Jenni Hensler is convinced most people have no idea who she is, but if you’ve been paying attention to popular music in the last few years, you’ve definitely seen her work. The stylist and art director’s hand is immediately recognizable in the witchy, borderline-spiritual looks of Zola Jesus and Chelsea Wolfe that seem to draw inspiration from the occult, fetish wear, and fantasy. But a new project could bring her out into the light as an artist in her own right.
Events of the past couple of years have inspired the Chinatown-based artist to come out from behind her creations, so to speak, and come up with a cohesive, multi-sensory exhibition she’s had on her mind for a while, Persona Somnia. She plans to invoke an in-depth, immersive experience for visitors by creating a visceral walk-through exhibition filled with sound, “a visual, sonic and tactile exploration of a kaleidoscopic, fragmented self as it merges into a whole.” To help with her efforts, she’s launched an Indiegogo campaign to help alleviate some of the heavy financial burden of such an ambitious project.
We spoke with Hensler over the phone to find out more about her process and what exactly inspired Persona Somnia, as well as what people might expect from the project.
Yeah, it’s going to be all new things, though — the costume parts, anyway. But all the musicians who are participating are artists I’ve worked with before, [for example] Chelsea Wolfe and HTRK [Jonnine Standish]. Even the models are people that I’ve really connected with, so it’s exactly what you said but done in a new way.
I’ve been working with Chelsea Wolfe for so many years, and most people don’t know who I am. I’ve created most of her tour clothes and styled a major part of the shoots she’s done and I’ve helped her kind of find her image, in a fashion sense and all that stuff. I love that. I love connecting with women and helping them to bring their story out even more. But this is the first time I’ve actually done something where I’ll be the focus in a way, where my story will be the focus in a way. It’s a big culmination of things.
Yes! Exactly. People who work with me and my friends know that I love creating ambiance. Even at my house, I burn incense and on a shoot I have incense, ambient music. All these things play a large roll in taking whoever the subject is and taking who’s involved in the project to almost like a dream world. It’s incredible what you can do with scent and sound and lighting to connect everyone.
I’m just obsessed with doing that, and without sounding crazy, you can almost make someone feel kind of high. It’s pretty awesome, and that’s what I want to do. Have people walk into a room and it’s not going to be over-the-top theatrical, but it will function to connect people. Each of the archetypes, or if you want to call them the “looks” I’m working on, but honestly they are more archetypes, because I don’t want the costume to dominate anything else, because each of them will have a singular scent, a sound, a look.
Yeah, there are a few different ways I could explain that. Creating a dream world in the waking world is a major part of what I like to do. When I’m working on a project I kind of lose myself in it, I go into the existence of the project. And it’s really dreamy. But in a dream you’re not really in control of what you’re doing, but when you’re creating something you are. The other part of the project is bringing other people into the dream world.
And I’m inspired by my own dreams. Even as a kid I would have these recurring dreams, these beautiful but really dark dreams and I remember them still and I think about them sometimes. Dreams are incredible, it’s a way for your mind to see something more clearly. I think people should pay more attention to them, because it’s your subconscious telling you something.
Each archetype will have a different sound so I’ve asked these people I really connect with to create a different soundscape, so each one will have a really different minimal, ambient sound. And each will be featured one at a time throughout the room. The sounds will be created in a way where at the end they can play at the same time, so they’re all overlapping each other and it’s kind of like a symbolic way of saying each of us have these dimensions of ourselves. You can use all the parts of yourself to make something beautiful, and if you’re using them all equally it sounds incredible. Each one will also have a singular scent, I’m working with a perfumer. When they are combined they will create a beautiful fragrance in the room.
I’ve thought about doing a multi-sensory thing for a while because it’s not something that’s really done. Last year I got this space at the Park Avenue Armory, my friend had a residency there for a year and he’s such a good guy that he let me share his space with him and it was just such a beautiful, incredible space and when I got that I thought, I’ll just do an exhibition here. I had trouble coming up with an idea. It wasn’t something I felt really connected with.
So in combination with that I just had a really intense, really rough year with a relationship and lots of things happened, my sister got cancer. So I put a lot of things off and then something happened earlier this year— you know when things happen, they happen all at once– and it was just like whoa, what the fuck, I can’t take this anymore. I think everyone can relate to this, shit happens, it’s a storm, and then suddenly you learn something from it.
In my case, I saw really, really clearly what I’ve been doing and how I am to other people— how I was to my boyfriend, that versus how I am with my best friend, or an acquaintance, or someone I go out and party with. I have all these parts of myself. I realized I look different to them. With Chelsea, we mirror each other, we even look like each other. It’s magical to see that, you know? It’s just related to how we’re all multi-dimensional and mirrors of each other. I decided to use all of these parts, even the dark parts, of myself to make a beautiful, healthier person. Like these archetypes are pretty dark, one is a marionette played by a contortionist who is controlled by someone else.
I know it’ll be in Chinatown and in one of these two spaces. I just moved over here, I love the energy in this part of the city. It’s one of the last parts of the city that’s really New York still and it’s always going to be.
I lived in Williamsburg for the last six years and I just saw it change so much, so quickly. And it was like no! Everyone is starting to look the same! No! It sucks. I lived in South Williamsburg which is starting to turn into SoHo. that happens everywhere, I guess, but I don’t think it will in Chinatown. And Chinatown in each city is just, like, Chinatown.