Telling stories with the body

increasingly unclear
15 min readDec 22, 2023

Paola Estrella’s work is nonlinear and multilayered.

This is a transcript of an interview with the artist. She works across painting, performance and moving image, playing many characters to create narratives about our relationships with technology. You can read a condensed version of this interview here.

Paola Estrella performing La Loca (2023). Photo by Sam Nightingale, used with permission of the artist.

Q: Tell me about your latest film, La Loca — the witch with the lights and the hair.

A: [laughs] That’s a crazy one! I have a love and hate relationship with it. Some days it makes a lot of sense to me — like of course, you know? This witch should exist, it’s important. And some days I look at that character and I’m like, “What are you saying?!” I feel disconnected from it. But it’s part of why I like that character so much.

That wig — it has more than 300 lights, it’s super long. Part of the creative process was to make it, while I was recording the story.

It’s quite a complex live performance, because you’re sitting in front of the laptop, there’s things happening on a big screen, you have to read something, and trigger things at certain times.

I’m glad you noticed that — I never knew if the audience could perceive that it’s live.

What did audiences think? Have you gotten feedback?

Yeah, it’s also a performance about connections — how we connect today, different ways of communicating. How you touch someone without necessarily having that proximity.

And magic as well — in the sense of, what we think is possible, but we’re not aware we can control or perceive. It’s kind of an abstract narrative — it’s not that clear, it touches on many things. So I was hoping that people understood the messages. And they did.

How do you understand magic? For you, is it something that’s outside of accepted society, is it related to technology, or feminism?

I think that, in order for us to believe that something is real, we need others to approve — “Are you seeing this?” I think magic gets lost when it comes to that.

I do believe that we’re capable of provoking, moving, and understanding beyond what is rational. I believe a lot in the power of rituals — healing with hands, for example. And I do think that a lot of that gets lost when we’re operating in the rhythm of a society and power structures, and we’re busy all the time. We lose an awareness of those powers that are part of our nature.

So I understand magic as, not exactly agency, but more like rebellion. In that sense, I do think it can be connected to feminism, because of the histories attached to witches.

For you, does it go back to Mexico, where you come from? Mexico does have certain traditions like that, going way back to the ancient civilisations.

There is a lot of that, but those traditions have also been oppressed — these ways of understanding, of learning. Considering that it’s a society that’s very machista. But, I do think it’s become more accepted recently. It is a kind of trend in the art world —

Yes, also here in London — everywhere.

Yeah, and I think that people get inspired by cultures that have been practicing these rituals for so long, but they’ve been marginalised. So I do think that Mexico is a very strong vortex for understanding magic and rituals, powers that go beyond logical explanations.

You like to leave your work open to different interpretations.

I believe in layers. I have a work that involves a jellyfish — a kind of half jellyfish, half human — a sophisticated narrative, kind of erotic. And some children saw it, and they connected to it, getting something very different.

I think in terms of layers when I’m producing a project, too. A certain scene — I think, “That could be a painting” or could be a performance. Making is not linear — you’re not like, “I’m gonna make this painting, I’m gonna exhibit it next month.” It just comes and goes, and you have to respond to work that, at the moment, you might not know what it’s about. You might put it on a shelf for a while.

Coming back to that way of thinking that we’ve been calling magic — I think the creative process is connected to that. If you try to ground it too much, then you lose something. Thinking in a way that’s too linear, you’re missing out on these multiple spheres that could be affecting the work. If something is happening in the world, or in your world, it’s going to affect the work and what you’re making. If you don’t allow that to happen, then you’re missing something interesting.

Still from the film Polvos Mágicos by Paola Estrella, used with permission of the artist.

I can see some clear themes in your work, but you tell me the things you’re interested in.

Intimacy is one thing that holds my work together — it could be touch, or desire, or gender. But always in relation to the inner world, and how that connects to the external world.

Then, that relates to the real versus the imagined — how we construct our reality, and our identities. And how we navigate that in the “real world”.

I work with fiction, during the past four years or so. Sometimes I become characters, and sometimes the characters exist on their own, and then I embody them in a performance. It might be that a character from a film wasn’t supposed to exist outside that film. But then I’m like, “This bird could talk about this subject,” and then I embody it, and create a discourse around it.

I have two birds, actually. One is a hummingbird — that project is more about identity, because there are no hummingbirds in the UK. When I used to work with my grandmother in her studio in Mexico, hummingbirds used to come all the time. So, working outside my homeland, in a new city, hummingbirds became this metaphor to talk about identity.

The other bird is part of a film — it dances to reggaeton! It’s about exploring feminism in relation to sexuality and pop culture. It wasn’t supposed to be more than a bird in her room, but now it’s a whole character, doing cabaret nights! [laughs]

You do your own costumes?

Yes, but I also collaborate. I collaborated with a fashion designer — Gabrielle Venger — in a project called Journey to the Underworld

That is, like, an epic film — science fiction, all kinds of things.

[laughs] I think I’m still understanding what it was about. I thought it was about desire, but now I think it was more about matrilineal issues — my mom is in it, my sister, and the main collaborator is my grandmother — she sings in the film. And all of it comes from conversations that I was having with my grandmother — about desire, and how that has changed from generation to generation. If women are allowed to desire, and at what point they get condemned for it. So, a journey to the underworld.

What I understand about Mexican culture — it can be conservative about gender roles, for example.

Yeah, definitely. That’s part of the film, but it’s a more intuitive process, that film.

Your family, especially your grandmother, seems to be a very present element in your work. Tell me about growing up in Mexico — how did you get into art and performance?

Actually, I first studied graphic design at university in Mexico City. My background before that was in painting — very traditional painting with my grandmother. And I wasn’t very good at it!

Graphic design gave me something extra — digital skills, composition. After my degree, I decided that graphic design wasn’t what I wanted, but it did shape my practice in many ways. You can see now how my work jumps between digital and physical, for example.

After I left design, I was doing mixed media painting — I always use digital techniques for my painting. All my compositions come from photographs. I create them digitally first, and they change a lot when they turn into paintings . But I sketch digitally.

How did you get into performance?

When I started to perform, I didn’t know I was performing. I went to Venice for a residency. My great grandmother was born there, and she had to leave during World War II, and was never able to go back.

I took some of her objects to Venice, and I was playing some of her music and inviting people over — that was a performance but I didn’t understand it that way. The outcome was that I created a painting out of the experience.

Then I started to become more aware of what I was doing. But still today, I don’t see myself as a performer, I don’t see myself as a painter, or a filmmaker. So I guess my work is between media.

More focused on the content of the work than which medium.

Yeah, exactly. I’ve worked with painters who are really concerned about the medium. Or filmmakers — it’s a lot about, like, “Which lens are you using?” I don’t really care about those things — out of respect for people who do.

Still from Oh to Be, in collaboration with Toby Tobias (2019), used with permission of the artist.

But let’s talk about technology. You’re using digital technologies in creating the work, but it’s also a topic of some of the works, like La Loca.

I do reflect a lot on technology when it comes to making, because I’m interested in intimacy. Obviously the way we connect, communicate, fall in love, understand our bodies — it changes a lot, and it’s been completely changed by technology.

I made a work called Cyber Astronaut. It’s about this woman who’s living with her partner, who is part of a mysterious project that she doesn’t understand. And she thinks that the company the person works for is sending a double. She’s like, “You’re not the husband.”

I was inspired by my partner, who’s a programmer. He gets completely absorbed — plugged in, I call it. Not present. But technology — it’s always present, and always going faster. Faster in the way we integrate it into our lives, too.

Think about Uber — when it first came out, I couldn’t imagine jumping into a stranger’s car. But a month later, it was part of my life. It’s so easy. Technologies that affect the way we move, we connect, we operate — I think we’re not able to really see how they affect our thinking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about selfies. This awareness of our bodies and our identities — our digital identities. And how that allows space for imagining, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. These platforms bring a lot of problems, but they also allow for creative expression, and understanding of multiple selves.

I would like my work to help people reflect on some of these things. But I’m not taking a specific position. I’m not trying to get some message across. But more like, “Have you thought about this?”

Even in work where I have a more personal position, I don’t reflect that in a direct way, it’s more about questioning social constructions, and understanding how the imaginary reflects our bubble of reality. How to accept that, or how to break that bubble. Have you tried to live outside that bubble?

Related to that is the role of the body, which is very present in your work. How do you think about this? Is it like, “This is me.” Or is it more like, “This is you — you have a body.”

I read something recently about how our understanding of the body is not biological, but more related to our social context. So I’m interested in how I, having this body, in this social context, am perceived in a different way than, say, me being a Mexican in Mexico.

The body is what holds your experience together; you can’t have a human experience without the body. My work is about how bodies are socially perceived. And linking again to magic, how this body is capable of doing and understanding things that go beyond what we’ve been taught.

So, is it you in your films, or are you only playing a role?

I’ve noticed that when I’m editing a film that I’m in, I call the character “she” or “her” — there’s a distance between the performer and myself. When I perform, I am embodying a character. Of course any artwork is about the artist, to some degree — especially when you perform and it’s about the body. It’s more vulnerable when a body is present, when there’s a live response to an action.

For that reason, I tend to cry a lot after performing live! Even if it goes well, I get sad afterwards. I think that has to do with vulnerability.

Maybe because you’re putting a lot out there — you’re doing a lot of emotional work. It’s like coming down.

And each performance is very different. I’ve never done a performance more than twice, and each time it’s very different.

What are you working on now?

I’m editing something that I filmed in Mexico over the summer. It’s about a mermaid that comes to the world looking for romance, gets disappointed, and is selling all her belongings to go back to the ocean. I’m still figuring out what it’s about, and I’ve been working on it for over a year. I don’t know if it will be a performance or an experimental video.

Then in parallel, I’m working on a project called Fate, Chance and Economics. It’s about the value of things, in connection to art and what makes it valuable. And also about the role of desire when it comes to fate, chance and the value of things.

So I’ve been painting a series of portraits of artist friends living in London. But it’s also performative: for one of them, we went to Harrods and bought a very expensive dress, and we made the portraits while having a discussion about, like, “Where would you go with this dress?” “What are your desires?”

Then we bought a lottery ticket, and we said, “If we win something, we keep the dress. If we don’t, we return it.” Went back to the shop, returned the dress. And all of that I recorded. Now I’m trying to reflect before putting together a complete exhibition, hopefully in about a year. You never know — again, it’s never linear.

It’s important nowadays to take time like that. Think about the rhythm of social media — you’re expected to be showing things all the time. Before I went to Mexico to film this mermaid project, I felt like that pressure to make, show, make, show was affecting what I was making. So I was like, “Wait. Take a step back.”

And so I worked on a big painting, to breathe. You can make work just to put it out there. Or commercial work — I did a commission over the summer also. It didn’t really challenge my thinking, but it was an enjoyable process of making.

Do you see yourself playing different roles in everyday life, not only in your work? You’re dressed quite conservatively, compared to in your videos, and I imagine you moving easily between different circles. There are social practice artists like Pivli Takala, for example, who worked in a company and just sat there and did nothing. And it completely freaked out the other employees. And that was the work. Have you ever thought about something like that?

Yes, definitely. That performance you just mentioned was mentioned to me over the summer. I was doing this thing where I dressed like a princess, and going to interview people about, “Where can I find love?” The results I got from the interviews, I don’t know what to do with them yet.

But the way my practice works, and my personality, is about understanding these multiple selves, including the social media one. I went to a gig the other night where a friend was playing, and I was dressed in neon. Then the next day, I was teaching in a red suit.

Talking to my mother, she’s like, “You’ve always been like this.” I think we all do it, but maybe I push it a little bit further.

My MA dissertation [at the Royal College of Art] was called Intimate Notes about Proximity, and part of it was a reflection on how intimacy with oneself has to do with building a relationship between multiple characters that construct the inner world.

Tell me about Diasporas Now.

We founded it during Covid, at the RCA. It started with live-streamed performances by artists from the Global Majority. And then the world opened, and the online audience that we had built up, started to invite us to do live events.

We’re all so different — the founding members all approach performance with different interests. This is the nice thing about working collectively — we don’t expect to think or make in a similar way, it’s more about offering a platform for other artists to experiment and try new things. With performance, you need a team — someone to bring in the people, someone to turn on the lights, someone to do the filming.

We’re doing a tour, funded by Arts Council England, and it’s in collaboration with NN Contemporary in Northampton, the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, and Humber Street Gallery in Hull. We put out an open call, and many of the artists who applied are working with sound, so we decided to respond to that, and make the tour specifically about sound.

It’s been a good way to build a community after graduating from the RCA. We have a team to discuss things, we meet people all the time. There are lots of challenges, but we’re learning.

Have you seen any good exhibitions lately? Any artists you’re excited about these days?

I went to the Barbican’s RE/SISTERS exhibition. I thought it was very well curated, and it inspired me to go back to making work that, at first, doesn’t make sense, but when it’s put next to other work, it makes sense and is relevant. So it inspired me to experiment, not to be so precious about the result.

I saw Jon Rafman at Sprüth Magers, and thought it was very fresh — he works a lot with bizarre internet social media stuff. I really enjoyed that, it was one of the best shows I saw this year.

I saw a lot of stuff during Frieze Week, because I was working at the fair, for the press team. It’s a great cocktail of stuff, but quite overwhelming.

I’ve been looking at Leighton House in West London. It has a nice collection, and I’m taking inspiration for the portraits I’m developing for Fate, Chance and Economics — hair, textures and things. My experience working at Frieze also influenced that work — the money, the business, the collectors and the stories they are told — what creates the desire.

Paola Estrella in Guanajuato, Mexico, part of a series of photographs, Down the Rabbit Hole (2016). Used with permission of the artist

I keep hearing great things about the art scene in Mexico City.

It’s great — especially from the pandemic until now — a lot of artists, an international community. I’m just so invested in London, though — the people, the conversations, how experimental it is. In Mexico, I’m happy to go for a few months. It’s difficult to stay connected with one city when you’re making in another city. Family and friends, yes, but when it comes to being an artist, I feel alien there. Even before coming here — I was having a hard time placing my work, collaborating. But it has changed a lot since I left.

See Estrella’s website to see the films, performances and paintings.

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Note: I used generative AI to expand the background in the photos of Paola from our interview, just to get a better aspect ratio (but left Paola herself untouched). Photos of her work were not altered.