Jessica Voorsanger is an American artist living and working in London. She has lectured at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) Canterbury since 1997. Among other venues, her work was exhibited at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Tate Modern and at the Hayward Gallery.
"I think it’s the same for all the immigrants who have come here and have settled in this country. They are honourable people, with their kids going to school, they are working and contributing to society. They are the society, and a richness to it".
What it your story as a foreigner?
Before moving to London, I did my senior year of university in Italy and that year completely changed me. Before I went, I always thought about myself as not fitting within the society I lived in. I was very shy, quite introverted and I tried to fight that by being over the top. But my year in Italy completely changed me. And I think part of that is about learning another language. It helped me being much more confident and outgoing and I became more open as a person. As soon as I had this other face of speaking in another language I felt really bolder.
So what brought you to the UK?
I moved to the UK in 1990 to follow my husband (the British artist Bob and Roberta Smith, editor’s note) whom I had met in Rome two years before while he was attending the British school. It was one thing being a foreigner in Italy, where the language and the culture were dramatically different. But when I came to London I thought, “oh, I’m going to another big city where they speak English”, not realising that it was completely a foreign place. I really felt foreign when I moved here, in a way that I didn’t feel in Italy. When I was in Italy I felt like I was this young American explorer. Here I was somebody else in a different place. It took me years before it became home for me. I have been here for 27 years. Now this is home, but integrating into this culture took a lot longer than I thought.
What did you learn from living abroad?
When we moved to London we lived in Leytonstone, which was a very diverse neighbourhood at the time. There was a mixture of people from all over the world and it was really exciting. What scared me a little bit was that I found people who were resistant to my interest. I was quite shocked when I realized that maybe my interest and my excitement was stepping on some people’s toes.
Maybe I was that American stereotype of someone who just walks into a situation which she should be more sensitive about before she starts asking questions, so I backed off a lot. Since then I have made very good friends, it is a very diverse group. Maybe I needed to learn that these connections are made carefully and with sensitivity.
Did it change you personally?
Doing my masters at Goldsmiths completely made me who I am. In high school I rarely raised my hand because I was so shy that I wouldn’t talk. But in this environment if anybody raised any subject related to women, Judaism or Americans, then I had to say something. Because nobody in the room was going to say anything to defend one of these three categories. There is something about stepping on the feet of other cultures that led me to speak when one of these three categories came up.
How does being a foreigner translate into your work?
I’ve brought that into my work in a lot of ways. Through costumes and the exploration of identity. When you are wearing a wig and you’ve got a costume on you’re no longer yourself. It’s like a game where you feel emboldened and you’re not longer withdrawn. The earlier work I made while I was here was all about exploring popular culture and my relationship to Cassidy, who was a popstar in the 1970s. When I came here, I was really cut off from my own culture and I was trying to fit into my husband’s. That is the reason I started doing all of that work about fan culture.
Is your work perceived in the same way that it would be in America?
The thing about New York is that the city embraces Judaism as a culture, not just as a religion. So when it’s Hanukkah the Korean deli has Rugelach in the window. But moving here I realized Judaism is very much about the religion and what it means to be connected to Europe, and what happened during the war. In some of my projects I’ve dealt with this. I had a show in the Jewish quarter in Berlin, in a gallery right next to the Jewish high school with a permanent armed guard on patrol in front it, which is terrible. The project was about Woody Allen. I dressed up as him and performed his early monologues, some of which are absolutely brilliant.
Where is home now?
Once my husband and I had been here for 3 years, we started to make connections, to be invited to shows and we were creating shows ourselves. The ‘90s in the art world was a very exciting time because the market had crashed and artists could create what they wanted in these buildings that nobody had been able to rent for years. Gradually, we became part of the community, of our neighbourhood. Why leaving? This was our home. This is something that builds up over the years and I think it’s the same for all the immigrants who have come here and have settled in this country. They are honourable people, with their kids going to school, they are working and contributing to society. They are the society, and a richness to it.
But in 2012 I got diagnosed with breast cancer and I went through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. While I was receiving treatment I was listening to the radio about this fear of foreigners coming to use the NHS and the country resources and I thought: “OMG that’s me. That is exactly who I am. I am here, in England, using these resources”. And of course I pay my taxes, I volunteered at my kid’s schools, I try to be part of the community and to give back to the community. But I realised that the person they were talking on the radio was me, and that really scared me. In 2013 I began the process, and the following year I became a British citizen. After living here since 1990 I never had the feeling I needed to do it, but I got scared and became British.
Do you sometimes feel like a foreigner?
Yes, but I also feel like being a foreigner from being American.
What words do you associate with being Foreigner?
Exotic, resourceful, intricate