Desi Santiago: Mask Off

The Sculptor and Installation Artist Brings His Club Kid Past to His Luxury Collabs

  • Text: Durga Chew-Bose
  • Interview: Adam Wray
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Desi Santiago

Over the last couple decades, Desi Santiago has established himself as a consummate collaborator and vanguard creative director. He has envisioned worlds for the likes of Opening Ceremony, Loewe, Y-3, and last April as part of Milan Design Week, a pop-up industrial-themed installation for Cartier titled “Precious Garage.” Its centerpiece? A suspended gold Corvette.

Santiago’s alchemic power lies in how he intercepts ideas—they come at him, or rather, for him, dreamlike and involuntary. They tend to involve elements of the surreal while never straying too far from honoring where Santiago comes from: New Jersey born of Puerto Rican descent; a Parsons metalsmith dropout who made a name for himself as a 90s New York City club kid, haunting venues like Limelight as the shape-shifting, mask-donning Desi Monster. Though far removed from his club days, Santiago remains under its influence—under those lights and second-wind songs that elicit an emotional response. The fantasy of being an outsider on the inside, of obscuring yourself without completely losing yourself.

“It’s always seduction,” remarks Santiago, characterizing the seeds of this work. “It’s in my head, maybe I don’t say the word, but I know the feeling is: how do I seduce the viewer?” His projects are visceral and involving, and bring to mind the delusory final ballet in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes where realism is abandoned in favor of something more subliminal. “For me it does always kind of go back to the body, whether it’s sculpture, whether it’s installation, it’s always the human experience against architecture or against an object,” he says. “Physical experiences are important opportunities to present something that becomes a memory to someone. Even when I was a club kid, I remember the looks I would do—even if someone saw me for a moment, I was instilling a memory, you know?” And that’s just it. Santiago’s worlds are all at once indelible yet leave the viewer thinking: Did I just imagine that?

Adam Wray

Desi Santiago

Your most recent fashion world excursion was with Cartier, at the San Remo Garage in Milan for Salone del Mobile. Can you tell me what about that project enticed you?

Cartier approached me knowing that I’ve been doing these immersive installations and having worked with Louis Vuitton, and McQueen, they wanted something definitely out of the box for their Salone del Mobile installation. They also had these collections that were sort of interpreting everyday things and elevating them to the highest form of luxury. That’s what I’ve always been interested in: taking signifiers and symbols and archetypes and elevating them or just mixing them and creating this cloud. Execution is important, and precision. My work is definitely more extreme, but they were open to an interpretation. Cartier was an aspirational thing, growing up, and also I was trained as a metalsmith in college. In a former life I was a jewelry designer. My uncle was a jewelry designer, my grandfather worked in the steel mills in Puerto Rico and he would take scraps of steel and make jewelry for his daughters. It’s in my DNA.

A lot of the big brand collaborations and also some of the spaces you tend to work in, like hotels for instance, those come with certain constraints.

I’m pretty fortunate that I’ve been given a lot of license in the projects I do. I wouldn’t be a good collaborator if I didn’t understand that there are certain parameters to work within. When I was younger, I was throwing parties, and then I started doing art direction for night clubs and playing with spaces themselves, with lighting and the power of illusion, smoke and mirrors. Then I worked a lot on costume, and then jewelry, and then I went to grad school for sculpture. Everything just informs everything. I always thought I needed validation in the gallery world to be considered a real artist, that the fashion aspect of me or the club kid aspect of me weren’t valid until I was shown in the best galleries. At some point in grad school I had a revelation: everything I do, all the output I do is specific to who I am and is what I am. All of a sudden a huge weight was lifted.

When you’re taking action on something, when you’re putting something out to the world, is there still an element of doubt? Or is it just kind of erased by the doing?

I still suffer from questioning myself. I think you have to.

A lot of your work is collaborative—whether it’s collaborating with an artist, or with a brand. What makes a good collaboration to you?

Being psychically open to exchange. I’ve formed a good way to understand people’s languages, how they communicate visually. When I’m with another artist who has that same sort of drive, it’s like you have these two new vocabularies and you create a dialogue.

Well, that’s a skill in and of itself.

That’s part of keeping yourself open and following an intuitive path. I’m never going out and hawking myself. It’s not strategic at all. I’ve always imagined myself sitting in a cave, a sort of psychic cave… And someone appears, and there we go!

Has your intuition ever lead you astray?

No, no. It’s all happened in the right way. I’ve always imagined where I would end up. I kind of knew where and what I wanted to do when I was young. I knew I wanted to exist in a creative space, so my whole life has been trying to eliminate as much noise as possible.

When you were younger, was there a moment when you explicitly identified this desire?

I think I always knew I wanted to live this life. Like, deep down. I also had a brother. He passed away. He was 13 years older than I was, and he was the gate for me to art and fashion, and music.

He was a DJ, right?

Yeah, exactly. He had great taste. He liked fashion. I was always the obnoxious little brother. He would go out at night and I would sneak into his room and pull out records. You know Grace Jones, Nina Hagen, Klaus Nomi, just seeing all these things at a very young age, I was already intrigued. He was gay, as well. So, I guess he was a bit of a role model for me that way. I think when he passed, somehow I took on that torch. He was a lot shyer than I was, and I was a lot more confident than he was, and so I felt like I was supposed to carry that voice forward.

Can you tell me about about the theatre project you’re working on?

It’s called Seeing You, and it’s an immersive theatre experience. It’s a collaboration with Randy Weiner and Ryan Huffington. Ryan and I have been friends for a few years. They were collaborating on a show and then they reached out to me and asked if I would create the costumes and the sets. It’s set in the 1940s. It begins in Hoboken during World War II. Four boys get drafted to the war, and the show transforms into one of the boys’ fever dream about the anxiety of the war. The whole thing plays with the space and changes the perceptions of the space, physically.

To what extent or in what way is the show immersive?

The audience—there’s 120 people per show. Basically you’re going through Hoboken and seeing all these different vignettes. The audience is broken up into smaller groups and they work through the space. Some people get personal one-on-one experiences. It’s an experiment for sure.

You mentioned the plot hinges around one of the character’s fever dreams. Do you remember your dreams often?

Quite often. They come in waves. I have a series that I remember, and then some I won’t for a while.

Do you ascribe significance to dreams?

Only the recurring ones. I’ve had two recurring ones my whole life. I’ll be in the dream, I’m somewhere, I’ll be looking at these buildings, and a wall of water, a huge tsunami or tidal wave appears and I wake up before it comes. That’s been since I was a child. The other one is one of those paralysis dreams.

Scary. I’ve never had one.

Oh, you’re lucky. I’ve had them, my mom had them, my grandma had them, my sisters have had them, they are horrible! Horrible, horrible, horrible. I’m in the room, I’m in the bed, and I cannot move. I’m trying to catch my breath. I have this thing where I have to focus and put all my energy into moving one finger. It takes so much, and I can’t breathe this whole time. As soon as I move the one finger I break it and wake up.

You mentioned earlier being interested in symbols…

I think that was instilled in me. My parents owned a bar; I grew up in a bar. I lived above it. And now I make these spaces for people to congregate and engage in. My parents were hosts to bookies for horse races and their business mixed with Puerto Rican culture; there’s significance with numbers. Numbers were always important in the family. If you visited someone’s house, the address would be the one you play in the horse race that day. That way of thinking as an artist, a baby creative—that was the intuitive path of seeing significance in things and going towards those things.

A lot of your early forays were into fairly extreme experiments in identity, like your club kid era. Masks played a determining part. I’m wondering where your interest in masks came from…

It’s always been a part of it. A lot of people didn’t see my face for a long time. I played with aesthetics, and I was always interested in mythology. I assumed the role of a shape-shifter. Sometimes I’m not really a part of fashion, I’m not really a part of art. I’m not really a part of the theatre world. I’m always on the outside and watching, so the mask kind of connects to that.

  • Text: Durga Chew-Bose
  • Interview: Adam Wray
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Desi Santiago