Alex Michon on how nine international artists ‘putting together the never-ending puzzle of identity’ went about investigating the transformative potential of costuming.
Costume has often played a significant role in the work of multi-media artist Delaine Le Bas. As visiting professor at the University of the Arts, Berlin, she recently invited her international cohort of students to respond to the idea of how a garment or costume can play a transformative role within an art process. This project, initially intended to accompany Le Bas's work for the 11th Berlin Biennale as part of the Art in Context space at the Haus Der Statistik, Alexanderplatz, was, as the pandemic curtain came down, swiftly re-imagined by the students as a zine (which can be downloaded from the link at the end of this post).
Antonis Dalkiranidis's Setting your Shoulder Pads on Fire, taken from a slang term for a homosexual, refers to the camp way in which a gay man supposedly swishes his arm around whilst smoking a cigarette, thus setting his shoulder pads on fire. Recalling a time in 1998, when the popular Greek singer Rouvas caused an outrage in Greece by wearing a skirt on stage, was a revelatory moment for the nine-year-old Dalkiranidis. Having long been taunted by being called a faggot, he remembers determining to ‘take in my own Rouvas and start to put together the first never-ending puzzles of my own identity.’ In his piece he has used a collection of gold votives (small metal panels which are meant to be left in a sacred place for religious purpose) to create a Courrèges-a-like skirt with the metal metaphorically standing in as negativity repelling armour. His work incorporates personal memory with fabulous fashion whilst referencing serious concerns relating to the sacred and the profane, and homophobia. At the time of writing Dalkiranidis was still working out the 'setting on fire' element which he will film to accompany his iconic image.
Bruna Mayer's Stamped on My Skin viscerally explores ideas around self-identity and stereotyping. The words stamped onto Mayer's naked skin propose a kind of visual metaphor for imposed societal categorisation, questioning the necessity and accuracy of these second-hand words that dress us up to play roles, not always of our own choosing. Identity, Mayer argues is not fixed. The artist is Brazilian so in Europe she is classed as a 'foreigner'. Her work reveals how literal categorisation exists to maintain unequal structures relating to power and privilege. This work she says is about self-reflection, thinking critically about the self and further acknowledging human complexity which maybe can never be explained by words alone.
Interdisciplinary artist Dior Thiam's minimial identity is part of her ongoing artistic project located at the intersection of poetics, installation and photography. The artist states that her work is 'based on the assumption that identity has meaning and is created as something constantly pre- and re-defined as well as enclosed within a specific language of visual and associative codes'. Presenting a series of enigmatic cinema noirish hair-piece images with accompanying text, the artist questions ‘How much information do we really need to generate or read meaning onto objects, words and bodies?’
Thiam took notes of individual words from The Physics of Blackness by Michelle M. Wright turning them into lists, creating a kind of cascading visual concrete poem, from which new meanings evolved. This is evident in the dissection of the title which re-reads as ‘minimal’, ‘id’ and ‘entity’. The hair, which is her own worn in braids can also be read as an entity in itself; 'a separate costume which can be worn'. Although Thiam is of German and Senegalese parentage the hair does not, immediately read as ethnically black hair. By its disassociation from the physical body it perfectly poses Thiam's question of whether it can still be read as a predominantly black signifier.
George Demir's This Mortal Clitch strays into the post-human, digital world, questioning the role of clothes in this virtual territory. The cyber aesthetic he employs incorporating elaborate masks with their peek-a-boo eyes touches on how individual social performance transforms and manifests itself in virtual spaces, ‘Dress me up I'm your avatar’, he announces. In a world where we can present ourselves through an idealised image configured to be anything we want to be where our clothes can be ‘tailored to fit our screen and size’ where digital fashion can make us a gorgeous as we want to be, Demir questions the future necessity of physical garments. But, for Demir working with mistakes and misalignments in this computerised realm is an important reminder that it is the flaws along with the perfections which all add to the wealth of experience in this his mortal space in-between.
Jonas Tröger's Wearing Suit is Punk, mixes a polemically charged text with a suit-wearing self-portrait to not only question male costuming tenets but also highlight disinformation about punk. What started out as a DIY rebellion celebrating individuality, has solidified into a hideous spiked haired rent-a-punk cartoon. His dialectical title, proposing a seemingly contradictory stance, actually reveals a more nuanced argument. The idea of the suit, as an embodiment of a conservative symbol of capitalism is, Tröger argues, outdated. He proposes that ‘The wearing of an image does not have to be the wearing of its contents, but can also be its reversal.’ Asserting that ‘Millennials as well as Generation Z with their second hand fashion and neon-coloured eye-catchers could be said to represent a new uniformity’. For Tröger, suit wearing can, like the iconoclastic artists Gilbert and George, be considered a conversely subversive act. Tröger wears a suit not to fit in but to ‘stand out’.
Mara Hohn dedicates her piece Shorewaves to the environmentalist poet Ishigaki Rin. By including an image of herself caked in sand and ‘washed by the cold waves’, Hohn, stripped of clothes, ‘assuming the expression of rocks’, presents herself garmented in the metaphorical mud of nature itself. Her accompanying haiku asserts that she is connecting herself to the ‘continent of life’, which in line with her chosen poetic form she sees as a ‘tiny tiny land’. However, in a call to a universality which belies outward appearances and gets to the very heart of the human experience Hohn asserts that if we ‘all join hands together’ we can, like Hohn, see ‘a splendid coastline’ on the horizon.
Mariam Sow's Tribute to My Red Coat juxtaposing the image of a coat she has made with a poem she has written, explores the lyrical potential of costuming. Dressed up in her bright signal red coat, Sow enjoys the feeling of being noticed by ‘every eye in every direction’. It is a feeling she cherishes, ‘look at me’ she is shouting to the world, because today she is here for being looked at, her lovely coat giving her the confidence to own her own body with ‘no shame’. By taking ownership of this others looking ‘without asking’, Sow's coat symbolises her internal power, covering up any interior timidity. She performs the wearing of her coat as if she herself were a poem, no longer human with ‘no voice nor a name’, she has transformed herself into pure colour.
LiJung Choi's untitled piece relates to her work investigating history and personal family memory and the way in which an individual life is situated as a microcosm of society.
By presenting an image of small trees, juxtaposed with one of a toy man shown against a pin-art boxed screen, where the pins change shape when anything is pushed against them to create a three dimensional relief, Choi creates a visual metaphor of remembrance and forgetting. ‘The other side of the toy is constantly moving’, she explains, ‘but this is not immediately evident, it is as if we are currently in the course of history, but because we live such busy individual lives we forget or do not see the bigger picture.’
In External World, Yu Lu's white suit with the pants sewn into a folding fabric chair, gifted to her by her grandparents, was inspired by a series of photographs she had taken of homeless people in China. Her performative sculptural work combining two differing representations of relaxing in the street reveals, in a delicately humorous way the strong empathy Lu felt for the homeless. ‘Nothing else seems to matter when you just want a bed for the night’, she says, ‘so I decided to make a moving bed for a person to sleep in in the street’. Acknowledging that ‘we are never going to live in a social neverland’ Lu's suit nevertheless poetically imagines a transformative potential for clothing.
The Costume as Activator zine can be downloaded here