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Stephanie Syjuco, The Visible Invisible

Video by Art21.

At work in her Berkeley studio, Stephanie Syjuco navigates the deeply embedded visual tropes of American history applied in her practice. Describing the shift in priorities associated with progressing in a career as an artist, Syjuco notes a correlation in time spent between project management and art making. "My reality is," she says, "it's a lot more paperwork than I wish it were." To center herself, Syjuco spends time in her garden, harvesting vegetables and "empire crops"—such as tobacco, corn, cotton, and indigo—as part of her research into colonialism and the writing of American history.

Preparing an installation for the Renwick Invitational at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Syjuco lays out garment patterns for creating American-prairie- and Civil-War-antebellum style dresses. Though self-admittedly not historically accurate, the dresses serve to act as signifiers, conjuring images of specific time periods in American history, as well as the tropes of womanhood, Western expansion, and Puritanism that viewers may associate with such garments. The dresses are made with a chroma key green fabric, a color typically used as a temporary backdrop for photo and video shoots—replaced in post-production and never intended to be seen. "The idea of American history is so embedded in our national psyche that it's almost invisible," says Syjuco. "It's like manifesting ghosts, hauling forward all of this American history."

Stephanie Syjuco was born in Manila, Philippines, in 1974. Syjuco works in photography, sculpture, and installation, moving from handmade and craft-inspired mediums to digital editing. Her work explores the tension between the authentic and the counterfeit, challenging deep-seated assumptions about history, race, and labor.

Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/stephanie-syjuco/

CREDITS | Producer: Ian Forster and Christine Turner. Interview: Christine Turner. Editor: Morgan Riles. Colorist: Jonah Greenstein. Field Producer: Laura Wagner. Camera: Tyler McPherron. Sound: Kevin Crawford. Artwork and Photography Courtesy: Stephanie Syjuco. "Extended Play" is supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts; and, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the Art21 Contemporary Council; and by individual contributors.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

[Stephanie Syjuco: Making Time] I'm thankful that I have a house that has a really beautiful gardening area. I've been doing a lot of gardening, but it actually stemmed from some research that I was doing on empire crops. Growing samples of tobacco, and corn, and cotton, and indigo-- all sorts of different plants that actually had a lot of implications with colonialism. The garden actually has become a way to learn more, as a research process for my studio, but also to just center a little bit more. When most people get interested in being an artist, they have this idea that you're just in your studio all the time. I think the irony is that the more invested you get into it as a career, the ratios of time spent managing the projects versus actual studio time, radically shift. I mean, maybe there's this magical moment where it changes and I have full-time assistants helping me, but my reality, I think, is... it's a lot more paperwork than I wish it were. So, these are the pattern pieces, for the American prairie dress. They make it as easy as possible for you. So, you literally cut out the pattern pieces, you pin it to the fabric, and then sew where it indicates. So it has the bonnet, an apron, the, kind of, Peter Pan collar, and then these puffed sleeves. There's also going to be a Civil War antebellum dress. It's part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum for the Renwick Invitational. The Renwick is in the American galleries, which I'm really excited about. We're adding this work along with other projects that relate to fabrication-- of images, and textiles, and culture-- but looking at it through a lens of critique. ["The Visible Invisible" (2018)] The costumes may not be historically accurate at all. They're really tapping into the American imagination. It has all the markers of that time period in American history, but it's more of a fiction. They're in this chroma key green that people use for video and photographic backdrops. It's a color that you're not supposed to see. This idea of American history is so embedded in our national psyche that it's almost invisible. Whether it's tropes of, say, womanhood, or even of Western expansion, or Puritan religiosity-- all that is in these costumes. It's like manifesting ghosts, hauling forward all this American history. I'm allowed to come up with the strangest ideas, and not everybody says yes. But when they do say yes, I can make this thing happen that is almost, to me, unbelievable. Nothing is really a waste of time.