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Esmay Wagemans, “Second Skin”
Courtesy Esmay Wagemans

Esmay Wagemans’ breathing robot is a look into an unheimlich future


TextAlex Peters

The dutch science-fiction artist uses sculpture to interrogate the future of technology and humanity

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to makeup and nail artists, in our Spotlight series we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

“I’m trying to put a mirror in front of people,” science fiction artist Esmay Wagemans says, “so we can discuss future possibilities of technology by means by sculpture.”

Esmay Wagemans, the Dutch artist who makes wearable art and body moulds, came to the attention of the art world in 2015, when she was still just a student, with her series of work Second Skin. The project saw Esmay create latex tops that replicated her own breasts which she then wore and posted pictures of on Instagram, with the aim of tackling online censorship of nudity, in particular, female nipples.  

This week, Esmay debuted her latest project: New Humanity – Breathing Sculpture which combines contradicting elements of hyper-realistic skin with visible robotics to create an eerie sense of the uncanny. “I wanted to create this kind of confusion in my sculpture,” Esmay says of her “artificial embryo” which is an exploration of how confusing the relationship between what’s human, human-looking, and artificial can be. Through Breathing Sculpture, Esmay asks viewers to confront and interrogate the influence technology increasingly wields over our bodies and explores the possible future consequences. “Technology sneaks into our lives very slowly, and because of this it has always been accepted...whenever a gadget appears on the market, it is already too late. That’s why it is important to try to experience and discuss before it is on the market,” she says.

Here we speak to the artist about her new project, her upbringing, and the relationship between identity and the body.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Esmay Wagemans: Because I grew up in such a small countryside village – Jisp in the Netherlands which has less than 1000 inhabitants – I was never really surrounded by a lot of media and didn’t have a clue about the existence of magazines, designers, models etc. I have always listened to opera music and had to watch Star Wars movies with the whole family. These characters and music inspired how I wanted to express myself visually and that combination of classic and science-fiction really shows up in my work.

Why are you an artist? Where did you hone your craft?
Esmay Wagemans: Since I can remember I have always wanted to be one and there never really was another option. I have always been creative and it just spoke for itself. I studied at the Willem de Kooning art academy and that is where my love for working with silicons and moulds started. Since then, I taught myself all the techniques by experimenting and investing a lot of time and money.

Tell us a bit about your creative process.
Esmay Wagemans: I start experimenting without a real goal. Then I use the results from these experiments as research. I try to analyse what kind of feelings or emotions these results nourish and from there I’m led into the subject of a new project.

What is it about the human body that fascinates you? What are you trying to say about the physical form in your work?
Esmay Wagemans: I’ve always been extremely fascinated by the human body. I admire the complexity of it and I can be fascinated for hours by how, for example, my eyes work. I use my own body and thoughts in my research and, since I am a human and a woman, it feels very natural that my work turns out in a human and feminine shape.

What do you see as the relationship between physical form and identity?
Esmay Wagemans: For me, without the human body there is no identity. I see the human body as a medium to express your identity. I think that identity does not exist without a spectator, just as I think that there is no art without a spectator. With their identity people want to show their ideas about themselves to other people, therefore you need a medium. A body, for example, or an Instagram profile, an avatar etc. Where I first tried to express my identity through my biological body, these days I try to express that same identity through my artificial bodies.

In what way does your work reflect on the digitization and technologisation of society? How will these things affect the human body?
Esmay Wagemans: I try to experiment with current digital and technological issues and the consequences they might have in the future. I try to test these consequences in a metaphorical manner with my sculptures and see/feel how we might experience these developments in the future. For example, the realistic androids. I think digitisation and technologisation have had influence over our bodies for a very long time. We became cyborgs the moment humans started to use tools and technology as an extension of our bodies and minds. Glasses, prosthetics, iPhones, bicycles, hearing aid. Anything you can think of which improves the natural body.

Can you tell us a bit about your breathing sculpture? Where did the idea come from?
Esmay Wagemans: After I finished my first realistic sculpture, I realised that many questions arose from it. For example, whenever I spoke about my sculpture I started calling her ‘her’, instead of ‘it’. I thought this was interesting, because it’s obvious that it’s just an object and not a living creature. But it felt unnatural to call it an object. This is an example of how confusing the relation between human and humanly objects can be.

I wanted to create this kind of confusion in my new sculpture. I did a lot of research about the Uncanny Valley and tried to find the creepy feeling in my work. For the breathing sculpture I worked with Stijn van Aardenne, an old classmate from my studies. On one hand, you see a being with very realistic skin that breathes naturally. On the other hand, you obviously see that the robot sticks out below the sculpture and the robot makes a lot of noise (you can only hear that in the exhibition, not in the movie). This contradiction evokes the confusion that I’m trying to understand.

I’m trying to put a mirror in front of people so we can discuss future possibilities by means of the sculpture. Technology sneaks in our lives very slowly, and because of this it has always been accepted, despite the fact that many people are against some technological developments. For example, many people didn’t like the idea of cars and phones in first place, but now we can’t live without them. Whenever an gadget appears on the market, it is already too late. That’s why it is important to try to experience and discuss before it is on the market.

What was the moment that “made” you?
Esmay Wagemans: The moment I copied myself into an artificial replica.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Esmay Wagemans: I think the only way to get in the industry, is by not wanting too much in the beginning and investing all your time and money in developing your techniques and work. Especially in the beginning, this means giving up a lot of things. For example: not having your own living place but instead having a working studio, not having any money/time for social activities, not buying personal items like clothes as you will have to spend all your money on materials and tools. I cannot remember the last time I bought a piece of clothing.

What is the future of beauty?
Esmay Wagemans: The future of beauty is unpredictable. Since media has existed we’ve tried to reflect our ideas of the future through science-fiction movies, art etc. But the fact is that these reflections say a lot more about the time we are living in than the future. For example, if you watch old science fiction movies and see how we used to think future creatures would look, we nowadays think it’s hilarious because it’s so unrealistic. A lot of those predictions never came out, but in the meantime the predictions we make nowadays through media are actually the same as back then, but in a modern jacket. The predictions we make are mostly based on the technological fears people experience on that moment, instead of the future itself. I really like these typical predictions and secretly hope they will come out, since this is beauty for me.

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