50 Questions With Performance Art Provocateur Kembra Pfahler


Lead ImageKembra Pfahler, 2022 Photography by Jean Toir

Kembra Pfahler is pure punk rock. As one of the art world’s most transgressive and electrifying figures, sewing her vagina closed in Richard Kern’s short film Sewing Circle [1992] and making love to a rubber octopus in Nick Zedd’s movie War Is Menstrual Envy [1992] are just a few of the memorable moments from her oeuvre of feminist, radical artworks.

Born in Los Angeles in 1961, Pfahler was soon drawn inexorably to the east coast, where she became an eminent and unsettling figure in New York’s febrile art scene in the 1980s and where she still resides today.

She describes herself as an “anti-naturalist”. Her striking theatrical appearance and her dedication to the extremities of artificiality have caught the attention of the fashion world. Aside from being the acknowledged muse of Rick Owens, she’s also modelled for Calvin Klein, Rodarte, Helmut Lang and Marc Jacobs. But her love of the “total transformation” of costume reaches an apotheosis with her band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Founded by Pfahler and Samoa Moriki in 1990, TVHKB are cut unforgettable figures in their signature wigs, body paint, blackened teeth, and thigh-high stiletto boots – part horror B-movie, part deviant geishas.

Her upcoming performance artwork, On The Record Off The Record, will take place at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works ahead of a series of much-anticipated new recordings by TVHKB. The show – which promises to be as spectacular and which Pfahler describes as one of her proudest career moments – features a monumental sculpture of a black vinyl record rotating on the stage and responding sonically to the band’s movements as they “amplify cracks, heart beats, pokes and swishes”.

Below, Kembra Pfahler answers questions on everything from the first artwork she ever created to the best piece of advice she’s ever been given and her first, seminal encounter with punk.

1. Where are you at the moment? 

At home in NYC. 

2. What are your plans for the rest of the day? 

Try to change the world.

3. Please could you introduce your upcoming On the Record/Off the Record

My next performance piece is curated by Jane Ursula Harris. I’ve been working on it for at least a decade. I’m really excited and I feel very honored that Dustin [Yellin] and Gabriel [Florenz] invited me to participate in doing something at this incredible, unusual art space in Red Hook. I don’t have any expectations of how the audience will feel, but I hope they have a good experience coming to see my work and that’s all I ever hope for. 

4. Who is TVHKB? 

TVHKB are The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, founded by myself and Samoa [Moriki] in 1990. 

5. Could you tell us about your next record?

Our next record is being recorded with Gabriel Florenz at Pioneer Works in their recording studio. We’re recording a single hopefully this week and we have two new songs – Hole With a Heartbeat and Free

The songs are uplifting to human beings’ hearts and to all living things’ hearts, hopefully. That’s the thing that motivated me to start making music, because when I started being an artist when I was young I found it very difficult always being alone in my studio, so having the band was formed out of a desire to create music for our visual works and our performance works. 

6. When you were a kid what did you want to do when you were grown up?

What I’m doing now. 

7. What aspirations did your parents have for you?

What I’m doing now. 

8. What role does music play in your work?

All music is a soundtrack to my life. 

9. Who would play you in a movie of your life? 

I would like no film about me … My performance isn’t show business although it’s sometimes funny and gimmickish and entertaining. ‘Vanity is the enemy of interpretation.’ 

10. If there was one though, who would you want to direct it?

Roberto Rossellini.

11. What song would you like to be played at your funeral?

Free by Deniece Williams.

12. What’s your most important creative ritual? 

Sewing my vagina shut.

13. What’s your biggest regret? 

Sewing my vagina shut. 

14. What makes you laugh most? 

Sewing my vagina shut. 

15. What’s the last picture on your camera roll? 

A picture of the drawing I did last night.

16. What’s the most embarrassing picture on your camera roll? 

My sewn vagina. 

17. What qualities first drew you to Samoa Moriki? 

I was drawn to Samoa because he was the most genius, glamorous, intelligent person I’d ever met in real life.

18. What is the secret of a good collaboration?

Patience and honesty. 

19. What’s the career moment you’re most proud of? 

What’s happening now … getting to do a performance at Pioneer Works with my band at aged 60. Getting to do an art performance with Emalin at the age of 60. Just getting to still be here when I lost most of my friends in the 80s from Aids and there are so few of my demographic left. I’m just here in their honour.

20. Do you suffer from stage fright before a performance? 

I do, I think that’s common. Your tummy does backward flips, but it doesn’t really deter me from going on stage.

21. Where would be your dream venue/location to perform?

The Apollo Theater in Harlem.

22. Who would be your dream collaborator (dead or alive)?

Luther Vandross. 

23. What scares you?

My cat on the way to the veterinarian. 

24. Can you remember the first artwork you ever created? 

I stood on my head and cracked an egg on my vagina. 

25. What is your most treasured possession?

The clothes and gifts that Rick Owens has gifted me in our friendship. 

26. What is on your bedside table? 

I don’t have a bedside table. 

27. How would you describe your personal style?

Making the best use of what’s available. 

28. Can you remember an occasion when you felt star-struck? 

The first time I met Karen Black, the actress who the band is named after. 

29. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Remain calm and do exactly what you want.

30. What book are you reading at the moment? 

The Bible. We’re having a terrible Christian Right resurgence. In Oklahoma state they’ve just put out a bounty for people getting abortions. So I’m reading The Bible because it’s fiction – it’s science fiction – and I’m so horrified by what’s happening in the United States, I actually went to the corner pharmacy and I bought a Bible. My parents are Jewish and they never inflicted their Judaism on me, that was always elective for me. But I love all religious ceremonies, I love ceremonies, I just don’t like the morality of religion and I really don’t like what’s happening in the US … with all us females like we’re property again. It’s really horrifying. But we’ll keep talking about it and we’ll have the courage to change it.

31. What’s your favourite thing about your neighborhood? 

The delicatessen owned by the Yemen. 

32. If we came there, where should we go?

To all the delicatessens on the Lower East Side that are owned by Dominicans, Koreans, Puerto Ricans – and ask them what to order. 

33. When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

After going to see the first wave of punk rock in Los Angeles in the 70s. I saw The Screamers and I said, ‘That music is very unusual.’ I wanted to come out as hard as that, with as much courage as they had. I want to play as hard as that.’ They inspired me. I was inspired by people who took risks when I was in high school, and when I saw music and heard music and performance that I was so utterly surprised by, it really shook me to my core in a very positive way. 

34. And if you weren’t an artist, what do you think you would be?

I would be a nuclear physicist. 

35. What is the last piece of art that moved you?

Emily Barker’s clear sculpture [Kitchen, 2019] that she put in the Whitney Biennial. 

36. What is a constant source of inspiration for you? 


37. Do you have a muse?

Marlboro cigarettes.

38. What role does costume play in your work? 

It helps to transform from the ground up. I believe in total transformation. It’s a liminal process of gathering and collecting costume pieces so that I can tell the story I’m trying to illustrate as articulately as possible. I’m an anti-naturalist. I prefer to tell a story costumed. 

39. What role does your body play in your work? 

My body is available.

40. Do you believe in ghosts?


41. Do you believe in God?


42. Do you believe in aliens?


43. What is the happiest accident you ever had making art?

When I did The Wall of Vagina and the plain yogurt that we splooged in between our legs looked like a river of yeast.

44. In your opinion, what is the greatest artwork ever made?

The Wall of Vagina.

45. How would you like to be remembered? 

The Wall of Vagina.

46. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

I’m both. 

47. What is your favourite time of day or night?

All day, all night.

48. Who is your favourite fictional character?

The writer in the book Ask the Dust by John Fante. I‘m from Los Angeles and that book has remained with me my whole life. 

49. What qualities do you look for in friends?

Forgiveness, patience, and humour.

50: What advice would you give to aspiring young artists? 

Remain calm and do exactly what you want. 

Kembra Pfahler: On The Record Off The Record: Volume Two will take place at Pioneer Works at Red Hook Labs in New York on June 17 and 18, 2022.

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