How Kim Kardashian uses her past to create contemporary art
For the latest instalment of TMZ Theory, Philippa Snow explores the artistic power of Kim Kardashian
The weirdest thing about Kim Kardashian’s 2019 Halloween costume was the fact that for the first time since about 2009, she looked as if she’d skipped the tanning bed. Dressed as Reese Witherspoon from the 2001 film Legally Blonde, Kim was so pale in comparison to her usual tawny self that she looked like she was in whiteface – as light-skinned, baby-blonde and all-American as her frenemy, former boss and progenitor, Paris Hilton. In her video pastiche of that film’s Harvard application video, her tan is darker, but the message is the same: introducing Kim Kardashian in the role of a rich white woman. Scene-for-scene, it is a perfect recreation, made by somebody with a net worth of $270 million dollars and yet still convincingly like something shot on VHS, or on a Motorola Razr.
“I object!” Kim shoots back at a man who wolf-whistles her, and the joke is simultaneously that this is exactly what Reese Witherspoon’s character did, and that Kim Kardashian would not -- has never, really -- object to being objectified. When she floats in her azure pool in a sequinned green bikini, it seems near-impossible that Witherspoon’s character wore it first, so haute-Kim is the outfit’s style. I’m a babe with a big brain, she appears to be suggesting, but please don’t overlook the “babe” part. As ever, she looks unreal, both in the sense that she does not look believably like a normal human woman, and that she looks unbelievable. She looks more like Pamela Anderson than she does like Reese Witherspoon.
“There is a misconception that I don't actually have to study, and that I've bought my way into getting a law degree,” Kim Kardashian told Vogue Arabia this summer. “That's absolutely not true… Being underestimated and over-delivering is my vibe.” Undoubtedly, her intent in recreating Elle Woods’ Harvard application clip is to nod to her own status as a gorgeous, intellectually-underestimated woman with the dream of being a big-shot lawyer. What is interesting about it, however, is not her intent, but the impression it is apt to leave on viewers used to looking at her on the other 364 days of the year. Since Legally Blonde first hit cinemas, Kim has become progressively more tanned, further augmented, more enamoured by trends that originated with black women, so that searching “Kim white Legally Blonde” on Twitter brings up numerous, serious tweets accusing her of appropriating white culture. In choosing to inhabit the perky, preppy and privileged character of Elle Woods, she has momentarily shrugged off her permanent Kim Kardashian costume in order to become what she has always been: a rich chick born in California who consistently benefits from white privilege.
“It’s one of cinema’s indelible moments,” the critic Greg Cwik wrote this year, about the shower scene in Gus Van Sant’s meticulous, full-colour, shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. “[It’s] a scene carved into the cranium of popular consciousness, but it’s not quite how you remember it… Hitchcock’s seminal slasher is, in a sense, a film about fetishising the past -- about being beholden to it… Van Sant’s film brings to mind what Walter Benjamin referred to as the ‘aura of the work of art.’ Reproduction, Benjamin espoused, diminishes this aura, bastardizes it and turns a unique work into a meager plurality. By reproducing a film, Van Sant is emphasising the original film’s aura, playing with its ‘cult of remembrance.’”
For women who were aged anywhere between 12 and 25 in 2001, Legally Blonde is a cult movie best remembered for its sweetness, its pre-9/11 optimism and its basic feminism. A heartwarming comedy about a college student overcoming the near-insurmountable obstacle of being rich and blonde and conventionally hot, it advocates against judging a notebook full of observations on civil procedure by its hot pink, puffy-painted cover. The year it was first released, Kim was just 21 years old, and had not yet appeared in a leaked sex-tape; she was not yet the ubiquitous star of Keeping up with the Kardashians. It is not difficult to see why she might feel nostalgia for the era, nor particularly surprising that the movie might be carved into her consciousness. Her video does not just play with the remembered aura of Legally Blonde, but with the aura of a Kim Kardashian that we barely remember, and that maybe only she recalls with undiminished clarity.
If the video is not a work of contemporary art, in other words, it is revealing enough that it more or less behaves like one. Maybe it’s utterly perverse of me, but thinking about Kim’s devoted recreation of that Harvard application clip, I thought about an actual piece of video art that I had seen and loved not long ago: a shot-for-shot remake of Jørgen Leth’s 1967 short film The Perfect Human by the genius young American artist Alex Da Corte, created for Secession gallery in Vienna in 2017. Where Leth’s original is a pseudo-clinical exploration of the ideal man and woman, shot in sterile white confinement and observed as if on display at a zoo — “we will see the perfect human functioning,” the voiceover intones. “Now we will see how the perfect human looks, and what it can do” — Da Corte’s version shows the artist in dual roles, as Boris Karloff and as Karloff’s Frankenstein. “It feels like reality, but it also feels like a cartoon,” Da Corte said of his homage to Leth, in an interview with the art site The Louisiana Channel. “What does it mean for an actor to be somebody, and then to put on all this prosthetic makeup, and be somebody else? What does it mean to lead a life that is split in some way, to be one thing and to be another?”
There are almost no contemporary artists whose work I love as much as I love Da Corte’s, his dazzling aesthetic and his subject matter creating a perfect synthesis of beauty and significance. His video, replacing what purports to be a perfect natural specimen with something unnatural, invented and immediately familiar as a piece of iconography should probably not be compared to a Halloween video by Kim Kardashian. Still, aren’t both pieces about what it means to live a split life? Aren’t they both about the conflict between image and identity? This comparison is not to say that Kim is monstrous: she is uncanny, an astounding feat of engineering, as if brought to life by some erotic electricity. She looks like reality, but she also looks like a cartoon. “His limbs were in proportion,” Dr. Frankenstein says of his terrible creation in Mary Shelly’s novel, “and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!” There is no doubt that Kim Kardashian has selected her own features to be beautiful, too; she is not only a perfectionist, but one who never stops working on her art, i.e. herself.
As it turns out, there is another, even more interesting Kim Kardashian art project about both reproduction and nostalgia in existence. For her mother’s birthday earlier this month, she rented out her childhood home and recreated its interior. “I remade all of our table settings, decor out of the same fabric and print as the wallpaper,” she wrote on Instagram. “We had lunch at the home as if it hadn’t changed and we cried the entire time.” As with her video as Elle Woods, I immediately found I had a point of direct comparison spring into my head from the field of contemporary art: the German artist Gregor Schneider’s Totes Haus U R, a recreation of his onetime-home in Rheydt that showed at the German Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, its rooms fucked with so that everything seemed just-off, Lynchian enough to scare. Schneider spent eight years working on the house, making it a shorter-term project than Kim Kardashian’s own physical form. “My work became more and more expressive,” he said in 2004, “until I realised that it was not possible to make anything any more intense.”
Kim is no quitter and does not appear to share the same concern. (If she feels like plundering another movie for her art in the future, she is also studying law, presumably making her near-impervious to copyright infringement lawsuits.) “For years i’ve jokingly played w the idea of teaching psychoanalysis 101 thru the kardashians,” the artist and critic Audrey Wollen tweeted about Kim’s Instagram post, sounding equal parts horrified and fascinated, “but Kim RECREATING HER CHILDHOOD HOME IN PERFECT DETAIL ‘as if it hadn’t changed’ for her moms bday lunch has pushed the entire project over the edge.”