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Strangely familiar Norma Jeane

Norma Jeane is the alias of an artist who never appears in public and has no studio, using Marilyn Monroe’s real names for an identity. From cheesemakers to dancers and economics professors, Alessandra Galasso finds that the art is as enigmatic as its creator.

Norma Jeane Loops of Fury/Mono 2004 Installion image

Norma Jeane is the alias of an artist who does not wish to be identified. In fact, Norma Jeane has no studio and often collaborates with other people. The biography reads: “Born in Los Angeles in the early hours of the morning of 5 June 1962” – which happens to be exactly when Marilyn Monroe died. The reference to the true identity of the American actress (who was christened Norma Jeane Baker) might suggest that this artist has decided to explore her most intimate characteristics and what led to her becoming both idol and icon. However, in spite of having chosen to appropriate the name of the most photographed woman of her day, Norma Jeane opts for a total physical absence. He or she never appears in public. Events feature a version of the artist or, usually, someone he or she has been collaborating with – from professional dancers to economics professors. Norma Jeane can be everyone or no one. For each new project, the artist conceives and co-ordinates collaborative works, installations and performance art that have a strong social message and are, therefore, the antithesis of the celebrity and glamour central to Monroe’s image.

A good example is the Swiss version of the work titled Potlatch 6.1/The Happy Surrender 2001–4. A small cheese was made with human milk donated by local mothers, using the dairy industry experience of Willi Schmid (Städtlichäsi, Lichtensteig), considered to be one of the best and most innovative cheese makers in Switzerland. The work explores the way we breed and consume products of animal origin and how, as humans, we place ourselves beyond the debates on ethics and compassion that we would attach to animals. The subtitle, The Happy Surrender, seems to suggest that those who accept their condition as members of the animal species achieve happiness.

Another example is To Die For 2001, a set of jewellery in Pyrex designed by Paola Frusteri and made by Enrico Rossi, a glass blower from Genoa. The jewels contain sulphuric acid and are displayed on a sheet of Teflon (Pyrex and Teflon are two materials that are resistant to the erosive properties of sulphuric acid). The preciousness of these objects lies exclusively in the attribution of a symbolic value and in the extreme danger that their use implies. The work asks us how much we are ready to risk for our own vanity and luxury.

The production, accumulation and dispersal of energy are central themes in a series of works titled Potlatch. In this writing on gifts, the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) refers to a particular and very rare type of ritual known as potlatch, widespread among the Indian peoples of north-west America (the Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian). Its original purpose was to redress the balance, through ritualised forms of destruction, of social differences caused by the accumulation of possessions. The spectacular destruction of surplus goods therefore assumes the role of a socio-political sacrifice in which the loss of property is associated with the possibility of attaining power. “And it is only through loss that glory and honour can be associated with goods. Potlatch is the opposite of the principle of conservation.”

Norma Jeane’s potlatch pieces are the contemporary expression of an ancient sacrifice in a society which idolises and pursues the accumulation of possessions as an end in itself. For example, in Potlatch 1.1 1997, 140 bottles of mineral water were placed inside a freezer and left to explode; in Potlatch 3.1/A bout de soufflé 1998 the exhaust pipes of four vacuum cleaners were linked to each other until the increase in temperature of the engines provoked their destruction; and in Potlatch 2.2/The Hot Spot 1999 two lit UVA lamps were locked in a forced embrace that caused their mutual end. The act of destruction symbolises Norma Jeane’s attitude to the art market. The works created can be financed or bought, but the artist does not allow them to be sold on (a contract has be signed). They can, however, be donated or destroyed.

For each new work the artist integrates the professional experience and skills of the collaborator. For instance, in RPM/In absence of her mistress the bitch jerks off screaming 1999–2000, included in the Body Proxy touring exhibition at the Swiss Institute in New York in 2005, a 998cc Yamaha YZF-R1 was adapted by a team of mechanical and IT engineers (DEFEKT, Zurich) and a company that produces infrared sensors (CSEM, Neuchâtel). The viewer is central to the activation of the piece, the powerful motorcycle engine roaring into life as he or she approaches. Only when he or she withdraws does the bike return to a lower gear and switch off, while powerful fans try to cool it down. Waste of energy, excess and the pairing of repulsion and attraction form essential elements in this work, which pays homage to Georges Bataille and was inspired by his novel Histoire de l’oeil (1928).

Another work included in the Body Proxy touring show (this time at Helmhaus in Zurich, 2004) is paramount to understanding fully the collaborative nature of Norma Jeane’s practice, as well as the main issues that he or she wishes to explore. Loops of Fury/Mono 2004 is an interactive installation that occupies two connected yet independent spaces. In the first room a technical assistant helps the viewer to gear up the machine that creates the interaction in the second one. Here, opposite the entrance, is a powerful sound system. A monitor records the viewer’s heartbeats and transmits them in real time to the loudspeakers. The distance between the speakers and the viewer determines the volume of the amplification. Eventually, it is left to the participants to decide how far they want to push themselves. As with RPM, the artist teamed up with a group of IT engineers to produce a totally self-referring experience that challenges how the viewer perceives her/his own body. A reaction against solipsistic behaviour, Norma Jeane’s practice is more generous than most. It produces work that emphasises creating new social networks – where the main aim is to share the knowledge of different people to formulate a work that is qualitatively flawless and ultimately accessible to everyone.