Walter Van Beirendonck is the madcap fashion maverick with a heart of gold. For his spring/summer collection, the Belgian designer has rocketed to "Cloud 9" with Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm, collaborating on a playful series called Performative Sculptures. The walking costumes are tutu-tulle heifers, candy-floss abstractions given an inherent jolliness by virtue of their portly proportions. Towing the line between the surreal and the absurd, the duo aim to make audiences giggle while redefining notions of volume, shape, and the transient aspect of art and performance.
Celebrated for his ongoing One Minute Sculptures, in which participants are photographed in a series of poses with an everyday item, Wurm's love of bloated shapes has a subversive wit that complements Van Beirendonck's comical sense of sartorial optimism. Whilst Dazed spoke to the pair about their delightful creations and the case of the mistaken phallus, Amy Gwatkin and Elizabeth Fraser-Bell took these creatures outside, in an exclusive video for Dazed Digital...
Dazed & Confused: How did you two come together for this collaboration?
Walter Van Beirendonck: I really like Erwin's work and I've liked it for a long time. The performances he did back in the early 90s — layering and adding sweaters and changing body shapes — were really inspiring for me.
Erwin Wurm: I was interested in collaborating with Walter because I’ve known his work for many years. I had a retrospective over the summer at the Middelheimmuseum in Antwerp, the city he lives in. In the space I wanted to create furniture I called Drinking Sculptures. People can open the drawers, open the doors and take alcohol out of it to drink, and the piece was finished when they got drunk. Parallel to this, a big part of my work is the second skin of the human body. I wanted to create sculptures related to this idea and my One Minute Sculptures, and I thought that I didn't want to make a performance by myself.
Walter Van Beirendonck: Fashion is a second skin because it’s there to beautify and protect a person, and also to give them confidence. It’s very important that you can communicate with fashion and the things that you wear.
D&C: How did you go about creating the performative sculptures? What was the process?
Walter Van Beirendonck: We sat together and were wondering what we could do because I’m not really an artist, and he’s fascinated by fashion but is not a fashion designer. So we really wanted to bring it together.
Erwin Wurm: I cut out pages from fashion magazines of models and painted over them and added drawings to deconstruct the body, to deconstruct the surface of the human figure.
Walter Van Beirendonck: The sketches were very big shapes and we decided to create new, almost surreal body volumes. I took the sketches to my studio and started to draw and do my interpretation of his sketches. I really wanted to create something that could be worn but also felt like an abstract sculpture, together with the legs and the trousers, which were very recognisable, and very sharp trousers and shoes with a masculine feel.
D&C: What do they represent?
Erwin Wurm: Nothing, actually. I’m interested in transforming specific motions and movements. Some people saw a penis, a walking penis, other people said it looked like a walking dog. They can relate these to reality and it makes them giggle.
Walter Van Beirendonck: No, no, no, it was not a walking penis, it's only because certain people are thinking in that direction! For me it was a rocketship – it's not like I'm thinking all the time about a phallus. I started to make different shapes and then we selected together the ones we liked. We had a cloud, a rocket, the moon and the earth – so rather big shapes. We did three live performances in the museum and the walking sculptures came alive and the audience really began to interact with them. They started to touch and talk to them and they were fascinated by these walking, abstract things. Were they people? Aliens? I don’t know how to describe them but it was a nice feeling to see that they were really creating emotions.
D&C: Was it your intention for them to be humorous? They’ve been a lot of fun to have in the Dazed office...
Walter Van Beirendonck: Of course in my work there’s a dose of humour, but for me what was important was for the surface to look like flowers and for the soft colours to be very uplifting.
Erwin Wurm: It’s not about humour but about making people laugh. I am tired of pathos, tired of heavy questioning, from psychology or sociology or whatever discipline. When I deal with serious questions I want to make people levitate, make them light. When you create certain things and use a form of critical cynicism, sometimes people laugh.
Walter Van Beirendonck: We share a sense of humour, but we aren’t people who are laughing all the time. What we found when we were talking to each other was that we are really fascinated by body shapes, and by changing body shapes. That’s something that is always in Erwin’s work; for example if you think about his layering performances, it’s about changing an actual shape and trying to capture and create something different. A lot of the things I’m doing in my collections are kind of fun, but the technique behind it all is very comparable with traditional haute couture technique. The shapes are made with a boning that you can compare with historical underskirts.
D&C: Do you think that you’re taken less seriously because of the comic element?
Walter Van Beirendonck: I’m used to that after 30 years in fashion. That’s why I have the retrospective going on here in Antwerp. If you just see it on a picture the first reaction is always, ‘Oh, it’s funny, it’s colourful, it’s jolly’, but if you go deeper there is always a story behind it and there is a craftsmanship that I’m using in my collections.
D&C: Why did you decide to name the S/S collection 'Cloud 9'?
Walter Van Beirendonck: I really wanted to give an extremely positive feeling to the audience and the fashion world. I think we are really overwhelmed with all the bad things happening and all these disasters and it’s a really heavy moment so I wanted to create these ten minutes of happiness. That’s why I called it 'Cloud 9', because it is the ultimate state of happiness.
D&C: How did the sculptures work in the context of a fashion show?
Walter Van Beirendonck: There’s a big difference between the fashion world and the art world. I always realise this when I do something with an artist because there’s a different approach to it. What I like with fashion is that it’s happening in 20 minutes, it has a very clear deadline and it’s a live performance.
Erwin Wurm: I was very fascinated by fashion shows and how they are over in like ten minutes but people work hard all year for them. I found it interesting how we can work so hard for something and then it’s over. Time is a big issue in art and sculpture. I remember Michelangelo once said that a sculpture should last an eternity and if you would roll it down a mountain it should be still okay. Now we have another concept of time and sculpture.
Walter Van Beirendonck: People who attend my fashion shows always expect something spectacular, but this was not a fashion proposition. Sometimes it gets taken out of context and magazines are showing it as the new collection from Walter Van Beirendonck and people are thinking that I’m totally out of my head. But anyway, I think we gave viewers a nice moment. We put a smile on their face and I think that’s the most important thing that you can do these days.
Text by Jacqueline Marcus. The interview apperaed in the March issue of Dazed & Confused
Photography William Selden
Styling Robbie Spencer
Film Amy Gwatkin
Film Styling Elizabeth Fraser-Bell