LOS ANGELES -- Floria Sigismondi flies by the seat of her suede shorts. We're in the acclaimed photographer and music video director's beat-up old Mercedes, winding down the tortuous Laurel Canyon Boulevard over West Hollywood to her studio for the final post-production work on her new video, Fiona Apple's O' Sailor. Her new cellphone, delivered moments ago and still in its box, is already ringing, and Tosca, her one-year-old daughter with Living Things frontman Lillian Berlin, starts crying in the back car seat; her ears are popping from the sudden altitude drop.
"Can you drive?" asks Sigismondi.
I take the wheel and she hops in the back to look after her child.
The narrow road's corners are almost as tight as her schedule. On top of finishing off Apple's video, she has also just moved to Los Angeles from Toronto, is working on the screenplay of her first feature film and launches Immune, her second book of photographs, tomorrow night at Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.
Sigismondi's passion for her work lights up her large eyes and carries her through her schedule.
"I haven't slept more than three hours in one go for about a year," says the tall and willowy artist. "Just when you think you can't handle it, you go on." She laughs. "It's amazing what the body can take."
Sigismondi's vision has garnered her awards and respect, dating back to her memorable work with Marilyn Manson and David Bowie nine years ago. Immune, a lush collection of images, reads like a retrospective of modern dystopia, rendered magnetically appealing by its tragic beauty.
Her intense interest in the changing human form comes into sharp focus in the photographs of her sculptures. A female manikin poses naked, revealing her enhanced body with four breasts (doubles her pleasure) and spikes running down her spine, an added defense to compensate for her missing right hand.
Many of the images in Immune are taken from the elaborate, luminous sets of her videos, affording a closer look than the quick cuts normally allow.
One series in particular stands out, from an Incubus video called Megalomaniac about a violent American president. Endless electrical wires mark the sky's gradations from blue to purple as dusk falls on an industrial zone. Oil well pumps pump. On the gravel foreground against a chain-link fence, a two-walled made-for-TV dining-room set features a dysfunctional nuclear family with empty eyes, their table littered with broken communication devices on which they dine.
"That's the futuristic family who's been numbed by society," explains Sigismondi. "They're eating media. They've been fed and brainwashed. They eat oil."
Another series looks like design or fashion photography, except that the models all have large, white and expressionless oblong blobs for heads, with simple holes for eyes or mouths.
"I wanted to see if you took away expression and eyes, could you still get emotion? What does the body give you if you take away the face?"
The answer, it seems, is the immunity of being numb, of imbibing pop culture as an anaesthetic, every antenna a hypodermic needle. Delving into the opposite instinct, she describes her screenplay-in-the-works as taking place in a world where "burlesque, degenerates, drifters and travellers all come together, a place that enables people to release their dark side." Evil aside, expect a cast of characters who refuse to be put back to sleep.
Some artists seek tranquility, and Sigismondi's cliff-perched new home certainly has that. But she also finds that tension sparks her dark, brooding creative bent. "I don't mind getting angry at things, because it makes me feel alive," she tells me, "That's important for me, for creating."
When I first arrive two hours earlier during the photo shoot for this week's cover, Sigismondi greets me warmly in her colourful 60s stockings, airy gold-and-silver-sequined top and fake pink flower in her raven-black hair. But she's fretting.
Tosca is crawling around, her home phone ringing like an ambulance in a traffic jam and her medium-format camera acting up. Her assistant switches to a 35mm point-and-shoot while Pamela Neal, a hair and makeup artist and long-time collaborator, tends to her purple glitter tears.
Sigismondi keeps her cool despite the glitch, playing model, artist, mother and host with buoyant, scattershot focus.
L.A. suddenly seems a very long way from Sigismondi's blue-collar hometown of Hamilton. Being raised by professional opera singer parents, it's a wonder that she hails from Hamilton at all. The family's move from Italy when she was young played out like a tragic opera itself when Sigismondi's father couldn't find work performing. In Hamilton they found support among her mother's family. They lived in her cousin's attic while her father went to New York, hoping for a break but returning empty handed two years later.
Add her father's atheism and mother's Catholicism and innate operatic flamboyance and the tragedy almost turns comic.
"My mother," she recalls, "would dress so extravagantly just to go to Food City." Sigismondi and her sister had to follow suit.
"All I wanted was a pair of Levis and a T-shirt, you know, and she would get these Sears patterns and put me in plaid knickers and all this weird stuff that the Bay City Rollers were in. In a way, it kind of builds you, because you have no choice. It made me who I am."
Despite any hardship, to young Floria the life of an artist never seemed anything less than ideal.
"My parents were incredibly encouraging. You know, if you scribble on a piece of paper you're an artist. Anything to do with art, singing or dance that was the future."
After moving to Toronto and attending OCA, she struggled to find a creative way to make a living.
"I did anything I could. I walked up and down Queen Street with my portfolio, going into stores. A lot of them took little ads in NOW Magazine, and that's how it all started. The very first thing I ever got printed was in NOW."
She gradually started shooting album covers for performers like Jane Siberry and Lee Aaron, which soon led to her bread and butter, videos. Her notoriety led to gallery shows of her installations and photography in New York, Europe and finally in Toronto, in 2001.
I turn left into a parking lot and we enter an unassuming visual effects studio. Nate, the post-production supervisor, fills Sigismondi in on their progress with the minute final touch-ups of smoke wafting around Fiona Apple. The video has to be dubbed and out the door within the hour to make it to New York by 9 the next morning, but Floria wants to re-edit a scene transition. Nate's immaculate calm shows a tiny crack. "We have about five minutes," he says as Tosca hands him a fruit chew she's found.
Ten minutes later, Sigismondi is finished, the phones stop ringing, smiles abound and she bids her small team a fond goodbye.
If tension is the flint for Sigismondi's creative spark, then critical concern for a mad, desperate world is her fuel. Responding to an array of related issues, from mass consumerism to cosmetic implants to cybernetic and genetic tampering with the human form, she poses the question, what does it mean to be human?
"It's a lot about the new body," muses Sigismondi. "How, in order to survive, we've changed."
As with any slow but relentless transformation, it's easy to miss, but being raised on the tragic tales of classic operas has given the artist a unique perspective. With her own operatic flair, she homes in on the raw emotional core of what gets lost when we reduce the body to a consumption machine, and makes it personal.
"Directing and photography are a safe environment for me to look at myself, to exorcise some of my demons. This is my way of looking at them." Through Sigismondi's images, her demons become avatars of something beyond the world of Botox and saccharine happy endings.
Wending our way back up the foggy canyon in the pitch dark, I wonder if her scrappy sedan isn't too long and low to make the steep hairpin turns.
With O' Sailor done, Sigismondi will take the next few months to calmly complete her current script.
All is still. Sigismondi carries a sleeping Tosca into her house and could actually be in for a quiet evening. But probably not. Even as I leave, I can hear her phone starting to ring.
NOW | NOVEMBER 10 - 16, 2005 | VOL. 25 NO. 11