With her see-through breastplates, the Dutch designer bares and blurs the naked bodies of Cardi B, Rosalía, and Solange
Esmay Wagemans is loath to engage in any kind of chin-stroking. When talking about her work, there are no lofty press releases, no pseudo-intellectual ramblings, and no overblown backstories – just art for art’s sake. “People aren’t used to this,” she says, dialling in from Amsterdam, “and it’s hard because I’m always told that I need a ‘story’ for my projects to have value. People can’t engage otherwise. They’d rather I just invented a made-up narrative than be honest about why I am actually working”.
As for her latest body of work, The Originals, “there was no big idea behind it, no value dedicated to the pieces, just very simple design, which actually came out of a technical mistake.” Originating as an art school experiment, Wagemans was exploring the relationship between nudity and clothing by hand-moulding transparent, thermoplastic sheets over the body (because she couldn’t afford a vacuum machine). This resulted in a series of breastplates which looked as though they had been whittled from some kind of celestial ice formation – melted and then frozen around the torso like phosphorescent, liquid armour. In the five years that have passed since that happy accident, the designs have found a home across music videos and album covers, worn by the likes of Cardi B, Rosalía, Solange, and Sevdaliza.
“They’re probably some of my most foundational pieces but I’ve only ever made them for celebrities so this is like the start of me making work for me,” she says. The Originals, therefore, is a reintroduction of sorts, repackaging these buxom shells within a Blade Runner-inspired film shot by Michelle Helena Janssen – “the sci-fi world I created these pieces for.” There’s something quite Donna Haraway about it all, with these neo-tribal women clad in alienoid goo, twirling on a petri-dish to the sound of ominous, electronic textures. A self-proclaimed “sci-fi artist”, much of Wagemans’ practice is rooted in Haraway’s 1985 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, reimagining the body as a site of bionic recreation through hackable bolt-ons and second-skin breathing robots.
On celebrities like Cardi B, The Originals becomes a new way to showcase the commodified body, clamping another layer of artifice onto her famously-modified contours. “It’s all about that blurred line. I like these pieces to be both a part of and an addition to the body. I like to think of them as framing the body, like a painting.” In Wageman’s world, the body re-formed is the difference between nakedness and nudity, one being carnal and bare, the other an object of admiration – or even advancement. Following the feature in the rapper’s “Up” video, Wageman had an onslaught of high-profile, last-minute requests, asking her to craft and ship custom designs to LA in less than two days. Given that it can take up to four weeks to make a video-ready carapace, the bodies of Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, and Kali Uchis went unfrosted.
Back in Amsterdam, Wagemans recruits her subjects via Instagram call-outs, inviting amateur models back to her studio, undressing them, and smearing their bodies in silicone. It’s an inclusive approach which chimes with the work of Sinead O’Dwyer and Misha Japanwala, whose sculptural, shapely moulds subvert whitebread beauty standards – though this is more of a symptom than a statement of Wagemans’ work. “Being tactile with someone else’s naked body, the moulding process is always very personal, I’ve noticed we always end up talking about our relationship with our bodies and somehow accepting them.” That being said, these designs are actually very uncomfortable to wear, with Wagemans seeing them as one-off performance pieces rather than fashion items.
The first step in officially archiving her work, The Originals is set to be followed by a coterie of wearable sculptures made in the designer’s “human laboratory”, among them serpentine chest plates redolent of sexy superwomen. But even for someone who bristles at the need for deeper definition, why does Wagemans keep returning to the naked body as her canvas and muse? “My teachers asked that all the time when I was a student. But I don’t really have a direct answer. I am a woman, though, and so I have had different stares and experiences projected onto my body throughout my life. Maybe part of the reason as to why I like showing the body is because I was always told that it was a bad thing growing up. So I like to make a powerful version of it. Maybe I’m doing it for myself.”