Courtesy of Anna Kambhampaty

Alexander Schaef '20 and Michael Gildersleeve '21 perform in Klarman Hall

March 17, 2019

Inside the Mind of Alexander Schaef ’20, a Student Provocateur

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“I hate when people ask me if I’m cold. Like, come on, I’m wearing all these dope clothes, and that’s what you choose to ask me about? If I’m cold? Obviously, I’m cold, it’s winter in Ithaca,” Alexander Schaef ’20 told me as we shared a coffee in Temple of Zeus. Alexander was wearing a black pinstripe suit with no shirt, showcasing his built abs, formed from years of training as a long and short distance runner, skier, tennis player and soccer player. He had on his usual stack of glittery silver chokers and necklaces and carried his usual warm, smiling demeanor.

For Alexander — performance artist, sculptor, Cornell nightlife icon, perpetual source of sartorial surprise and social media provocateur — Zeus is not just a place for coffee and soup. It’s also more than a favorite old haunt (though, you are likely to find him there nearly every day during lunch hour). It’s a stage. Just a few weeks ago, Schaef performed a homage to Marina Abramović’s 2010 The Artist is Present performance at The Museum of Modern Art. Schaef asked various students to sit across from him in a chair in the middle of the cafe and simply make eye contact with him. As an admirer of Abramović’s work, I was elated to take part in the performance because I knew it was as close as I or most people at Cornell would get to experiencing The Artist is Present.

As I sat with Schaef, staring into his eyes, I felt uplifted and refreshed. Part of it is because he is an exceptionally friendly and warm being, but also because it felt like a shared meditation in the middle of my academic day at a place where I’m usually buzzing with caffeine, rushing to finish a reading or lurking to find a table. “I just wanted to see how people would react,” Schaef told me. “It was so rewarding, seeing how people would find such a simple act of sitting in a chair and staring at a space so shocking. The stares I got from people viewing the performance were uncountable. You saw the physicality of it — how it stopped people from walking through us and left them looking at us for so long. It was like, all of a sudden, there was a legitimate structure or force between us.”

Alexander’s performances are nothing new for Cornell’s student body. Twins (what he considers his most legitimate performance piece) is a work that he did as a freshman in the lounge of his dormitory, Donlon Hall. The piece featured Schaef and one other friend, both dressed fully in garbage bags. They both dumped paint on the floor, covered their bodies in it, and smashed themselves against a big canvas that was up against a table. “I can’t believe I did that as a freshman, it was such a fearless thing for me to do for an audience of 30 people. I took it so seriously, I fasted that day and was delirious. There was chaotic music and we were slamming our bodies against this canvas and just stood, covered in paint, for minutes after.”

Alexander’s wardrobe is the most standout and immediately telling aspect about him for those who haven’t seen his work or interacted with him. It was one of the first things I decided to talk with him about because I knew a lot of the student body was wondering why he dresses the way he does or where he got his sartorial inspiration. “I always choose what I want to wear the night before, but I usually end up changing my outfit in the morning because I find that, towards the end of the day, I say ‘fuck it’ to everything and think ‘I’m gonna dress however I want,’ but in the morning, when I wake up I get timid again.” You read that right — what you see Schaef wearing around campus is the toned down version of what he’s going for. He always tries to push boundaries with his apparel and wants to make people uncomfortable. As a performer, Alexander is constantly in conversation with his audiences through his wardrobe. While he’s on his way to class, having coffee with me and most definitely during nights out, it’s always a performance, simply by way of what he has chosen to wear. “I definitely want to wear more women’s clothing and clothing that isn’t meant to be worn as clothing. That’s going to be my next project,” Schaef told me.

“Alexander McQueen,” Schaef answered without hesitation when I asked about who has inspired him. “I’m obsessed with him. My favourite piece by him is ‘Highland Rape’ 1995. It really questions gender roles and beauty and is a twisted spin on the body. It really gets to me.”

If you haven’t had the chance to interact with or witness any of these performances on campus, perhaps you’ve seen Alexander’s social media or nightlife presence. On a weekend night, Schaef can be found “well, literally all over the place . . . parties are my favorite place to perform and be provocative . . . so it’s a blend between frat, co-op and apartment parties and of course bars and bars and bars. I don’t really like any of the places too much but it works.” Like his performances and attire, Schaef’s Instagram is another presence that provokes and lies at the intersection of the intimate, raw and obscene. “I want to rebel against online censorship, and hopefully just disturb and confuse and intimidate people as well as turn them on,” Alexander said in response to my inquiry about his goals and frustrations with the platform as a medium for sharing work.

Alexander’s interruption of the mundane everyday student life in every aspect is a feat. It takes up energy in every moment of his life. The value that the entity of a student artist affords includes constant accessibility and high levels of interaction with the rest of the student body. Schaef’s potent online, campus, sartorial and nightlife personas only magnify the experience; we don’t just get to experience one side of him. We see them all, interrupting the otherwise quotidian student life (physical and digital).

Alexander Schaef’s gallery exhibition at the Willard Straight Hall Art Gallery will run from Tuesday, March 19th to Sunday, March 24th for a chance to engage with some of his work or meet the artist himself.


Anna P. Kambhampaty is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].