Rose McGowan Turns Her Talents On Performance Art
“With acting, you always know the goal or know where the scene ends. With this, we had no idea. I think that’s super powerful.”
Photograph by the author.
“I’m freezing!” said Rose McGowan, the former actor and director—and now, performance artist—in the Mandrake Hotel in London. We’re in the penthouse suite and McGowan is getting ready for the premiere of Indecision IV, her performance art debut screening December 15 and 16.
Sitting on a white sofa with her iPhone and a pack of cigarettes, McGowan is wearing a silver puffer coat, jeans and a Loverboy t-shirt from 1982, which might be why she is freezing (“It once belonged to Marilyn Manson, 20 years ago,” she said, rolling her eyes).
The #MeToo pioneer, who reported sexual assault claims against Harvey Weinstein before 80 other women followed, has since released her autobiography Brave, which traces her upbringing in a cult to the underbelly of Hollywood (“I compare the cult I grew up in to the cult of Hollywood and how it affects your mind in ways you’re not aware of,” she said).
But this video art piece, directed by Tonia Arapovic and a commission of HEIST Gallery, features McGowan roaming around an abandoned church alongside ballet dancer, James Mulford, who crawls up an altar as McGowan commands his movements.
“It could be seen that she dominates him, or it’s her just saying ‘stop,’” said McGowan. “It’s about gender roles and pressing a reset button.”
The video was shot in May, around the same time when McGowan was being followed by spies, hired by Weinstein, to steal 125 pages from her book. “This performance gave me a way to process a lot of things I wasn’t able to,” she said. “This gave me a big release.”
The entire piece was improvised and done in a single take—not one word is spoken in the video. After shooting, McGowan went to the bathroom and cried. “I cried just because there wasn’t much time to cry; I had to keep on keeping on, every day brought a new battle,” she said. “It’s not done yet.”
It is the return to the screen for an actor who left the industry behind, though in a different form. “With acting, you always know the goal or know where the scene ends,” she said. “With this, we had no idea. I think that’s super powerful.”
Improvisation onscreen is one thing, offscreen it’s another. “I just wing it, I’m a freestyler,” McGowan laughs. “I am fully prepared to wing it at all times. I mean, why not? What else are you doing? You might as well go for it.”
McGowan is no stranger to the art world. Her father, Daniel McGowan, was an airbrush artist (“He had an incredibly fantastical mind,” she said), and her two sisters are curators; one at Hauser & Wirth, and the other runs a gallery in Denver. “Art is steeped in my life and I’m not scared of it,” said McGowan. “I don’t think other people should be either.”
Her art influences range from Peaches (“she’s fierce”) to Mary Kelly (“I’m a big fan”) and Yayoi Kusama (“I loved her show in Shoreditch”). But Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” from 1964 has had the biggest influence.
“That piece is just seminal,” said McGowan. “And to imagine the racism she experienced and the hate, just for existing. It was so violating. It’s hard to watch, but it’s necessary. It’s a gut-wrenching piece.”
Performance art is a form of activism to McGowan, who sees seems to be done with playing other people’s characters in Hollywood. “It’s different when it comes out of your own mind rather than just being a part of someone’s imagination,” she said. “It’s a completely different beast. I was part of other people’s imaginations for so long.”
“Art is steeped in my life and I’m not scared of it,” said McGowan. “I don’t think other people should be either.”
In terms of her own vision, McGowan is a photographer and video artist who shoots on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and shows her work on @rosemcgowanarts. While she hasn’t had her own solo show (yet), McGowan has taken note of the male-dominated art world that gives center stage to artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. “I’ve noticed that for a long time,” said McGowan, whose first husband was a conceptual artist. “I think when things are not equal, you can’t quite tell how brilliant you are because there’s a huge asterisk next to your name for everything you do.”
She also has an obsession with modernist design, having once broken into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in Los Angeles. “I tied my dogs up to a tree, climbed across a wall and got into the dining room,” she said. “I just wanted to see his furniture up close. So I did.” McGowan also went on a crazy hunt for retro furnishings for Dawn, her directorial debut from 2015, which was set in 1961, and has a futuristic, Jetsons feel.
It’s a mirror to McGowan’s own love of design, as her favorite movements include American Deco and Streamline Deco. “American Deco was like Art Deco, but not as ornate, because it was after the stock market crash in 1929, [and] people didn’t want to flaunt their wealth,” she said. “I like subtle style with curves; Zaha Hadid is probably my favorite architect. I was inside one of her buildings in South Korea recently and felt like I was inside of a womb.”
“I think when things are not equal, you can’t quite tell how brilliant you are because there’s a huge asterisk next to your name for everything you do.”
The same flavor carries over to McGowan’s art collection, which is filled with abstraction and sparse landscapes, as she owns pieces by 20th century sculptor Claire Falkenstein and New York painter Grant Haffner. She also owns works by Chinese and South Korean artists, but can’t name names. “I’ve framed the pieces and can’t see the name on the back,” she said, sheepishly.
Before selling her Los Angeles home to spend time in London (her partner Rain Dove lives in London’s Camden Town), her home was styled after 1970s Pierre Cardin—with spaced out, bright modular design. “I have this 1968 Cardin chandelier that looks like a jellyfish made out of ball-bearings,” said McGowan. “My favorite color to live with is burnt orange.”
At the press screening in London earlier this week, McGowan watched Indecision IV for the first time since it was shot. Her eyes filled up with tears. But she didn’t cry. In interview, McGowan tells me one of her favorite phrases is: ‘Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, it just means you do it anyway.’
“There’s just no choice,” she tells me. “I’ve been filled with fear a lot of my life, but I’ve been brave, I still did it.”
Indecision IV screens December 15 and 16 at The Institute of Light in London, presented by HEIST Gallery.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include the name of the film’s director.