It's almost midnight and Miami hairstylist and performance artist Orestes De La Paz has spent the last few hours discussing human identity, preconceived notions of beauty, and the soap he made out of his own liposuctioned fat.
"I'm just your normal, typical, conceptual performance artist hairstylist. Just making a commentary on religion and identity over a blow dry," he joked, following a high kick.
Yep, Paz really puts himself into his work, as demonstrated in his latest piece, Making Soap. A combination of performance, video, and art installation, his senior art thesis is his way of bringing art and beauty together. Currently on display at the Frost Art Museum are 20 bars of Paz's fat soap and a video documenting its full creation process, from the videotaped surgical procedure, to the actual soap making, and finally, body washing. It's perhaps one of the most extreme, lengthy, and dangerous acts of performance art to be completed in Miami, requiring intense surgery, handling biohazard materials, and yes, boiling one's own fat for hours.
"I got into hair and makeup because I love the idea of manipulating someone's exterior and also being able to affect them on the inside. When I went to art school, I was doing the same thing but in reverse, bringing about ideas I have on the inside and then externalizing them, and bringing it back full circle to change people's perspective of things," Paz said.
The five-month-long project came about after Paz went in for a plastic surgery consultation for a separate procedure. The receptionist told him to ask whatever kooky questions he wanted. "Of course, you don't tell this to an artist," Paz joked.
When he found out he could videotape his own liposuction and keep the fat, he decided to turn it into an art piece. Had he not been given the go ahead by his surgeon, Dr. Michael Salzhauer, he would have abstained from the lipo all together, which goes to show that Paz literally suffers for his art. "I always have...there's always a certain amount of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into any artwork. I just make it more explicit," he said.
At the time of his consult, Paz didn't know about his doctor's notorious YouTube videos and public image. Dubbed Miami's "Dr. Schnoz," Salzhauer has garnered national media attention for his plastic surgery exploits, such as putting out a music video called "Jewcan Sam, A Nose Job Love Song," about a Jewish teenager who gets rhinoplasty to impress a crush.
But Paz wasn't bothered by Salzhauer's unorthodox promotions. "Aside from his impeccable record, I love the way he approaches surgery with the same humor and passion that I approach my art making. If this guy is willing to make Justin Bieber parodies, then I can most definitely come to him with this," Paz said.
At first, Paz was going to use the fat in some kind of acrylic memoir, but Salzhauer told him in order to keep it, he'd have to convert it into something else. Using concepts he learned in extensive college biology classes, Paz recalled how soap was made out of fat. His experiences in the world of beauty, and with his own body image and weight struggles, also informed the piece. "In cultural history, fat has been seen through different lenses, but from my own personal experience being a gay man in South Florida, it seems only natural to choose plastic surgery to change yourself to fit an ideal that has been promoted in the gay community for a very long time," he explained.
"There's something about converting the notions about how we approach fat that can sometimes be seen as dirty or repulsive ... Being able to convert it into something that is cleansing and also potentially healing reflects off of the phrase 'Cleanliness is next to godliness.' Cleaning the outside with stuff from the inside. Converting something that was dirty and putting it into something that was clean, and then putting that thing that I saw as dirty onto my body and reclaiming what I was ashamed of before, " Paz said.
After his surgery, Paz went home, clinging onto the biohazard bag containing his former self. Paz said, "I'm in the backseat of my mom's car, slowly going over the bumps of Bal Harbour, in the afterglow of anesthesia, holding this bag with the possibilities of what I could do with this project overshadowing any feeling of fear."
But he did have fear; the physical healing process of liposuction is intense, particularly when it comes to the scar tissue, which can become lumpy and hard to remove if not properly taken care of. Paz wore compression garments and took vitamins to reduce inflammation.
And he worked on Making Soap. Except for Salzhauer removing the fat, Paz completed the project entirely on his own. For Paz, making soap wasn't a challenge so much as figuring out how to do it with human ingredients. "The least savory part of the entire process is, I had to strain my own blood plasma from the fat before I boiled it for four hours," he said.
Thirty percent organic coconut oil, 30% organic vegetable shortening, 15% African shea butter, 25% performance artist, an ounce of lavender oil, and an ounce of tea tree oil for an invigorating and calming scent. That's about as organic as soap gets.
After much apprehension about messing up, Paz was delighted when he was able to make it lather in his hands. "I wasn't going to go back and get more fat, I only had this one shot to experiment...to know that I made something that was useful and still artistic was astounding to me. Of course, it's not the best dinner conversation when you're on a first date. You can't really go from talking about making soap from your own fat to trying to form a healthy relationship," he laughed, and then high kicked again.
He's not wrong about the reaction most people might have to it. At the opening reception for his piece, attendees were able to experience an interactive performance where they could wash their hands with the soap.
Some people forgot how to wash their own hands when they approached the sink. "When something like that is put into a museum or gallery outside of the environment we're used to doing it in, we feel that there are probably more steps to it than we had previously assumed...I had to really direct them into doing what I wanted them to do, even though people wash their hands every day. Some people treated the soap after washing the video with reverence, with I think more respect to soap than anyone normally ever does on a daily basis, which I find to be humorous because that's all about our perception of beauty products.
"Intellectually it feels repulsive, but sensually it is very indulgent, almost luxurious, and you can see that experience when people wash their hands with the soap first and then watch the video and vice versa," Paz said.
Currently, the suds, selling for $1,000 a piece, are on display in the Betty Laird Perry Gallery of the museum, with a monitor screening a re-edited version of the video, composed in a way that viewers can understand it in less than two minutes, whereas the short film allows for a slower enveloping of the viewer. At the film's original screening, some people cringed, some made jokes and comments, and there were even rumors that some audience members were offended by it. Paz welcomes the controversy, because he believes if his work isn't offending at least one person, then it isn't touching on subjects that need to be talked about. "Performance art does a lot of that; it's meant to be confrontational and it's meant to activate the viewer, because live performance in itself is very visceral ... I feel like this work is still visceral but more inviting than offensive -- it's set up in a spa-like environment, it's non-threatening," he said.
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Despite its inviting display, his piece continues to face opposition, even from the museum itself. Special precautions were made for young school children, like turning off the video when a tour is present. A sign has been placed at the entrance of the gallery, warning parents to preview the material before allowing children to view the piece due to the graphic nature of surgery documentation. Even with those measures taken, the staff isn't rushing to turn on the monitor. On the day of his graduation from FIU, Paz dropped in to see his thesis project was turned off, despite all other art installations powered on. The museum director claims it was an error made by the museum staff. Although Paz received an apology from the museum, he is disheartened. "I was really disappointed to find the work like that; I feel like I have to go make random checks now to ensure that the piece is properly displayed; the soap without the video documentation is, well, just a pile of soap," he said.
Paz isn't rushing to do another performance piece; he's still soaking this one in. However, it won't be the last of his work. "If I can be both a professor and pop star, I will have achieved my life's purpose. I'd love for Lady Gaga to wash herself on stage with my soap. I've always been seen in this grey area in performance art because sometimes I'm seen as too theatrical to be performance art, but then I'm too conceptual for a theater show. She's currently the link between performance art and visibility of that medium in pop culture," he said, followed by another high kick as he ironed his lady client's perfectly Keratin and colored hair.
"Making Soap" runs through May 19, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at FIU's Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th Street, Miami. Call 305-348-2890.