Lawrence Malstaff is a Belgian artist whose interests lie in the arena of extreme physical experience and the effect those experiences have upon the mind. This week, he exhibited his popular installation Shrink in Britain for the first time at the Abandon Normal Devices festival in Manchester – a show that consists of people being vacuum-packed in plastic and hung in galleries as living (and only just breathing) three-dimensional artworks. Dazed Digital hit the north to find out exactly what drives the artist to create his strangely futuristic human installations, and climbed inside one of his plastic bags to become part of the show.
Dazed Digital: How did Shrink come together and what is it all about?
Lawrence Malstaff: I had a strong desire to experiment with this particular physical experience, and as an artist I have the luxury to take the time to research these kinds of things and then share them. There are so many special things in our everyday environment that we don’t have time to observe or explore, and, in a way, the role of the artist is to make these experiences accessible to people.
DD: Most people seem to find it quite disturbing to see people being vacuum-packed...
Lawrence Malstaff: It might seem to be uncomfortable or disturbing, but when you let go of your preconceptions about what is dangerous and you let go of your desire to control your environment, then things become much more comfortable. I think of this work as a kind of training machine to teach you how to adapt to your environment, and maybe it’s kind of a meditation machine too. I am not a specialist in meditation, but I understand that it’s also about just letting things happen rather than controlling them.
DD: I found it an oddly comforting experience to be within the plastic. Is there a desire in you to withdraw from the world?
Lawrence Malstaff: Yes. That is definitely one of the reasons I made this work, and I think that’s something everyone feels. I wouldn’t say it is my average state of mind to wish to withdraw, but it’s certainly a busy world we live in, and it can be overwhelming.
DD: What do you enjoy about exhibiting the human animal as a living artwork?
Lawrence Malstaff: The reasons I do the things I do are quite abstract. Obviously, this work has a certain energy to it but it’s only when the visitor comes in to see it that it gets a narrative. Chiefly, it’s about adaptation, and how that works in what you called the human animal. I am fascinated by the fact that our human nature is always about adapting to new environments, but also that somewhere along the line we started to adapt the environment itself rather than ourselves, with the industrial age and so on. Maybe in a couple of thousand years we will completely lose this ability for adaptation, and we will actually physically make something if we feel the need to ‘adapt’ rather than let nature simply change us.
DD: ... one day designer babies might come vacuum-packed.
Lawrence Malstaff: Of course, and there are those elements in the show of the human body as a commodity, but it’s a total contradiction between the cocoon-like experience for the people inside and what goes on in the mind of the viewer. I feel with this project that it’s a process of scientific research. It’s more like a process of discovery than design. In The Renaissance there was a lot more of that kind of thing going on, but somehow it’s becoming kind of impossible to achieve those things these days, despite the increased access we have to information. I mean, there is so much more information than ever before, but it is becoming harder to really know anything.