Alien meets Kafka: Materialising thoughts on the matter inside and around us

I always forget that I did a couple of other projects that engaged with invisible material processes. When I studied Fashion, I put together a trilogy of projects for my portfolio entitled ‘Evolution’. It contained my final collection for which, to the head of department’s horror (and to my millinery tutor’s delight), I decided to make a series of wearable metal sculptures or, as I called them, ‘hats’ or ‘masks’. These shiny looking, sometimes bead encrusted headdresses were based on patterns taken from predatory animal skeletons and turn the human wearers into scary looking ‘predators’. The inspiration for this project was, I have to confess, the movie Alien Resurrection. I love this film, because it asks the question who the real monster is – the thing that is outwardly a monster (the Alien), its assumed prey (the humans) or the engineered monster/superhuman played by Sigourney Weaver. With ‘Predators’ I tried to play with the inward/outward theme, only that it refers to fashion: how is this outward beauty achieved?

Often, quite a lot of toxic materials (and inhuman labour) go into the production of beautiful items. I wanted people to consider what goes into garments and accessories that are bought and worn everyday. What’s in the fabric? Where does the material grow or where is it made? How is the material grown, made or treated and what are the effects on the environment or the people employed in this process (e.g. farmers dying from pesticide overuse, factory workers getting cancer from cheap dyes)? What happens to fashion items after they have been discarded? The tagline for this ‘collection’ was the Baudrillard quote ‘Caution: objects in this mirror may seem closer than they appear’. Naturally, it did not go down well in the Fashion department (it was popular in the Art and Sculpture department though), but after an argument over the health and safety over the headdresses (I had to file them down and pad them) I managed to get it shown at Graduate Fashion Week in London in 2001 – only that some person put the accompanying slides upside down and the models were told only to walk directly in front of the projections (and not up to the audience in the spotlight like the other models, because the collection did not really represent the style of the college). I think I can understand that…

Bizarrely, you might think, I then went on to do an MA in Fashion, to continue my weird design criticism path. I ended up at a college which was more comfortable with my work, which resulted in another trilogy of projects. The second project in that was called ‘The unknown is as real as the known and should be made to look so’, after a quote by the painter Graham Sutherland about his work. ‘The Unknown…’ was a reaction to the ‘eco fashion’ and ‘sustainable design’ propaganda at the time. While I whole-heartedly agreed with the idea that something needed to be done about our relationship with the planet (and beyond as it seems if you’ve read the recent articles on ‘space junk’) I was highly uncomfortable with the way this was mediated. The stereotypical arsenal of images of an idyllic nature, also manifested in unsubtle slogans advertising the primeval (?) glory of mountains, ‘lush meadows’, ‘clear spring mornings’, instinctively set alarm bells ringing. My first thought was: there is so much more to ‘nature’. My second thought was: you need a hell of a lot of money to buy into this ‘supernatural’ life-style. My third thought was: who and what gets excluded here? Equipped with the wisdom of Graham Sutherland, the spirit of the ‘anti-romantic’ landscape artists of the 1960s and an obscure quote by Walter Benjamin about Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (‘the most forgotten alien land is one’s own body’) I set off to research appropriate shapes and materials to produce a counter vision…

The quest resulted in the manufacture of three jackets (or ‘torsos’ as I called them) functioning as communicative interface between/about us and the environment (and vice versa). The first instinct was to use controversial natural materials such as animal skins and fur. So, for the first torso I went to a sheepskin factory which kindly supplied me with some ‘production accidents’ (with entangled, partly felted hair that sometimes had ‘attractive’ dirt bits caught in it) that had immediately caught my eye during the tour I received. They even dyed them for me in a deep blood red so that when you cut into the skin, the white border that appears makes it look like a piece of fat-trimmed raw meat.

The second torso was made from shiny black leather which was twisted, rolled and pleated to make it resemble a cross between a beetle/scorpion-carapace and a spine.

The third torso was made from the wonderfully sculptural Ugandan barkcloth (a cloth made from beaten tree bark) which I successfully managed to hand-dye a mouldy/mossy dark green and shrivel to resemble, as a fellow student called it, ‘toadskin’ or a dark wet ‘spooky’ forest.

So I had all that I wanted: active/‘obstinate’ matter (e.g. unwanted dirt, micro-organisms, felting), the violence/ danger that is suppressed in the ‘supernatural’ and the fear of the ‘organic’/the ‘uncanny aesthetics’ of nature. Looking at all three torsos next to each other, I found that the next step should be to play with unifying these two visions in a set of different torsos, but then I decided to take the project somewhere else

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