Artist Q&A: Lissa Corona

Still from Lissa Corona’s PULL, 2015, digital video, 3:31 min., exhibited in Being Here With You/Estando aqui contigo: 42 Artists from San Diego and Tijuana, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Downtown, 2018.

Lissa Corona is a San Diego-based artist and educator whose work explores deeply personal issues, from partnership and intimacy to emotional and physical vulnerability. Here the artist discusses the bold new work that she created for the exhibition Being Here with You/ Estando aquí contigo.

MCASD: For this exhibition, you created an affecting new video work, PENANCE (2018), which shows you having the word SORRY tattooed onto your stomach. In this video, you recite apologies for actions both tragic and trivial. How did you arrive at the idea for the piece? And how did you commit to using your body in this way?

LISSA CORONA: During my first year of graduate school, I began dissecting the concept of apologies. Who apologizes, how do they do it, and who are they for? Self-examination and radical vulnerability are at the heart of my art-making, and so I thought it was particularly important to understand how I utilize apology in my life—as a tool of repair, a form of protection, a symbol of strength, a brand of insecurity, and a personal statement.

I quickly realized I was in constant apology mode. I apologized for the weather. I apologized for not living up to ridiculous standards. I apologized for allowing myself to feel hurt by others. Apology was my most reliable mode of communication. In order to acknowledge its power, I decided to commit my body to the ultimate apology. SORRY defined so much of my life and explained succinctly how I move through the world as a woman, a mother, an artist, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a teacher, and a person compelled by feelings of regret, shame, disappointment, and spite. I wanted to reclaim the power of apology for love and work and effort.

MCASD: What was the process of making this piece and shooting the video like?

LC: I conceived of the idea ten years ago, and this exhibition felt like the perfect opportunity to finally commit. I’ve always had difficulty asking others for help, and trust was a big part of this piece. My brother and sister-in-law, Daniel and Emily Corona, are both experimental filmmakers and were eager to be my videographers. I wanted a tattoo artist who knew me well, and whose work I would be proud to live with forever. I asked Rene Lopez, a former student, to design and execute the piece.

Five hours of tattooing, doing my best to remain still and straight-faced, served as both a cathartic exercise of will and a form of selfflagellation: punishing myself for my wrongs while taking accountability for my actions in the most self-serving and abject way I could imagine.

MCASD: Were you thinking about the tendency that women in our society have to apologize?

LC: The tendency for women to apologize for anything and everything is something I struggle with daily. In a patriarchal society, women have been the scapegoats for men and their mistakes for centuries. Growing up, my mother would sarcastically point out that any problems someone develops would inevitably be blamed on the mother’s failures. When I became a mother of twins, I finally understood her years of complaints—no matter how hard we try to do right by our children, our moments of weakness and vulnerability can affect them in ways we never intended. I believe women have been characterized as care-takers, people-pleasers, and peace-makers and nearly all of the women I know have the tendency to blame themselves unnecessarily. While this is inherently problematic for women, there is also something beautiful and authentic about this expression. Navigating our place in the world as individuals, as we hopefully make our most verdant attempts to understand others deeply, an apology is a concise way to express empathy.

MCASD: What is it like living with this tattoo now?

LC: I’m still finding it hard to believe that the tattoo is real and it’s staying with me for the rest of my life. I love looking at it, I love the way it moves with my belly, and I love that it’s something few people will actually see in person. The tattoo, for me, functions as a reminder to be empathetic, humble, and responsible for my actions. SORRY is about strength, vulnerability, and the desire to become a better person—day in and day out. It’s about honesty, sincerity, and deep longing for absolution. It’s about repair, suffering, acceptance, and forgiveness. SORRY isn’t a word we should use less. It’s a promise to do right by others and ourselves.