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[interview] NINA ARSENAULT: MOVING THROUGH THE PHASES OF LIFE

September 24, 2010

Art is a product and a process that expresses emotion or sentiment through various mediums such as song, painting, literature, photography, video or beyond. Some brave individuals choose their own body as their medium.

Nina Arsenault is one of these individuals.

She chats with The Conversationalist about the redesign of her body, the contradictions of life and her sentiments on making the world a better place.

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The Conversationalist: Who is Nina Arsenault?

Nina Arsenault: Boy, girl, man, woman, performance artist, academic, educator, reality TV star, stripper, whore, nightlife hostess, storyteller, aesthete, art object, cyborg, icon, Barbie, fairy and actress.

What do you do?

I’m an artist.  I do live performance, photography, writing and video. I think my works blurs the line between art and artist, character and actor, performance and reality.

At what point did you come to the realization that you wanted to publicize your personal transition?

In graduate school, when I began transitioning, I was taking a performance art course and the professor Yvonne Singer encouraged me to document everything that I was going through.  She told me to take photos and video as well as to keep a journal.  She told me that I wouldn’t be able to anticipate how I would use the work later.  She reminded me that when you’re inside the intensity of a huge experience like that you don’t know what you will need to express about it afterwards.

Wow, the transition photos must be like gold to you now. So have you completed the redesign of your body?

My body will continue to age and change.  I’ll have to decide as I go along what to accept and what to change. I am interested in seeing how I can age in the healthiest way possible. And also how I can look my best as I move through the different phases of life.  I love Madonna’s body.

What advice do you have for others who are considering turning their physical bodies into literal expressions of art?

I lived a very marginalized life as a non-passable transsexual at the turn of the millennium in Toronto.  I knew that by becoming more plastic I wouldn’t really isolate myself further in society.  I knew I was smart, very creative and extremely disciplined.  I was willing to devote my life to aesthetics, to beauty, whatever the cost.  I was willing to sacrifice my life for beauty if need be.

Can you not, please? We want you around for a while. Okay? On your Facebook profile, it has you listed as “In a Relationship.” What does it take to date Nina Arsenault?

There are many things about my personal life that I create art about, but my relationship with my boyfriend is just for us.

Fair enough. You have said, however, that you consider Facebook and YouTube as part of your art practice, can you elaborate on that?

There was a time when I wasn’t being offered any opportunities to have my work produced.  I wasn’t being taken as seriously as an artist as I wanted, but I need to keep expressing myself.  Facebook and YouTube meant almost anyone, even a transsexual prostitute, could create and disseminate photography, writing and video.  People noticed my stuff and kept coming back to see what I was doing.  It was very inspiring and built my confidence.  Artistic institutions started to notice me as well and then they wanted to work with me.  These forums of communication are only superficial and silly if you treat them as such.

Hey, this Facebook-whore agrees with you! So who are your icons?

Madonna, Frida Khalo, Spalding Gray, Martha Graham, Jessica Rabbit, Andy Warhol, Barbie, Morgan Le Fay, Heiner Mueller, Bette Davis, Marina Ambromovic, Cindy Sherman, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier.

I sense that you are a woman who is fascinated by contradiction. What sort of contradictions are you observing collectively? Internally?

A contradiction I deal with now a lot is my relationship with glamour and asceticism.  My work explores the reality and illusions of beauty, yet to continue with my schedule is very physically and emotionally rigorous.  It demands of me a lifestyle that feels monk like.  I workout. I have writing deadlines.  I do my make-up.  I go to skin treatments.  I am constantly training as an actor.  I diet very carefully.  I rehearse.  I coordinate my publicity.  I do my stage plays.  I am planning a long form video.  I am devoted to a serious artistic exploration of inner and outer beauty.  There is a lot of glamour in my work, but on the other hand I live like a devoted nun to achieve it.  My art is my spiritual work.

Well you’re the hottest darn nun around, I can promise you that. Continuing along this line of thought, who is Nina Arsenault as a spiritual being?

I am very interested in mythology.  I love the stories, and I believe there is much ancient knowledge in these archetypal narratives.  Every one of us lives a series of stories, the different phases of our lives.  I feel as if I have had many lives in this one life already.  My spirituality is about trying to figure out which archetypal myth I am living at each phase.  At different points in my life I have identified with mythological stories of Circe, Aphrodite, Morgan Le Fay, Narcissus, Artemis as well as some Egyptian goddesses.  I see similarities between my life events and some of these myths.  I think anyone will find similarities to mythology in their lives if they know the stories.  Once I sense which story I am living then I try and decide how I want my version of that story to unfold.  This elates my spirit.  I feel like I am living the life my spirit wants to lead me through.  This to me is the power of myth and of storytelling.

You state unapologetically that your work does not exist to make the world a better place. Yet is there a responsibility to help others navigate their own gender-based questioning?

My responsibility as an artist is to express my truth.

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NINA’S FAVOURITES:

Book for a rainy day: “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Album to make love to: “Mezzanine” by Massive Attack
Clothing Designer who elicits sexiness: Cavalli
Celebrity crush: Glenn Close
Country crush: Germany

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Find more about Nina Arsenault at ninaarsenault.com.

Look for part two of this interview in the coming weeks on “The Montreal Buzz“.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2010 12:00 PM

    I first saw “la Nina” on the TV reality series Kink and always wondered what drove someone like her to go beyond branding herself to making herself an actual product. Is it ego, obsession or anger?
    I often wonder if people who sculpt their bodies into something completely different than what they were born into (Heidi Montag, Michael Jackson) are doing it to reflect who they really think they are or an image of who they want to be.

    This goes beyond the usual transsexual case where someone corrects a biological mistake. She says she would sacrifice her life for beauty – her beauty.

    Compelling post. Thanks, Daniel.

    • danielbaylis permalink
      September 26, 2010 11:48 AM

      Indeed, I’m also intrigued by the notion of body redesign.

      You can throw Dolly Parton on to the list, as well, of individuals who intentional guide the design of their bodies.

      The mirror is a fascinating place, making us think and do transformative things.

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