Why Be You When You Can Be Me?
I met with Petra at Dover St. Market Los Angeles, where she was signing copies of the series, Why Be You When You Can Be Me?, a collaboration with Baron Magazine. Although, as we sat down to discuss, Sitkin herself strode into the room actually wearing one of the Petra suits, surprising (and scaring) both the artist and myself.
That mask display we just experienced was really something. Can you explain the whole concept of the masks overall, as they're the centerpiece of your work here?
Yeah, that was Sarah—she makes them. I started working with her after seeing her bodysuits online. I’d really never seen anything like them before. With this particular series, she would fill these suits that were silicon molds. But inside of them, she would place fabric that had some meaning to the person.
Well, what meant most to me was that she made them specifically weighted—so, if you try them on you feel what it is like to be that person. She also works with a lot of people who are in transition. And with her work, they’re able to try on what another body feels like.
It’s crazy because when we first shot with Sarah, we were doing that shoot for Replica. And when I first put them on I was like ‘holy fuck,’ because you can really feel what it is like to be that other person. That began my growing love for Sarah. I’ve been shooting people for probably twelve years now, and I feel like I needed a refresh—also on how I viewed myself.
I guess that’s the issue you have to grapple with. Being successful at such a young age, you have a signature style, and it’s hard to evolve.
Exactly. You also get stuck in this one field of how you view yourself too. It was strange. It’s interesting, because when I started, one of the series that I started shooting was this selfie series when the selfie had just become popular—not to say selfies had never existed, but it was more when the iPhone was getting popular, and Instagram was new. So, I was seeing it evolve in the beginning and thinking, ‘This is like a sick thing. A lot of people who never had the ability to create, or even see, images of themselves could finally do that.’ And they also had a platform to do that—not to say Instagram is this amazing thing. But honestly, for the first time in history, that was happening. For me, it was really exciting to see and watch, but then I would also watch people taking a selfie—fixing themselves. But at that time, there were more positives than negatives.
I mean it’s pretty noticeable when you go to the beginning of someone’s instagram and see how different the images were, in terms of being posed, retouched, the editing, the standards overall.
It’s so different. I guess also it’s weird seeing what I did seven years ago around when Instagram was starting, being sold back to me. So there was also that realization of the place that we live in is full of people who are all ‘diversity, love, self-love,’ and don’t practice it themselves.
Well those concepts have been commercialized and trademarked.
Exactly, we live in Trump’s America. With all of this happening, there is this movement of people being body positive, yet Face-tuning themselves to death and getting crazy body modification—it all becomes very dangerous. It creates a disconnect. I thought, “Oh yeah i am not affected by any of that. I’m fine,” but I found myself getting wrapped into it. For me, I had a really bad eating disorder. And it’s crazy—you never really recover.
That’s been true for me too—you can change your actions, but there’s something still there in the back of your head that never really goes away.
Yeah! I was finding myself not triggered but hyper-focusing on a model’s face—that’s not her face—thinking, “Why doesn't my face look like that?” I realized that I was being affected by all of it.
As a recovered person myself, I get it. Sometimes working in the industry, I question my own recovered-ness.
I think it’s even worse now, because we are so removed from, not reality—because everyone has their own reality—but personal reality.
And that goes back to these concepts being trademarked—mental health being one of them.
Yes. And that’s why I did the masks. I am not someone who likes being in front of the camera, as I consider it a physical craft. I love being behind it doing the work. I don’t like self-portraiture also, because I just don’t feel the need to feature myself. I am not the narrative of my work. But with the masks, I was able to shoot my own body as an object—not an objectified object, but an object as the subject.
That sounds like an emotional and maybe upsetting experience?
Well, when Sarah was making them, she kept asking, “Do you want me to add this pimple, this hair?” And I had to be like, “Uhhhhh, yes, yes!” I’ve become desensitized to it all now though.
Are you truly able to have an objective view if it’s your own body though?
It’s the most objective I think I can get, because it’s removed from myself. There’s no photographic truth, but it’s the closest to documentary-style that I can get. I basically was so sick of everything. I was like, “Fuck the world. I hate it all.” So I took my body and put it in places that were scary, uncomfortable, that I hated, that were fantasies. I had an exorcism, and it was the best thing ever. Now I’m just like, “What’s next?”