March 17th, 2015
“Bodypainting is the oldest art form in the world. We’re hard-wired to respond to it.” With no messing around, we’re straight to the core of Victoria Gugenheim’s incredible work as an artist, activist and all-round inspiration. Victoria joined us to judge the Bodypainting category at the recent Warpaint Make-up Competition held at Professional Beauty London, and we knew this interview would be revealing.
“Body art isn’t pretentious,” she continued. “No bowing to convention. It’s not that I don’t like mainstream art – I can’t help but love the freedom.” Victoria is one of an august group of bodypainters as skilled using their own body as they are with a model’s, something which she doesn’t register as unusual. “I’ve always been able to paint on myself; it’s just an extension of applying make-up. Even when I had a bald head, I could do it. Some artists like to use a different model, like a new canvas, every time, but I never really felt the need. Besides, I was always putting on different characters, so it always felt different.”
The idea of self-illustration, exploration and practice is one of Victoria’s passions. “I find it very meditative, very relaxing – a creative space with no time constraint which all adults need. Trial and error is the way we learn. Don’t go in with any strict ideas – the results could surprise you.”
Describing herself as an energetic and highly creative child, Victoria explains. “I have autistic tendencies, coupled with ADD, so that led to a lot of activities. Drawing before I could talk, if I’m not sketching then I’m painting, creating characters, something. When my family built an extension, I saw clay in the ground, grabbed a lump and made a pot.”
Her art interacts with her scientific mind and interest in how art is used as a tool of persuasion by big brands. “Artists are used so much in marketing. The colours of McDonalds logo are bright, simple and recognisable, and chosen because they to stimulate appetite. Green has ties to the environment and being eco-friendly; blacks and greys are edgy and gothic. Art is used to control people, and I’m interested in giving power back to people – not cutting it in a recession.”
Her DNAges of Man project interweaves art and science, while Robosteel (with Wolf’s Bodymagic) showcases her fascination in machines. “I’ve always loved them; they’re precise and beautiful, and I’m curious about how things work. Sci-fi books, time travel, Star Trek – I’m a full-frontal nerd. We had flip phones and sliding doors because of Star Trek!”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, her first solo job was The Black Eyed Peas’ album T.I.M.E. “Painting four girls in four hours, in cool pixelated designs to match the album,” she recalls, laughing. “They were dancing, carrying drinks across this tiny, completely packed club. Without Ben Nye’s Final Seal, it would have all come off!”
What approach does she recommend for the curious? “Don’t be brand blind,” she advises. “You don’t have to go solely for the well-known if you’re starting out or building up your kit, try gothic brands – they have incredible colour pay-off.” She lists Manic Panic (“Their red glitter is amazing – so finely milled – and the shadows too”) and Stargazer, especially for semi-permanent liners and pens. For brushes it’s Da Vinci, thanks to their sturdiness.
She favours Snazaroo sponges and Cameleon bodypaints. “They’re the safest brand out there; Eugenie is a marketing genius,” she explains. Cameleon’s Brush Soap is a kit staple, which can also be used on models to remove paint: “Foam it up, scrape off the foam and apply that to the model, it works really well.” Research is key when selecting products. “Don’t let people brand-shame you. We can’t all start off with a kit of high-end stuff. Begin with good, non-expensive brands and be aware of what’s available. Things like shimmer or illuminators – mica does exactly the same thing as crushed pearls, but one will cost you a lot more.”
From the World Bodypainting Festival to the Black Eyed Peas, what stands out? “Working with Charlotte Church on her documentary and tour.” The former child star turned Indie rebel songstress and label owner was a kindred spirit and the two quickly clicked discussing Charlotte’s vision for her stage performances, combining humanity, art and science. When watching the finished show for Charlotte’s Four album lunch, complete with blacklights, UV paints, a disembodied spirit and a swelling chorus of singers, she confesses to crying; “It was incredible.”
Technology is the next thing to tackle. “I’m currently working on a dress which reads data from an EEG and ECG, which will change depending on the input from the brain and the heart. It’s styled like a lotus flower, crossed with a little black dress. Say you’re feeling defensive – the colour darkens, the dress tightens and covers up exposed skin. It’s my attempt to show people the merging of something primal and ultra-modern.”
UV bodypainting is certainly one of Victoria’s strengths, placing third at 2012’s WBF in Team Bodymagic. She has strong feelings about the festival – atmosphere and kindred spirits clashing with limitations of competition – while trying to get an Art & Science Award established there: to encourage the geeks and the techies to come, capitalising on how our lives are entwined with technology.
“Art comes down to maths really. Colour, shadow, shape – they’re all mathematic – and neuroscientists show how people’s brains react to art. When we understand something we’ve seen, especially abstract work, it’s called an ‘aesthetic jolt’ – or the peekaboo effect. It’s why we love camouflage bodypainting so much! We look at something, decode it, and realise there’s a person hidden there. It’s like our brain gives us a little reward from looking at it and figuring it out. It taps into our fight or flight response, only instead of running away you get a jolt of pleasure. Your pre-frontal cortex kicks in and you start asking questions. It’s a whole brain experience. So it’s crazy for me that people don’t see the benefit of art, and the rewards. Looking at a beautiful, well-made piece of art, like a Turner, can generate the same feelings as being in love.”
The brain’s reaction to art, and how our bodies receive and process information, is clearly of huge fascination to Victoria. “Artists are essentially information hunter-gatherers. You’re going out and foraging for information on your own terms, then collate and convey it to an audience. Whether that’s how to draw hair, or an eye, it doesn’t matter.”
Retrospective turns to future plans – “I’m going to create ‘til the day I die!” she laughs. “Definitely more SFX. I worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and I saw how awesome the prosthetics were. I want to learn more, try more props and set designing too. Life is a sprint, not a marathon, so there’s still time.”
This approach to life is recent, after a burn-out last year almost lead to her giving up bodypainting for good. “I had such rigid goals and expectations for myself. I was getting sick, and stressed – I’ve had to learn to allow myself to breathe. Mindfulness and meditation has helped me reconnect to my body and I’ve learnt to pace myself.” Paradoxically, this more measured approach to life has resulted in her having to speed up as more and more opportunities come her way.
What advice would she give to new artists on the bodypainting scene? “The bodyart world can be a wonderful place to work, but it’s also highly competitive and some niches can be quite negatively competitive. Be decent to the people around you. When I first started, there wasn’t much of a scene. It’s become much more cut-throat as increasing numbers of people compete for scarcer resources. Even though I’m ambitious, I’m quite a sensitive person and it doesn’t have to be this way. Do no harm, yet take no nonsense. There’s an awful lot of chance and randomness involved when it comes to success, though as an artist it’s not about a You or a Me, it’s an Us. You have a responsibility to be true and ethical when getting your ideas across and working in the industry – and don’t underestimate the importance of health and safety!”