DJ, from the series Purgh-atory. Copyright Madame Peripetie
Author: BJP for iPad
01 Feb 2011 Tags: Appissue01
There’s a new trend emerging at the cutting edge of the collision between art and fashion, says Sharon Lloyd, and it’s less about playing dress up than re-imagining the human body, and challenging some social taboos in the process.
Photography, the carnivalesque, and perceptions of human monstrosity have collided fantastically in Madame Peripetie’s work (featured here and in BJP #7790). Using high fashion elements, she explores the boundaries between style, sculpture, masquerade and the human body – and in doing so, she’s not alone. She’s the perfect example of a new wave of designers and artists around the world engaging with what has come to be known as “character culture”.
Irreverent and colourful, character culture references many classic tropes familiar from cartoons, films and advertising, and often looks deceptively simple. In fact, it usually takes hours to develop each character, and is almost obsessive in its desire to alter our perception of the human form, and its refusal to let nature dictate appearance. Character culture as seen through the lens of the conceptual photographers such as Richard Burbridge, Kimiko Yoshida and Kerstin zu Pan lends itself easily to fashion, where the playfulness and fantasy of popular culture is often re-enacted for our visual pleasure, and it is no surprise to see a link between this work and avant-garde designers such as the late Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Gareth Pugh and Walter Van Beirendonck, to name but a few.
But as two books published this year suggest (Doppleganger: Images of the Human Being and Not a Toy. Fashioning Radical Characters, published alongside Atopos’ exhibition on character design in fashion, Arrrgh! Monsters in Fashion), character culture is also much more than just a style. It explores fundamental questions of identity and the self, via artificial forms that border on the monstrous. Uncomfortable? You should be. This is about stimulating the imagination and presenting a new vision of beauty, whether it’s on the catwalk, in the fashion magazine or on the gallery wall.
The carnivalesque is an extension of the pantomime artiste or circus fool, and it has long been a theme in Western fashion and photography. Diane Arbus’ photographs of the marginalised attained cult status almost as soon as she took them; she was also a fashion photographer for 11 years before she turned to documentary. Monsters are the flip side of goddesses, the contemporary embodiment of rituals enacted at ancient festivities, and as such they will probably always be with us. But while Arbus showed that freaks are part of everyday life, the monsters created by contemporary artists and designers are imaginary, and they’re carnivalesque without being grotesque. They are deliberate, contrived and weirdly beautiful, not freaks of nature, and as such fashion is more interested in them than ever. Some of the artists involved will ignore its clarion call, but for many, the opportunity to subvert conventional standards of beauty at the coalface is too good to refuse. For example, Cindy Sherman, who might be seen as a pioneer of character culture, recently helped Mac Cosmetics launch a new makeup line, featuring characters inspired by clowns and plastic surgery, taking the carnivalesque back to the mainstream.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to see these new paradigms emerge now, when cosmetic surgery, IVF and genetic engineering have given us the capacity to intervene in and refashion our physical selves. As Phillip Toledano’s series A New Kind of Beauty shows, some enthusiasts now use plastic surgery to create a deliberately artificial look, worlds away from conventional attempts to surreptitiously cheat age. And while technology makes it possible to refashion the human body, gender boundaries can also be blurred or reconstructed. These transformative possibilities have been matched by changing perceptions of the body – increasingly regarded as a social, cultural and fashion construct – capable of radical transformation. As Toledano puts it, the interesting question is now “what we define as beauty, when we choose to create it ourselves”.
Artists, photographers and designers working with character culture often emphasise the artificiality of their vision of beauty, presenting the viewer with new forms that defy gender identity. Davide Faggiano’s work challenges patriarchal conceptions of beauty, for example, implying that gender is a performance rather than a biologically determined given. Levi Van Veluw’s self-portraits meanwhile, especially his new series Origin of the Beginning, redefine the body as an asexual object, presented in harmony with its equally artificial surroundings. By controlling colour, form and texture, Van Veluw gains control of both himself and his environment.
But Van Veluw’s work could also imply a desire to disappear; symptomatic of the sense of dissatisfaction many of us have with our bodies after years of being bombarded with images of perfection by the mass media. Other photographers working in this area play with similar themes, using costume to camouflage their models (or themselves), often making them literally fade into the background. Photographer and designer Platonov Pavel often uses masks, for example, and often lets his subjects melt into the inky darkness. But if this sounds like insecurity it can also be read as glamour, because veiling a body intimates a greater beauty lies beneath, as fashion designers have long been aware.
Every culture and every era creates its own monsters, expressing contemporary anxieties – but also the desires – of the time. The monsters currently surfacing in contemporary photography are warped and disturbing, but they’re also visually inventive and often very funny. Polly Borland’s recent series Smudge uses disturbing looking characters, for example, but it also conjures up a sense of excitement of what they – and she – can do at the boundaries of social propriety. Similarly Richard Burbridge, who works for clients such as Hermès, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton, creates elegantly exciting work, and Paco Peregrin’s sophisticated fusion of hyperrealism and high-end beauty has found favour in fashion and fine art contexts.
Peregrin works almost solely with the stylist Kattaca, and perhaps it’s worth pointing out that many of these images are the result of group effort. Obsessively subversive they may be, but they’re not necessarily the work of a single fevered imagination. Creative make up artists such as Alex Box and Pat MacGrath work with photographers and designers to create an image, using craft and illusion where contemporary society is turning to technology and medical intervention. Richard Burbridge’s most recent collaboration with Italian needlework artist Maurizio Anzeri in Dazed & Confused’s June issue used craft to challenge conventional notions of photography, art and identity, while adding a new twist to the concept of fashion photography by sewing directly onto the image. If these images draw on modern mores, they do so more benignly, and more playfully, than their inspirations.
Perhaps this is why this work has managed to straddle fashion and art so effortlessly, despite its cutting-edge status. Often characterised as bizarre, or even fetishistic, Character culture is ultimately playing on fashion’s fundamental fantasy – that people can transform themselves into whatever they want to be.
We hope you enjoyed this article from the British Journal of Photography for iPad, Issue One. For more information on how to get this free app, which includes all the photos from this article plus hundreds more, click here.
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