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Watch Isabelle Huppert, Kim Peers and Michèle Lamy Live Forever


TextAmelia Abraham

Define Beauty: Virtual Embalming, a film by the 3D artist Frederik Heyman, is the first in our new series of collaborations with Nowness

This week is #DefineBeauty week on Nowness, a special week of programming exploring the politics and provocations of attraction. As part of the programme, Dazed Beauty and Nowness are teaming up to release three new editorial collaborations. This is the first.

How do you want to be remembered? It’s a question which has been pondered by the elderly, the ill and the plain narcissistic for centuries, but now we have a new take on it.

For the latest episode of their Define Beauty series, Nowness have partnered with us at Dazed Beauty to ask some of our favourite filmmakers to respond to the question: how will we define beauty in years to come? Multimedia artist Frederik Heyman rose to the challenge by making a film he’s been dreaming up for a while. In Virtual Embalming, he uses 3D technology to consider the role of digital technology as a means to project ourselves – or, at least, an image of ourselves – into the distant future. Heyman virtually ‘embalmed’ the scans of three beauty icons; French actor Isabelle Huppert, Belgian model Kim Peers and businessperson, creative and muse, Michèle Lamy. Giving them free creative reign, they each concocted a scene that represents how they would want to be immortalised in memory.

The concept behind the film is one that Heyman drew from Puerto Rican culture, in which a dead person is embalmed in a scene that their family or friends deem to represent their life. A policeman might be captured in his police car, a motorcyclist embalmed and positioned upon his bike. Drawing from this idea, Heyman asks his subjects to choose their own scene, and then he creates it as a digital installation that can overcome time, space and physicality. It is a cyber wake in which the body lives on in a state of neverending beauty. Watch the film below, and read our interview with Heyman about his practice.

How did you get into your line of work, specifically making the amazing digital sculptures that you have become known for?

Frederik Heyman: I started 12 years ago as a photographer. I was doing my personal projects and fashion projects on the side but I think after eight years I got a bit bored of the two-dimensional outcome, and I was always very much interested in post-production, adjusting sets digitally. At some point, for a project I did for MoMu in Antwerp, a fashion museum, I was introduced to working in 3D. That was like a whole new world for me because I always liked big sets and I always had these crazy ideas but I needed big budgets to make them, whereas with 3D you can do anything you want. I decided that I wanted to learn it as a technique to translate my ideas. I still approached it in a photographic way and that was the important part – I don't really feel like I’m a 3D designer. I like that it's a very photorealistic medium. I go to the street, the park, literally anywhere on a prop-hunt, and then I just combine what I have found in one big 3D set. I see them as digital installations.

As well as the digital installations you have made for editorial, you have worked in theatre and produced sculptures for art museums – are these digital or physical pieces?

Frederik Heyman: I like to play with perception. People think it’s real but some of them are real and some of them aren't. Sometimes I do 3D simulations, or I just make a big holographic installation in the museum on which you see a digital work. For a while, I was doing digital art installations, presenting on these very big screens in big spaces and people were thinking they were actual physical things. For me, it’s more about the intention of the installation than it actually physically being there. So it's playing around between physical installations and digital ones.

Is it quite expensive to create this kind of work?

Frederik Heyman: Yeah, but it depends on the project. We’re doing a lot of things in Antwerp, where I live, with 3D scanning techniques and I can usually play around a little bit. But for example, for this film, I needed to have very highly detailed 3D scans and then it becomes more expensive because you have to have them made in actual 3D scan studios. We did one in Sheffield for Michèle and the other ones in Paris. They are really good studios, so of a higher quality, of course. The ones I do in Antwerp are more of a creative play around.

 It is a frozen moment of a person's life and for me, it was like a metaphor of an image, of a photo you take.

Can you explain that further?

Frederik Heyman: Yes, it's called photogrammetry. You need to have around 250 images of a person or an object that hasn't moved. So if you have a big studio, they have 250 cameras that can just take one image – so one click and they have 250 shots. A 3D model is then calculated out of these images. But how I do it most of the time, is go outside, walk around the objects and I take 250 images with one camera. It is more labour intensive, but it means I can go outside and see nice objects and literally copy and paste them out of the street. The process becomes very physical. Only, with models, it’s sometimes a bit more challenging as they have to sit very still. But I like that when I work with models I get the one on one contact that I had when I was taking 2D images before.

Where did you find out about this embalming tradition and why did it interest you?

Frederik Heyman: It's something they do for funerals in Puerto Rico, and also sometimes in New Orleans. They embalm the people in one ultimate moment and I just thought that was really beautiful. The scene is curated by your family; they say ‘we want them to be there for a week’ and you can pay your last respects to them. It is a frozen moment of a person’s life and for me, it was like a metaphor of an image, of a photo you take. I was thinking, what if I immortalised this, what if I made it 3D or made it virtual? I wanted to make a big series, where people come and have it done and I present it as something I can do for them, a service to them. I ask them how they see themselves, and in what kind of environment. But of course, this is a bit morbid because it is about dead people. So the project was actually lying around for a while, and then you came with the question about the future of human beauty and I thought maybe this is the right fit; I thought, rather than my personal take on an evolved human race, I could turn it around, asking someone to curate a memory for the future. I could ask people: if you could look back in 20 years and have the ultimate moment for yourself, how would you create this?

How was working with Isabelle, Kim and Michèle, and why did you decide to cast them?

Frederik Heyman: We wanted an all-female casting. Representatives of various certain beauty standards, with diverse life stories and a strong voice. Women with a rich history that are able to give a layered reflection of their future virtual embalming.

Working with them was really nice. Of course, it was completely different with each of them. First of all, I started with Kim who is a close friend of mine from Antwerp. I think she is amazing. She has always been portrayed in a certain way by the fashion world, but she has a completely different character to how she's often been modelled or dressed. That’s what I like about this portrait of her – that she is never shown like this. We had a lot of intense chats about how she wanted to be remembered.

Then Michèle Lamy, I presented the idea and then we had a call and she explained which elements she thought were really important, like the desert in Abu Dhabi, like what kind of lighting she wanted, and that she wanted a tent inside, a bucket with water inside, a Pharaoh hound, her make-up, her pose, she wants all these important things for herself. And then she sent over the voiceover and I found she sent it as a poem... it was a twist, she did it in her own way.

The approach was similar with Isabelle. On set, she explained all the elements she really likes, such as Vienna and [Gustav] Klimt and all the wild field flowers and she was very strong about wanting perfume and I really liked that because it's not a very visual thing. So I decided to spray the perfume from the flowers, to make a giant self-sustaining perfume installation. At some point in it she says ‘I like perfume’ and then it sprays through the whole space; it's a bit more live. I like the contrast: Isabelle is a very light scene and then the others are a bit darker and moodier.

Essentially they tell me what they want and then I direct everything so it stays within my field and aesthetic. I took all the elements and merged it into one big set to make it look good, put their worlds on top of pillars, to give a literal visual link and to elevate them into memorial monuments.

Have you thought about what your own virtual embalming would look like?

Frederik Heyman: That's a good question! I’m not sure at the moment but I have been thinking about it because last summer I really wanted to start on a project for myself. I asked my boyfriend, ‘how would you curate my virtual embalming?’ But it's quite a difficult question to ask of someone... it's quite decisive I think, ‘pick an ultimate moment’ or ‘create an ultimate moment of your loved one’s life’.

Yes, it seems like a very good way to get into a fight with your partner. 


See more from Nowness' #DefineBeauty week over on Nowness 

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