Constructing Feminine Intimacies
Colette’s Living Environment (1972–1983)
“she thinks, the material and the dream can join,” — ‘Dreamwood,’ Adrienne Rich, Poetry Magazine, 1987
In 1972, after seeing an old parachute as someone’s apartment decor, Colette Lumiere (then known only as Colette) began stapling found fabric to the ceilings, walls, and floors of her Pearl Street loft. A decade later, her home would become an immersive installation known simply as the Living Environment, a fantastical interior that resembled more of a theater set than a typical domestic space with ruched drapery, ornamental lighting, and mixed-media sculptures as altered furniture. Up until the work’s conclusion in 1983, Colette continually added to the space while she lived here, turning it into an active site of staged performances and photographs wherein the Living Environment was both the artwork itself and the backdrop for other artworks, immersing the viewer and resident in a sensory experience of dreamy soft forms.
Before the Living Environment took over her apartment, Colette began her career on the streets of SoHo, creating public artworks where she’d pose as famous mythological and historical heroines in storefronts. Troubling the boundaries between private and public, fantasy and reality, Colette incorporated sleep into her live performances by napping during her occupation of storefront displays. Yet, over time, Colette began to turn inward, becoming increasingly fascinated by the transformative potential of her own apartment’s interior. Unlike other artists who begin creating within the privacy of their studios or their houses then move to public engagement, Colette’s artistic practice developed in reverse as she moved away from the highly-visible window display into her private home and began building the Living Environment.
In her discussion of corporeality and subjectivity in the bedroom, and the feminization of domestic spaces, scholar Francesca Berry notes that 19th-century French interior decorator Henry Harvard “identified the bedroom as the location for an authentic and intimate, if not always comfortable, encounter with self; a self imagined in distinct, but related, terms as corporeal and psychological. At once secretive and mnemonic…the place where the truth of the body is revealed disconcertingly in undress.” These principles of authenticity, intimacy, comfort, self-encounters, entanglements of the corporeal and the psychological, are all at play within the Living Environment’s material and conceptual construction. Colette Lumiere’s creative practice has been marked not just by a fascination with the costuming of the body and of interior spaces, but complicated questions about the erotic and the sexualization of female body, as well as the commodification of the body through performative self-display.
At first glance, the Living Environment is a Baroque-style feast for the senses, appearing visually soft and comforting to the touch. During this period, Colette photographed herself in the Living Environment with clothes made from the same fabrics adorning the walls, laying partially-nude on the bed or standing like a doll adorned with extravagant corsetry and drapery in various states of sleeping and waking. Looking at pictures of the Living Environment, not just of the space itself but Colette’s presence within them, one is struck by a sense of profound interiority, an inward looking that expresses itself through ruched silks the color of flushed skin. Her body and mind are in tandem with the Environment’s sculptural development, the artist and the artwork becoming closely entwined.
Intimacy is often marked by gestures or sensations rooted in some kind of literal or metaphorical privacy — a look shared between friends, two lovers in the bedroom, etc. It is also an experience rooted in an emotionality typically coded as feminine. In a time when women, particularly female artists, felt pressured to conform to various (and sometimes contradictory) gender norms, Colette’s Living Environment is cut off from the real world and its challenges, a surreal dreamscape the artist can use to play with different presentations of feminine identity and manifest her inner fantasies inspired by the aesthetics of French aristocracy and Victorian costuming.
The Living Environment is meticulously designed to evoke a sense of intimacy, a private escape from external gazes and expectations. In documentary photographs, there’s no clear demarcation between each room, having lost their domestic utility amid her layering. There are no doors or no windows suggesting other entrances into the space. One can’t help but be utterly immersed within its soft, protective enclosure like a child storytelling in a blanket fort. From 1972 to 1983, the Living Environment was both sculpture and stage, a place for raw experimentation as Colette developed her unique visual language of feminine punk aesthetics through physical and psychological engagements with artificially-constructed intimacy.