicised gestures of externalisation and violence, because they already fit into our standards of masculinity, and therefore, power. But there is an entire lineage of women who consciously disrupted the status quo through enacting their own sorrow. I think that a sad girl’s self destruction, no matter how silent or commonplace, is a strategy for subverting those systems, for making the implicit violence visceral and visible, for implicating us all in her devastation.

Who are examples of sad girls from pop culture today and the past?

There are so many! That’s part of what is so exciting about trying to collect this history, I see sad girls everywhere. The list goes from Lana del Rey (1985-) to Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) to St Catherine of Siena (1342-1380).

Why do you think sad girls are important today?

I think it’s really important to recognise and foster an alternative to the hyper-positive demands of contemporary feminism right now. We’ve really fixated on loving ourselves – there’s this ethos of excess and approval, making it cool and fun to be a girl. The problem is: it isn’t really cool and fun to be a girl. It is an experience of brutal alienation and constant fear of violence. All the amazing parts of girlhood (of which there are many) are survival tactics that girls have created in the face of this reality. I want to stand with the girls who are miserable, who don’t love their body, who cry on the bus on the way to work. I believe those girls have the power to cause real upheaval, to really change things.

Why did you choose Instagram as a medium for presenting Sad Girl Theory?

Instagram was already catering to and feeding off of girls representing themselves. It’s the perfect place to talk about the politics of image, objectification, and representation, because that’s all it is.

On your Instagram, you describe an anxiety of being untouchable. Do you fear that documenting yourself as art makes you more of an object?

Absolutely. I don’t even fear it anymore - I know it does. I perpetuate my own objectification every day. But I’m interested in the idea that objectification itself has radical potential—we can use the products of oppression as the tools to dismantle it. I wish I could just be a person, and not a walking photograph of a naked girl. But I wasn’t given a choice. I was being treated as if I was only a photograph of a naked girl long before I started taking photographs of myself naked.

Richard Prince recently appropriated one of your photographs for his New Portraits series. How do you feel about his use of your image?

I was really angry, but not at all surprised. An old, white, successful, straight male artist feeling entitled to the image of a young female body is not surprising. My photograph wasn’t included in his show at Gagosian, but by distributing it through the internet under his name without any consent, he completely erased my authorship and identity. I really was just a photograph of a naked girl, up for grabs. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I don’t think art should simply reiterate the status quo.

What is problematic for you about Prince’s ‘New Portraits’ series?

I think a lot of people mistake Prince’s work as purely an issue of appropriation – like, if you condemn Prince, you condemn appropriation on principle. That’s not the point: Appropriation is chill, as long as the person doing the appropriating is not the person in power. What Prince is doing is colonising and profiting off a territory of the internet that was created by a community of young girls, who, needless to say, do not have the cultural space Prince has. Selecting specific bodies from a sea of images, amputating them from their context, and then naming yourself the owner of those bodies: that isn’t just boring art, that verges on predatory and violent behavior.

Describe yourself in ten words.

Sylvia Plath once answered this: “a passionate, fragmentary girl, maybe?”

Text Benjamin Barron
Images courtesy Audrey Wollen

Date Added: 2017-08-25
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