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Sissi Kaplan: In Glorious Technicolour

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Sissi Kaplan in Cairo

You might have seen artist @sissikaplan on Instagram. One of those rare artists who manages to genuinely harness the artistic possibilities that the digital realm has to offer, Sissi invites you to ‘fingerprint’ her works with your ‘likes’ and to delve into her detached and deliciously subversive inner world of solitude and eccentricity. In an interview conducted via a series of emails (the method du jour in these pandemic-stricken times), Sissi introduces us to her art practice, her new film, and why she doesn’t understand the concept of ‘home clothes.’

How have you been, and what was it like working from home during the COVID-19 restrictions?

I am feeling well and am secretly loving the reclusive life, I have spent more than 100 days in isolation! I always wish to have more time for myself and I was finally able to have this. Due to some special circumstances my isolation took place in three different locations and was marked by a personal loss. I went through a multitude of emotional layers experiencing a wide range of sensations, from abandonment, sadness, and weakness to extreme strength, love, compassion, and completeness. Creativity was always present, and also the desire to transform these emotions, to give them shape in the form of images and text. I hope that I can eventually publish these experiences in the form of a book. It was a rather incredible experience and the physical immobility granted me the rare opportunity to expand my horizons in unexpected ways. I now feel a certain nostalgia that this period is slowly coming to an end.

We can see from your Instagram account that you are always impeccably dressed. Why have you not felt compelled to join the pyjama-and-loungewear brigade during the pandemic lockdown period?

It might sound strange but I actually have hardly any ‘home clothes’, and only learned about the concept when I moved to Singapore. I only have three t-shirts that would probably qualify as ‘home clothes’: an old Superman T-shirt that I bought ages ago in Paris, a wonderful t-shirt from Cinema Oasis in Bangkok saying “Cinema is not a crime”, and a Lawrence Weiner t-shirt with a cool imprint – “Spit into the wind and hope for the best”. I love all three of them and wear them for my pilates workout in the morning, so the rest of the day I wear the clothes of my normal wardrobe.

It has certainly to do with my education. My mum advised my sisters and I that we should always dress nicely, even on days where we have no special plans. Because life is full of surprises and it’s great to look good when something unexpected happens. Until today, I like this idea very much, so I am kind of always full of anticipation and ready, even if I know that a priori no one will knock at my door. But what if it happens? Well, I will be prepared, open the door, and look chic.

You have some great outfits in your art, tell us about them and why they are special to you?

I love the feeling of time travel when wearing vintage clothes and all the stories that we can imagine about their previous lives. Some of my favourite contemporary dresses include an outer space dress from Zara, my most cosmic dress, and two classic black lace dresses from Paris that are timeless and that I have been wearing for more than 10 years.

The cosmic Zara dress photographed in Sissi’s Strangers’ Dreams series of works.

In any event, we have been following your updates on Instagram and it seems that you have been travelling everywhere? You’ve even been to outer space! Where else have you been?

(laughs) That’s a great question! My home is versatile and home can be anywhere, especially when you are nomadic and interested in the experience of dislocation. My mind is always traveling and a picture, sound or smell are all that it takes to transport me to a different space.

During my period of isolation, I felt that different realities of my life kept banging into one another. These clashes have the same flavour as the cultural shocks that one experiences at the beginning of a journey when one is neither here nor there. I love these moments of arrival, especially late at night or very early in the morning. These liminal experiences in my very own home triggered Voyage by the Window, a photo series with short fictive annotations, in which I pose by my window and change the background scene to match the narration. With this work, I am no longer here and not yet there, and the in-betweenness feels good. The first picture I created shows me alone on a boat, with my trolley and a caption saying that “I am heading West to leave this circuit broken city”:

Sissi Kaplan on a boat

Many of my friends believed that it was true, and were worried or stunned by my madness. The power of imagination is always surprising to me, and particularly, how it can activate movement in a moment of apparent stillness.

After this boat trip I arrived in Sri Lanka, then the US, Outer Space, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and right now (at the time of this interview) I am in Hong Kong. I am planning to travel to Taiwan later this week, before coming back to Singapore probably next week.

Says Sissi, “The owner of the Udawalawe lodge welcomes me with open arms, we haven’t seen each other in more than two years. It is good to be back and as I settle into my room I am greeted by my friends the elephants.”
Sissi Kaplan in Cairo
“Colombo – Cairo, don’t you agree that both names sound beautifully evocative? I leave Sri Lanka in the evening, reach Cairo in the early morning, and here I am, in my hotel room in Giza. I keep reading Marguerite Duras’ Œevres complètes.”
Sissi Kaplan in space
“I am transported and damn scared, if you would have asked me last week if I would ever fly to the moon I would have said NEVER.”

Tell us about your Strangers’ Dreams.

For the last three years, I have been working on a photo series called Strangers’ Dreams. I had the idea to use the virtual interface of a basic social media platform to create a dialectical relationship between my intimate, sensible observations of the world, and those of unknown strangers. The idea emerged from the thought that dreams of two or more individuals are at their best when overlapping and fading into one another. This is the moment when dreams can come true and when subconscious connections magically emerge.

With every picture I post, I hope that viewers will accept the invitation and match it with their own projections, even if those are not visually revealed. And if they like it on Instagram, they have to touch it and leave a fingerprint, which might be enough of an indication. Strangers’ Dreams is about the cinematic, fragmented desires, possibilities, the before and after, in short, a dreamy vertical film with subtle visual connections across the grid:

Sissi Kaplan's ig posts
This somewhat apocalyptic image from Strangers’ Dreams carries the mysterious caption “Merry Christmas 💫- You are my light, my moon and all the stars.”

Most of the pictures are characterised by a certain allusive emptiness offering room for others to complete the story. Like in our dreams, recurrent motives appear such as trees, flowers, vehicles, signs, and my solitary musings in hotel rooms around the world. During the Circuit Breaker period, Singapore was full of Strangers’ Dreams situations but I did not feel compelled to photograph them, as if it was too easy when no one is around.

In a similar strange and dreamy spirit, I just finished a new film with Vivian Wang and Cyril Wong, it is called I am still here. It is a found footage film that combines materials from an old National Geographic animal documentary with a series of photographic self-portraits in a remote landscape. Set in a post-civilisation vista, a woman (in the film, portrayed by me) lives with dead and living animals, their reproductions as well as the encroaching planets.

The film can be viewed here:

Collaborating with like-minded artists and friends is very important to me. If there is trust and the right chemistry, you can go so much further and far beyond your own possibilities.

How has your life changed since the COVID-19 outbreak? What lessons if any, will you bring with you as we move into this new world?

My life routine has not changed much apart from working from home and not seeing my friends as much as before. But due to the intensely personal experiences I went through I have a feeling that a new life cycle has started for me, although I can’t quite tell yet how this new me will fit into the new world. I saw many positive effects when society slowed down and loved how our immobility activated other mobilities, internally and also in nature.

The silence, azure blue skies, and pure white clouds, spectacular sunsets, and rainbows, nature taking over with its wild formations, the bird songs and the butterflies, and the humans looking at each other and not on their phones. These were just some of the positive effects that I wish we will carry over into the new normal. To have stillness and a more reflexive state of being in the world as an option, and to not fall back into the frenetic mood of overproduction – these are some of the things I wish for the future.

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Follow Sissi’s enigmatic work at the Instagram account  @sissikaplan and on her website.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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