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Michelle Handelman: Irma Vep, the last breath

Michelle Handelman: Irma Vep, the last breath is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and curated by Michael Rush, Founding Director. Support for this exhibition is provided by the MSU Broad’s general exhibitions fund.

September 20, 2013–March 30, 2014

About the Exhibition

The MSU Broad presents the world premiere museum showing of Irma Vep, the last breath, a multichannel video installation by the artist Michelle Handelman. Based on the silent film character Irma Vep from the film Les Vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade 1915) and the life of the actress who portrayed her, Musidora, Handelman’s work explores the shadow side of society—examining themes of criminal anxiety and the relationship between the artist and her creation (both fictional and real).

Irma Vep and Musidora are played by Zackary Drucker and Jack Doroshow (aka Mother Flawless Sabrina), two artists whose personal relationship documents a trans-generational evolution of gender. By mirroring Drucker and Doroshow’s relationship with that of Irma Vep and Musidora’s, Handelman’s film interweaves the biographies of its characters with those of it performers, as well as Handelman’s own experience of living life undercover. In this conflation of past and present lives, Handelman creates a visually stunning and multilayered narrative.

In Feuillade’s film, Irma Vep is not really a vampire, but a member of an underground gang of jewel thieves. She spends much of her screen time in a black catsuit, scaling rooftops as she robs upper class Parisians. Vep is a trickster—cunning and vulnerable—a woman alone among men. Mirroring her character’s strength of conviction, Musidora was an early 20th century artistic force and feminist who took control of all aspects of her career by acting as well producing and directing films and theater. After financing dried up for her projects, Musidora lived in relative obscurity until her death in Paris, 1957. In her later years she worked the ticket booth of the Cinematheque Francaise, where few knew that she was France’s beloved vamp of the silver screen.

Handelman’s project imagines the fictional character Irma Vep in conversation with her therapist while surrounded on multiple screens by her doppelgangers. Featuring costumes by the renowned fashion collective threeASFOUR and couture corset designer Garo Sparo, Irma Vep, the last breath allows space for anxious projections of desire on the void that is Irma Vep—a space between genders, between vamps of the silent era and the contemporary queer.

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