(April) Rachel Stern, Art F City (Corinna Kirsch, Matthew Leifheit, Paddy Johnson, Whitney Kimball), 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
“The government shutdown has claimed one of its most beloved casualties: the National Zoo’s panda cam,” wrote CNN last October. “But animal lovers can rest assured that the zoo’s endangered Giant Pandas — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and an unnamed newborn cub — will still be fed and cared for, the zoo said.” It sounded ominous — and totally ridiculous. You might remember that these were the types of stories being published in 2013, when all inessential (or what they’re now calling “non-excepted”) government services were suspended amid Washington’s unresolved fiscal mess. And the National Zoo’s most popular residents generated some of the goofiest headlines. As one media brain on Twitter put it: “the panda cam is the bread and circuses of our age. never mind all the important stuff, OMG BABY PANDA!!! #shutdown”
Meanwhile, the culture commentators at Art F City couldn’t resist the absurdity of it all. When Panda Cam went dark, they created their own live stream and dressed up as pandas while blogging. And now, Editorial Director Paddy Johnson has collaborated with photographer Rachel Stern on a 2015 calendar to commemorate the occasion. They invited artists, art dealers, and writers (like Molly Soda, Nayland Blake, and Mike and Claire) to pose for it while dressed as pandas. Oh, and they were nude. Apart from boasting lots of flesh, the calendar also lists all major art events for the coming year.
You can pick up your own copy over here (it’ll be the most interesting thing you tie a bow on this holiday) and buy Stern’s prints from the project. Flavorwire spoke to Johnson and Stern about shooting the photos, what it was like working with pioneering feminist artist Martha Wilson, and, of course, “hard bods.”
Flavorwire: What can you tell us about the Panda Cam project that inspired your calendar?
Johnson: I think this video sums up the livecam we set up last year pretty well:
The core of the inspiration for the calendar is the government shutdown, and the Panda Cam for the National Zoo that went dark during that time. When that happened, we decided to live stream ourselves while dressing like pandas. Somehow, in the course of doing this every day for several weeks, we conceived of the calendar.
But of course, you always lose details in the retelling of any story. For example, while blogging dressed as pandas, the staff put together panda playlists, which included a bunch of Chinese pop music, along with well-known songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Goodbye Horses” and random stuff that seemed to fit. And the screen crawler text we used was constantly updated on the fly — responding to whatever we did. It was very, very funny.
None of that stuff made it into the summary video — you only have so many minutes to tell a story — but its sensibility is evident in the calendar. It’s hilarious, and rather baroque in sensibility. So we have panda horoscopes that respond to the photographs but are nonsense, and the dates we included in the calendar are actual art events, mixed in with American and Canadian holidays. (I’m Canadian.) We also included random holidays no one celebrates. So the calendar event picks range from the Whitney’s opening on May 1, 2015, to International Men’s Day and World Toilet Day (which are on the same day — November 19).
Can we expect more arty calendars or other projects based on ridiculous news items from Art F City?
Johnson: The hope is that the dysfunction of the American government will not always provide the constant stream of inspiration it does now!
But, we have a history of highlighting ridiculous news on the blog, so certainly you can expect more of that from us. It’s unclear what the next project will be, but hopefully we can resist the allure of McCarthy’s butt plug jokes. They are good for headlines, but perhaps less appropriate as a stocking stuffer.
And there’s already talk of making a 2016 calendar — though it won’t be panda-themed. That’s a joke we’ve taken to its fullest conclusion.
Can you tell me more about the making of these amazing sets?
Stern: The sets are indicative of the themes and styles of my artistic practice. I love to play with the construction of opulence through the use of banal material from the party or home goods store. My sets are constructed in service to my subjects, so this project was a fun opportunity to respond to people who create their own visual worlds. I enjoyed the challenge of reviewing someone’s practice and then filtering it through my own sensibility. I am always seeking to honor the people, or pandas, I image by allowing them a context that indicates importance, power, and beauty.
I was excited to see Martha Wilson joined you. What was it like working with her?
Stern: Working with Martha was a truly wild time. She had the idea to do full body paint and worked with the industry-veteran makeup artist Bill Westmoreland to execute her flawless look. It was truly amazing to watch Bill work and Martha transform. She really took the metamorphosis by storm, and by the time she was covered in makeup she was more than ready for her PandaGlam moment. Her ideas about pinups shone through, and her star quality is palpable in the final shot.
One funny thing is that some of the participating pandas arrived to the shoots with great attitudes, excited and ready to go only to be surprised by my prompt to disrobe. We will call it confusion due to pandemonium, but somehow in the communication that was an element of the photographs they missed. What was really great was that in each of these cases the subjects really rose to the occasion, happily slipping out of jeans and bras to strut their panda stuff.
Jason Andrew also did a phenomenal job of being a tough panda. I felt like I was setting a trap while building his set. I bought all this ice and frozen seafood — my studio smelled terrible. He had no idea what he was in for but was a real trouper when I asked him to lie down in a soggy pile of paper and the icy dead of the sea totally bringing his A game (along with his hard bod).
Rollin is, in my opinion, the sweetheart of the bunch. Maybe I feel that way because he was the first, but also because he did such a good job of making me feel comfortable! He literally came straight from the airport after coming in from Turkey and went uptown to my studio, travel tired, but ready to go. We had a really good time, and his portrait is one of my favorites.
I was disappointed that Molly Soda didn’t bring any pets with her from Detroit, but she did bring all that bubbly sass we love. I built this Valentine’s Day romantic vanity set for her and had an idea that the shot would be about applying red lipstick. Molly looked around and decided that bright purple was a better option for her lip color. It was perfect. That’s something I really love about portraiture — it’s the unplanned element where the subject shows themselves that really makes the picture work.
Preview the panda-filled months of the year in our gallery, and donate by December 1 to receive a signed Rachel Stern calendar .
(January) Rachel Stern, Allegra LaViola, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(July) Rachel Stern, Jason Andrew, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(June) Rachel Stern, Paul Outlaw and Jennifer Catron, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(December) Rachel Stern, Marc Swanson, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(October) Rachel Stern, Martha Wilson, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(March) Rachel Stern, Mike and Claire, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(February) Rachel Stern, Molly Soda, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(November) Rachel Stern, Nayland Blake, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(September) Rachel Stern, Rebecca Patek, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(August) Rachel Stern, Rollin Leonard, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(May) Rachel Stern, Xaveria Simmons, 2014, c-print, 16 x 20 inches