In the West, the qipao (pronounced “chi-pow”) or mandarin dress mostly brings to mind stereotypes of dim sum waitresses and B-movie starlets. Peggy Tan, the designer behind Mandarin & General, is poised to change all that with her line of easygoing, intelligent staples inspired by the national costume of China. As a first-generation immigrant, Tan faced a common dilemma: how to honor her roots while asserting her modern tastes and values. It was Tan’s dad, an artist and antiques dealer in her native Taipei, who suggested the idea of incorporating traditional Chinese dressmaking techniques into the foundation of her brand. Three years ago, Tan moved back home to train under a pair of master tailors skilled in the endangered craft. The following year, she debuted her first collection. Since then, she’s been quietly reviving the reputation of the qipao from chintzy to chic.
Tan’s vision runs on equal parts humility and pragmatism. Everything is produced locally in New York’s garment district to keep overhead low and quality high. Tan, who has a degree in interior design from Parsons, coded the website herself. But what really fuels things behind the scenes is the spirit of artistic collaboration. For FW/13, Tan tapped Op artist Suzanne Song to translate her geometric paintings of woodgrain into wearable works of art. For SS/13, she teamed up with textile designer Stefanie Singer, who created the signature digital print of animorphs lurking in a kaleidoscope jungle to commemorate Japan’s recent nuclear crisis. The goal, says Tan, is to take Mandarin & General from fledgling label to lifestyle brand.
What’s the inspiration behind Mandarin & General?
I never thought I’d be doing anything close to fashion design, but I remember trying to look for a qipao and not being able to find one. Everything was very commercial, badly constructed and cheap looking, like, with fake decals and a zipper in the back. I was curious why no one was making nice ones. I’ve always been really interested in the idea of a living culture. I’m from Taiwan but my background is Chinese. It’s interesting how Chinese cultural consciousness kind of ceased after World War II when everything was westernized. Back then the standard was a suit, and now it’s a t-shirt and jeans. Globally, things have become much more monocultural. In the past, the earth was a more vibrant and colorful place because everyone wore their own ethnic costumes. I’m not trying to recreate the old world just fantasizing about what my culture would be like if it evolved naturally. It’s my heritage reinterpreted in a contemporary way.
How did the label actually get started?
Since I couldn’t find anything similar, I figured why not just go for it? I might fail but I’d never have to live with the regret of not trying. I started doing a lot of research into the history of Chinese costume. There’s this book that’s really interesting because it has all these essays on the relationship between changes in styles and silhouettes and the political and social climate of the People’s Republic of China. I also wanted to get some practical knowledge about the construction of traditional Chinese garments just to know what elements I could play with. I contacted two master tailors who were apprentices in a Shanghai atelier when they were young and had been working together ever since. I’d read an interview with them where they talked about it being a dying art. They felt like they needed new blood to pass on their craft and revive the industry. At the beginning, they didn’t really want to take me on because they preferred people who could commit for two, three, four years and I had, like, a summer, but I kept bugging them and finally they relented. In 2011, my first capsule collection launched, which was important because I could finally show people how concept translated into execution. To this day it’s one of my favorite collections because it’s so bare bones.
Are there any other brands out there that do what you’re doing?
There are a couple of brands that make Chinese-inspired clothes but I think their target audience is different. Blanc de Chine is very zen and minimal and Shanghai Tang is more pop-art and kitschy. They both cater to a more mature crowd. I see a need for something that’s younger and more downtown chic.
I like that for you ornament is secondary, which is the opposite of how most designers approach the Asian aesthetic.
I’m drawn to the idea of the structural, so the focus is more on traditional tailoring rather than traditional motifs. I’m not writing it off, but I’m more interested in making something that can be worn on a daily basis, so I treat it like I would any other garment. In the West, people still wear a lot of traditional styles that have been reinterpreted in a more casual and wearable way, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I gravitate toward things that are very utilitarian. I like the adage that form follows function. The point is to showcase the structure of the design rather than hide it with decorative elements. I chose the name Mandarin & General because it refers to something that’s Chinese and beyond. I envision it as becoming more of a lifestyle brand.
Each season you collaborate with a different contemporary artist to create a print that represents the theme of the collection. Who are some of the people on your radar right now?
I like to collaborate with friends of mine, who may or may not be professional artists. For example, I collaborate with Stefanie Singer, who’s a textile designer. That works out really well because she knows what she’s doing. I also collaborate with another friend, Craig Redman, who’s a pretty established graphic artist. He did the Darcel Disappoints series, which you might have seen at Opening Ceremony or Colette. I try not to turn it into a gimmick. It’s much more spontaneous. I really enjoy developing ideas in dialogue with other people.
Are you more inspired by artists or designers?
I have to say I’m more inspired by artists than designers. I’ve always wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember, maybe because my father’s an artist. That’s why I’m here in New York. Weirdly, I didn’t go to school for fine art. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I needed to and I was wrong. I grew up watching my father paint every day, so I figured I already knew how to do those things. I actually studied interior design. Tuition was so expensive I figured I might as well learn something completely unfamiliar. But the experience taught me how to tackle down an idea in a conceptual way, solving a problem rather than just focusing on the aesthetic.
Can fashion make a commentary on culture at large?
Fashion is a powerful vehicle for social commentary. As long as it’s tasteful and not meant to offend, anyone is free to express themselves through fashion. It’s ingrained in our culture. It’s democratic. It’s everywhere. It’s something people care about and put a lot of time into. The only thing I can think of that’s potentially more relevant is entertainment. For example, the SS/13 collection was inspired by the impact of nuclear fallout. I was in London hanging out with Stefanie last year right around the anniversary of the Japanese nuclear meltdown. We’re both kind of tree huggers and we got to talking about the legacy of Chernobyl and the discovery of mutated animals in Fukushima. She created the beautiful print that’s featured in the collection. I may not be able to contribute much financially but I can use this opportunity to send out a message through my designs.
Are classic garments more sustainable?
Originally, my goal was to work more within those parameters, but you quickly realize that there are certain rules you have to follow as a designer. You have to meet the deadline of the market. With the first collection, I was more focused on developing a product line. In the fashion industry, you have to come out with a completely new collection twice a year at the minimum because the consumer wants new items every season. Today, trends cycle so fast, there’s not much of a sense of what’s classic. There’s a lot of individualism at play. At the end of the day, it really comes down to what’s flattering for your body, makes you feel comfortable and gives you confidence.
The qipao seems pretty classic.
You’d be surprised. There were trends in the qipao from decade to decade. The silhouette of the twenties is totally different from the silhouette of the eighties. To me, it’s the ultimate Chinese garment in the sense that it’s almost a metaphor for modern China. But, at the same time, a lot of the influence came from Paris, like the fit, which became more body-hugging as time went on, and the hemline, which rose or fell according to the trend.
Do you wear your own designs?
Yes. Right now, they pretty much occupy my closet!
In a nutshell, what exactly are traditional Chinese garment-making techniques?
The type of qipao that interests me the most is the silhouette that was popular in the twenties and thirties, which has very little outside influence from the West. Basically, you take a single piece of fabric, fold it down the middle, take down the measurements and cut the silhouette from that half. But since the collar has an overlapping flap, the trick is to borrow a little extra fabric from one side to form the closure. It’s a little like origami.
What do you think about Louis Vuitton, Dries van Noten, Rodarte and other designers who’ve appropriated the Asian aesthetic in a much more literal way?
I think it’s a response to a particular moment in history. The world started to take notice of China as a rising economic power. I don’t know if that really brings in revenue because I’m not sure whether, at this point and time, the average Chinese consumer making his first big purchase of a Western designer would feel comfortable buying something that looks like it came from his own culture. But even if it didn’t immediately corner the market, it was a public gesture of goodwill.
If Mandarin & General was a movie, which one would it be?
Godard’s La Chinoise or Pierrot le Fou. Someone once described Mandarin & General as “Chinese tailoring meets the French New Wave.”
John Barrett of Bass Drum of Death isn’t just a frontman. He wrote and recorded every track for the outfit’s first album GB City (2011) and their self-titled second LP, which dropped yesterday. He has a hand in designing the merch but doesn’t mind hawking it either. He personally responds to emails even though he has a PR agent. Along the way, Barrett shuffled the lineup from a duo to a trio and swapped the South’s Fat Possum for LA’s Innovative Leisure. There was a collaboration with Odd Future’s MellowHype and tour dates with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Hanni El Khatib and Toro y Moi. Barrett’s brand of no-fi southern stoner rock has done well for itself in the age of rave. So well, he reveals, that he’s shopping around for a studio to take the third record—because he’s over winging it on his own as good as it’s treated him so far.
Bass Drum’s charm is their consistency. The sound hasn’t changed all that much from the days “they” were a one-man basement band in Oxford, Mississippi. It’s here that Barrett has gone to convalesce after his recent health scare in Barcelona—a sure sign that you’ve made it as a musician. One on one, Barrett is very much the southerner. It’s not his accent, which is so faint as to be inaudible, but his delivery, which is mellow, genial, the total opposite of the pent-up energy he and his bandmates unleash on stage. Or maybe it’s his arch sense of humor. At the end of the video for the single “Shattered Me,” Barrett, in a natty suit and white brogues, has a Sam Rothstein moment, leaving us to wonder when the car will explode.
What can we expect from the new album?
It’s self-titled, I recorded it in much the same way I did the first record, but there are a few little changes. There’s bass lines, for one thing. And I used a few new pieces of output gear to record. The songs are a bit different too.
A few of the melodies are poppier than anything I’ve ever written before. I tried to extend myself this time around and write songs that didn’t strictly adhere to the traditional verse-chorus-verse-bridge formula. But, sonically, it’s not much of a leap from the last one.
Do you ever feel the pressure of switching up your sound?
Actually, that’s kind of what I wanted to avoid with this one. There are a lot of bands that will make a pretty dirty first record and for the second record they go into the studio and everything sounds super polished. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but I really wanted to stick to what I like. It’s also a practical thing. This way, I can do it on my own time and get it up to my standards. That’s pretty much all that matters to me because I’m the one who has to go around playing the songs for the next year.
That’s a good philosophy. Is there room to refine the DIY aesthetic before you move onto something else?
The great thing about doing it myself is that I can tinker with it as much as I want. That includes not only the production but the songwriting. I’m not on the clock so there’s unlimited time and virtually no pressure. I can wake up in the middle of the night with a melody in my head. That part’s nice, of course. But the part that’s kind of a bummer is that I’m not really, like, technically proficient, which is limiting if there’s an effect I want to achieve but don’t know how. My method of recording is pretty ghetto. But at the end of the day, it’s the song that counts. If I have a song I’m proud of, it doesn’t matter if it’s recorded in a $20,000-a-day studio or for free.
You just wrapped a European tour and will starting an American one. Is there a difference between European and American fans?
It varies from place to place. We’d always made it a point to go to Europe early on and play as much as possible. I think this is the third full tour we’ve done over there. I will say that Europeans are generally more polite. It’s kind of weird. We have really good crowds and they cheer after every song but after that, it’s dead silent.
You’re touring with Unknown Mortal Orchestra. How did that come about?
Those guys have been our bros for a while so it came about pretty organically. We did another tour with them like a year and a half ago. It was us, UMO and Toro y Moi.
That’s a weird combination.
Yeah, Toro headlined. UMO played second and we were on first. When it was first pitched to me I was a little skeptical, but the way the shows actually worked was pretty awesome. It was a lot better fit than it sounds on paper because all of those guys are super cool and I like both their music a lot. It’s fun to go to shows where all the bands sound different so you don’t feel like you’re seeing the same band with slight variations three times in a row.
I read on Bass Drum’s Facebook page that you collapsed of exhaustion in Barcelona. Are you ok?
I’m feeling a lot better. Basically, it was too quick of a turnaround. I had an episode in Madrid and we had to cancel a show the next night. The night after that was the last show of the tour and I still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. I could barely make it through. I didn’t fully recover until I got home after, like, another eighteen hours of traveling. Even then, it took a full week of sleeping fourteen hours a day and not doing much of anything.
We were out for nine weeks straight. We played a show in DC one night and another one in the Netherlands the next night. If you’re not careful, it kind of sneaks up on you. This was something we had to do, but in general, I like to have a little break to go home, get some solid sleep and do some laundry.
What’s the most stressful thing about being on tour?
It’s mostly the small stuff. In Barcelona, right before our show, the opening band was loading out and broke our other guitar player’s guitar. When we were in the US opening for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the drives were super gnarly and the shows were super early. On that tour, it was just us three, selling merch and answering emails. Playing shows in succession, partying every night, the logistics—it all adds up. A lot of my friends think I’m lucky to go on tour, but I tell them it’s not a vacation.
Kind of how they describe war: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of combat.
Pretty much. A majority of the time you’re just waiting around in the car forever. If the shows are good, it’s worth it. If they’re not, it can leave you in a dark place.
Any plans of slowing down for the summer?
We’re doing this run with UMO then coming back and playing two headline shows in New York on the eighth and ninth. Then we’ll be off for most of July, but then it starts back up again. We’re pretty much booked from August to December.
What’s more important, having a good record or a good live show?
I think it just comes down to the music. That, and having a solid infrastructure of people behind you. Then comes the touring. It’s hard to keep up momentum and be memorable if the product isn’t good. I have an old-school view of it: make a record, tour on it for nine months and make another one.
What do you do on your time off?
I’m mostly around Oxford trying to keep busy. I try to make myself do something music-related every day, like playing guitar or recording a track or figuring out our merch designs. My dad plays a lot of golf so I started playing golf with him. I’m really hands-on when it comes to the band because if I’m not, something will get fucked up. I would much rather speak up in the first place than not say anything and regret it later.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
No idea. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect. Then I realized how much school you had to go to and knew it wasn’t for me. I went to college for a year and a half, but it didn’t do me or anyone else any good.
Say you could go on the road with any bands, past or present, what would your dream lineup be?
Sonic Youth and Kiss. That would be pretty tight.
What’s your favorite city to play?
LA has great crowds and is really wild, but Barcelona is probably my favorite city in the world right now. It kind of depends on the night.
If you had to have a fight to the death with another band you’ve played with, which one would it be?
That band that broke our guitar in Barcelona. I can’t remember their name.
What’s next for you?
We’re going to start working on the next one when we have some downtime in July. After doing two records completely by myself, I want to do the next one in a studio situation.
Bass Drum of Death plays two headlining shows at Shea Stadium and Glasslands, July 8 and 9.
Wanda Nylon is a Paris-based brand that specializes in fashion-forward rainwear made from eco-friendly materials such as vinyl, PU and PVC. Founded by Antwerp Academy-trained designer Peter Hornstein and stylist Johanna Senyk, who’s worked with everyone from JW Anderson to the Olsens, the label evolved as an answer to the void of sartorial wet-weather options available on the market. What began as a dedicated line has grown to include a selection of ready-to-wear separates and accessories like t-shirts, knits, pencil skirts, shorts, slacks, hats (in collaboration with Borsalino), and gloves (courtesy of Agnelle)—all crafted in the same high-tech plastics. Add to this that each garment is unisex and up to 90% recyclable and you have a collection that’s as ethical as it is impeccable.
But in case you’re not stoked on sustainability, the styling alone is worth the press. Take the sheer matte PVC trench that’s so Zhora from Blade Runner or the iridescent dichroic parka that would be at home on the set of a Missy Elliott video circa 1996. Their Tumblr-luxe aesthetic hits a sweet spot between mod and sci-fi, playing on a dystopian future as seen from the Technicolor past. The focus is on designs that are iconic and a little bit ironic, meaning you won’t want to take them off even when it’s not raining. I spoke to Hornstein about fabrication, inspiration and the importance of details.
Can you tell us a little about how the brand got started?
Johanna and I met a while ago at the International Festival for Fashion and Photography in Hyères, France, where I was a contestant and she was taking care of the show organization. Back then I had a collection under my name that was based on hand-molded PVC. A couple years later, she had the idea to launch a brand specializing in rainwear inspired by the iconic transparent raincoat that everyone knows from the sixties. She approached me and we worked out the concept, but it took us two more years to source the right materials and manufacturers. A year ago, we finally got on the market with out first collection based on classic garments like the trench, the biker, the caban, the fisherman’s hat and so on. The base collection let us develop our brand as something that’s available year-round. We had so many requests for menswear and other products, that we began developing a total line not just limited to rainwear.
So, does the base collection change from season to season?
What changes is the quality and weight of the plastic that we’re using depending on the season, plus the edging. So, for example, for Spring/Summer, we’ll use cotton and for Fall/Winter, wool or velvet.
It was Johanna’s idea. She wanted a sixties-inspired transparent raincoat but couldn’t find anything that had the right look or fit. It would show up from time to time in some designer’s collection, maybe Sonia Rykiel or Marc Jacobs, but there wasn’t a single brand that offered it year-round. From that point forward we started thinking of what kind of other products we could offer. We did a collaboration with Borsalino for hats. We did another one with Agnelle for gloves. We’ve done computer bags. And next year we’re thinking of launching handbags or swimwear.
Where did the name “Wanda Nylon” come from? It has kind of a drag queen ring to it.
It comes a bit from this direction. We wanted it to be personalized, an alias basically. But we also wanted it to have an edge. We chose a name that sounds like an exotic dancer from the Crazy Horse or something. The whole notion was really meant to confuse because, in general, we’re not using nylon, but PU and PVC.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
The sixties are big inspiration for us and, of course, the fetish community. We’re trying to make the materials that we use wearable but also enjoyable, so we focus a lot on the sound and the smell and the fit because we want our designs to be something people wear even when it’s not raining. When we started, we did a lot of research into movies and music. You have references like Charlotte Rampling or Catherine Deneuve or Romy Schneider wearing a black vinyl mackintosh in What’s New Pussycat? Our fascination with the material reflects its functionality and vice versa.
I’ve read that 90% of the materials are recyclable. Is sustainability a goal for you?
Sustainability is a big issue for us, but it’s really difficult to accomplish from a technical standpoint, which is why it took us two years to develop the product. At the moment, we’re working with the manufacturers to engineer new kinds of sustainable fabrics. Our base collection is all done in a type of polyurethane that’s recyclable and much more comfortable to wear than your typical PVC. The idea was to translate the retro trench coat, which was originally a PVC that was very stiff and prone to yellowing, into something contemporary and wearable. The goal is to eventually reach 100%.
Did your decision to manufacture in Europe have anything to do with the issue of sustainability?
It’s really important for us to work as closely as possible with the manufacturers themselves because there are a lot of special requests that come in and having the production far away is always a problem in terms of quality control.
Who’s the typical Wanda Nylon customer?
We have a quite a big range, I’d say, both in terms of age and style. Of course, there are young customers who are looking for fashion-forward pieces but we also have older customers who want something more classic and exclusive.
What’s more important, style or utility?
When it comes to rainwear, I would say style. It really has to be a piece that you want to wear since it’s already a given that all of our fabrics are rain-repellent.
If Wanda Nylon was a movie, which one would it be?
What’s next for you?
We’re currently working on SS14. We want to develop an independent men’s line that’s stronger and more masculine than our base unisex collection.
Winston Chmielinski is a rare breed: a self-taught painter in an industry obsessed with new media. Like fellow autodidact Francis Bacon, he uses a traditional medium (acrylic, and lately, oil) in unconventional ways. Chmielinski reads a lot, travels often, and talks about his work with the authority of someone older than his twenty-three years. He paints in the space between the figurative and the abstract, leaving you, the viewer, to connect the dots. The experience is sensuous but uncanny, a little like watching porn through a fishbowl.
Last November, his first solo show, “Ecstatic Skin,” opened at Envoy Enterprises. Music fans might also recognize his cover art for indie bands The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and PVT. Hidden beneath these surface pyrotechnics is a serious eye for anatomy. In his latest series, he’s shifted his gaze from flesh to flora, giving the impression that a human had passed through the scene like a snail, to gloss Bacon himself. “More and more, I’m turning everything into skin and skin into everything,” he explains from Los Angeles, before heading back to New York for Armory Arts Week, where he’ll have his own booth at Volta NY, a boutique fair showcasing emerging artists. If Chmielinski has managed to stay under the radar this long, it won’t be for much longer.
How’s LA treating you?
Everyone in LA looks so good. I was in a cafe recently behind a very fit man and it prompted me to search for gyms in Boston, so I called this private trainer and talked to someone who couldn’t get the spelling of my last name right because he had vertigo. We kept getting stuck on the letter K.
Are you at liberty to tell us about what you’ll be showing at Volta NY?
Yes, I am. It’s going to be a combination of my most recent paintings and a couple of repeats from “Ecstatic Skin.” But you’re better off seeing them in person.
What always struck me about your work is its ability to capture an essence.
On the one hand, yes, I engage with an image fully and, from the onset, feel totally immersed in it. But on the other, when I trace the image back to its hooks I try not to essentialize anything. I like aberration, extrusion and centrifugality.
So, in a sense, the painting paints itself?
I never took classes in anatomy so in my self-configuration the eye basically goes right to the hand. The processing comes when I take my first step back and start to recognize what is, in a sense, giving energy to the composition and which elements are already dead.
That’s good advice for art school students whose first inclination is to overthink things. I love the way you once described that meticulous “high school brushwork” kids have when they’re starting out.
Yes, it’s the hand trying to escape from the head.
It reminds me of something my mother would say. She was an art student.
My mother is an artist too. I think she recognizes a lot of herself in me, and I’m so grateful I can continue to explore when she had to stop. I’m pathologically independent because my parents were my models growing up.
Speaking of which, I think I saw your parents at the “Ecstatic Skin” show, which was very touching.
They came down from Boston to attend the opening as they’ve done for just about every show I’ve had in NYC. I’ve learned to stop craving understanding because I have support, and that’s more than a lot of my peers can say. I come from a good place.
Well, you have a studio. That’s a start!
Intrepid is a good word for what I am. I definitely think, at this point, I need the (non-) structure of a studio. When I was a baby, though, I was so scared of grass. I would cry if my mother put me down on the lawn.
Did the infinite expanse of green intimidate you?
Grass isn’t soft, it’s sharp! Until you learn to whistle with a blade of grass, there’s no feeling of ownership, or exploit, even. That’s the better word.
It’s funny you say that because that grassy color is now such a consistent feature in your work.
Childhood comes back in myriad ways. I’m a strong believer that who we are is formed very, very early in our lives and that some things are impossible to shake, which is why I’m no longer afraid of erasing who I am by delving deeper into myself. As a kid, my parents gave me a lot of space, sometimes unintentionally, and I got lost very often.
Do you have a routine or at least try to have one?
Everything boils down to habit, which goes to show just how easily our minds suture themselves into structures. If only I had the discipline to tape off a square in my room and make myself invisible.I keep my schedule pretty open, which is to say, I try to stimulate myself into action mode by constantly moving about. I used to reprimand myself for painting so quickly. I also used to flagrantly mismatch metaphors and now I obsess over it.
Yeah, it sucks being a structure troll.
That’s why I don’t write! I actually decided not to pursue writing professionally because I thought up lousy fiction. Also, a fortuneteller in Beijing once told me to paint, not write, so I relay all my psychic faculties into really intuitive reading and that’s enough for me.
Your paintings have a photographic quality about them, which is partly why they’re so uncanny. Do you use photographs or other source images?
I always use some sort of reference. The greatest development in my work has come from a greater sensitivity to the original image. I always ask myself if the image is perfect as it is or if there’s room for me or more.
You’ve been compared to Jenny Saville and Francis Bacon. But as an artist working today, you’re pretty much in a league of your own, not in the least because the idea of painting itself seems so “classical.”
The element of painting that resonates with me the most is its format: flat, rectangular and, usually, positioned on a wall. Another peculiarity is the brush—you can actually put down an image without ever using lines. It’s all simplistically linked, me being a sadistic e-hoarder, an introvert and a painter. I didn’t learn to paint traditionally but I’m steeped in the traditional framework of painting. My paintings have almost no texture.
Would you ever consider experimenting with other media?
I always try to envision the potential for accidents when I consider new things to play around with. I can’t spend ten hours building something up if I can already see the end result. That’s why knitting didn’t work out.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
I sense the edge of a plateau. I’m basically moving on to a different grouping of images. Actually, a lot of them were pulled from LA over the past week. The human figure has been my stage since the beginning, so the shifts are subtle but profound. What I want to reference as imagery doesn’t exist, so I have to create my own references, literally configure my own new breed of bodies, but these new configurations are, in my mind, even more essentially human. Unfortunately, visual culture has turned every expanse of skin into something archetypal, and the last thing I want to paint is some collective vision of what it means to be human and alive. Extreme humanism is what I’m vying for—hyperreal as opposed to surreal. Baudrillard devotes the first few chapters of Cool Memories II to this sense of extremity and extreme beauty.
On that note, are there any good books we should be reading?
The Logic of Sensation, which is Gilles Deleuze on Francis Bacon. Professional Secrets, the autobiography of Jean Cocteau. He’s so wonderful at putting his incredible life into wise words, but with such humility. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, an example of the most amazing character studies! And, of course, Roland Barthes.
Now that every dive bar in Bushwick has some, taxidermy rarely gets beyond the level of camp, let alone into a gallery. As a symbol of the nostalgia for poor taste, it’s been suspiciously underexploited by the post-internet generation of artists. Enter Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker, a Dutch duo who transform stuffed animals into staggering works of art. Together, they are Idiots, and no, that’s not an insult, just the name of their creative partnership. Their work combines animal remains with semiprecious stones, blown glass, and hand embroidery, taking hobby-ism to new conceptual heights. It’s tempting to strike a parallel with the native tradition of still life painting. Same appetite for detail. Same preoccupation with death. But if one is part of the canon, the other is still industry taboo.
The couple is big on visual puns: a cat head packed into a can of cat food, a cow torso swimming in a sea of hides, songbirds nesting in headphones, a vulture plucking jewels from an iron ribcage. Most impressive of all are the lions, an upper half bleeding gold globules and a bottom half inlaid with rounds of amethyst (a closer look reveals it’s not actually the same animal). Back when taxidermy was the domain of crotchety old men and upstate casino lobbies, people would have laughed if you’d told them it would someday be avant-garde. Now, it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity and opulence at play here. After all, the idea of upcycling an ironic pastime into an objet d’art is a pretty extravagant way of making a commentary on global excess. I spoke to Golsteijn about spinning carcasses into gold.
“Idiots” is a bold way to bill yourself. What’s the story behind the name?
The name is from a long time ago, when we were young and stupid and put all of our love and money into things that would never sell. In Holland, that isn’t really done. On top of that, to work with death. It was too much!
What drew you to taxidermy?
As a child, I was always outside climbing trees and digging up old cats and hamsters. I was always fascinated by and very scared of taxidermy. I thought the animals would just jump up and go out looking for revenge!
Some of your animals are pretty exotic. Where do you source your materials?
They’re all animals that died of natural causes, so, from farms, aviaries, the street, but also, from friends who offer us their dead pets and, last but not least, the zoo.
On your website, the sculptures are often accompanied by drawings. Do you always sketch out an idea before you set out to fabricate it?
Both things develop organically, sometimes with a lot of time in between. I sketch to remember my ideas, or to let things evolve. With jewelry, it’s nice to make drawings to find complications, make connections or communicate with the other Idiot.
Traditionally, taxidermy tries to recreate what live animals look like in their natural state. What are the challenges of getting stuffed animals into all sorts of unnatural poses?
The natural is funny in taxidermy. Posture and emotion are very close and an important part of our work. We take an existing piece of taxidermy and rearrange it ourselves or break it up entirely.
You work a lot with fragile materials like glass and embroidery. Would you say this emphasizes the timelessness of the medium or draws attention to its ephemerality?
I hope that the sculptures and the stories they tell are timeless, but you never know how a given sculpture or its story will end. My work is ultimately about fragility of life and the materials are meant to express these feelings.
You’ve been known to mount bird heads and wings onto brooches and bib necklaces. Where do you draw the line between artwork and commodity?
I don’t make that distinction, but our work is never commercial or something made for mass-production. Every piece is unique like each living creature.
Dutch art has a long history of dealing with death through still life and memento mori. Did you envision this project as an homage of sorts?
I think death is still a big taboo in Holland. It’s acceptable in painting, but an actual dead animal comes with a whole different set of emotions. But since I grew up with these images, they really did influence me.
Pieces like “Headphones” (2009) and “Whiskas” (2010) are big on visual pun. What role does humor play in your aesthetic?
Each of my sculptures has a story. Some of them are funny and sad at the same time. Duality is something that keeps my mind busy!
Recycling plays a huge part in your process. What do you make of the meat and fur industries, which use animal products in a much less self-aware way?
I’m working on that topic at the moment. I recently made a new collection of jewelry using rabbits that were waste from the meat industry and old fur coats that I recycled as “art.” I made the coats into carcasses again, to expose the face of something that people don’t want to know. But I don’t want to tell people what’s wrong or right, just to show my way of seeing.
Dutch-born, Berlin-based multimedia artist Rachel de Joode makes weird and funny things out of random stuff, which sounds a lot less climactic than it really is. De Joode pulls her ideas from a well-worn repertoire of household items, faux finishes, gags, props and food, leaving us to tease out hidden meanings that don’t always exist. Sometimes, the result is auspicious, like the pack of Kraft singles chafing under the weight of a plastic capital or a landslide of pizzas and tennis gravel. Other times, it’s plain silly, reveling in the play of unlike surfaces. Still, there’s something “sensical” about the senselessness of her work, which looks like a cross between the clearance bin at Party City and the contents of the average American’s stomach. The effect is otherworldly yet profane, a constellation of objects that calls attention to the utter chaos of the universe.
To achieve this look of randomness, de Joode relies on blending sculpture and photography, while arranging, documenting and dismantling her creations, often in the same breath. The process reveals a tension between the physical life of an artwork and its afterlife in cyberspace. As co-founder of an online publication, Meta magazine, and an auction house, De Joode and Kamutzki Auctions, she also has a handle on the business side of things. These days, de Joode is busy preparing for the publication of her first book on the Real Things series as well as a solo show opening this February at Interstate Projects, New York.
Food is an unusual yet ubiquitous feature of your work. How did this fascination come about?
Food is omnipresent in human existence, which is what I like about it. It’s a primal and common element, which makes it something that anybody can relate to as a signifier. Also, the long tradition of food in art is something I like to play with and refer back to in my work. From prehistoric cave paintings to Egyptian wall drawings, to Greek and Roman frescos that are meant to signify prosperity, to the highly symbolic religious depictions of the Middle Ages, to allegorical Renaissance still life, to the modernist still life of Cezanne or Van Gogh or Andy Warhol, and finally, to the conceptual work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Paul McCarthy, food in art is very a widespread phenomenon. No doubt it will remain prevalent as long as both food and art exist in the human world.
What’s the story behind elements like the bananas and the chickens?
To me, bananas are both a reference to evolution—a phallic symbol—and to pop culture and Andy Warhol. Bananas have a comic aspect, which I can very much appreciate.
Chickens embody consumption, globalization and production. A chicken is a living being—humans and chickens share 60% of their genes. This live entity is turned into a throwaway product, an encrusted fried snack. Globally, 60 billion chickens are farmed for consumption every year, which is more than 6 million per hour. I don’t want to take a political stance here, but what I want to point out is the oddity and melancholy of humans turning this bird into an inanimate object that’s mass-produced and distributed. This is a complete mystery to me.
The antithesis of the food seems to be your use of rocks, which are both unaesthetic and prehistoric in a way. Can you tell us a little about their significance?
I like the combination of things that are, or seem to be, everlasting and things that are ephemeral. There is a drama in the consolidation of something dying and something infinite. Also, I like the word “rock” a lot.
Speaking of which, many of the materials you work with are highly perishable. Isn’t that kind of ironic for sculpture?
That’s why I turn most of my sculptures, in which I use objects with temporary lives, into still life photographs. This allows me to catch the “moment” where things are “in order.” Afterwards, the installation may fall over, go bad, etc.
I create temporary sculptures that I “freeze in time” through photography. Of course, in the classical sense, sculptures are made in marble, stone, bronze, etc., which gives the impression that they last “forever.” But, when you look at ritual sculpture, like altars for example and, really, at the sculpture of the last century onward, then I don’t find my work method or my material use to be particularly ironic. What I do isn’t new—I haven’t invented the wheel by doing still life photography. Actually, it’s a very traditional way of working. What is ironic, on the other hand, is the idea of making an artwork, a physical piece, only to have it exist as a document circulating on the internet.
Many of your pieces start out as physical arrangements, which are then photographed and taken apart while others are made to exist in real space. Is there a difference between creating an sculpture for digital documentation vs. for its own sake?
Yes, there’s a big difference. A sculpture documented in a photograph or digital image obviously doesn’t have to be archival itself, whereas a physical sculpture more or less does, at least as long as the exhibition lasts. Also, the physical presence of a sculpture has a very different impact. The relation of the viewer to the sculpture in 3D space with regard to its shape, its tactility, the ability to walk around the work, the reflection of lights and the constraints of the space, etc., all of these elements make the experience very different from experiencing it on a screen. When I work on a piece that will exist in 3D, there is more to think about: the work should be able to be viewed from all angles, it should exist in the context of the space and for a certain length of time. Though one way of working doesn’t exclude the other, making sculptural entities for 3D space demands surrendering to factors I can’t control. Still, at the moment I find it more exciting to make works in “real space” even though it’s definitely more of a hassle.
Is your placement of objects (and people) typically premeditated or do you favor a more random approach?
I improvise through lists. Meaning, I make many lists of streams of thought, keywords, little scribbles and vague sketches. I’ll make about 3 long lists (or lists of lists) a day. When I start working on a piece, I have my lists, my sketches, the chosen materials, and then I let go and do things partly as planned but, most importantly, I leave room for improvisation, which in the end makes up for 50% of the work.
Dora Budor and Maja Cule are a pair of Croatian expats who work together in downtown New York, using a mixture of digital, video, installation and performance media to explore our rapport with modern consumer culture. The emphasis is on communal experience, but the metaphor of codependence runs deeper, down to the way these two handle business. Like other art duos before them, they’ve conflated two creative personalities into one, and embraced the idea of life as an essentially performative undertaking. As Balkans babies, they’re uniquely poised to comment on the mercenary tidings of American capitalism, but they’d much rather let the work speak for itself. They routinely punk academic genres like still life and sculpture, blurring the boundaries between art and advertisement. And when they’re not toiling away at one of their multiple projects, they’re blissfully nude on the front of a very splashy splash page indeed. Their fake ads for “sustainable” commodities like vitamin vajazzling (paging J. Love!) and salmon skin durags remind us just how awkward product placement really is. And their video send-ups of art world oddities like Asian pottery and Bob Ross skewer the very basis of object value. Recently, the pair has been hard at work on a new performance that recasts the action flick with swarthy foreigners. Their solo show opens on November 15 at Stadium Gallery in Chelsea.
How did you guys come to collaborate and what made you decide to stick together?
Maja: We like collaboration because it makes more sense to make art collaboratively. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just the two of us. We also collaborate a lot with other people.
Dora: People collaborate when they want to make bigger productions, like a movie or something, and I have a feeling that those modes of production are becoming more typical in the arts. For us, it was a good platform for collaborating with other people, and it’s more exciting because it can bring unplanned results.
Your work underlines the idea of process and undermines the importance of the final product, whether art object or commodity. In your eyes, is there any difference between the two?
D: Not that we’re opposed to producing art objects, but we find our practice of documenting and representing the process, or of remaking and reappropriating mainstream practices of production, way more interesting than producing a final and finished piece. The state in which it exists is ongoing and perpetually in progress, revealing more about its past and future and engaging the whole life-cycle of the product.
M: There is something more vital than art existing as an aesthetically pleasing object. Treating it as a part of system or making it function in the outside world enables it to mutate and interact, being an everchanging mold and processor of contemporary society.
I’m thinking of works like your video Porcelain (2011), where images of historic and expensive Ming vases are first replicated then destroyed in a casual game of basketball, diminishing any “inherent” value they may have. Aside from its fragility, why Chinese porcelain? Was it something on your cultural radar at the time?
D: No, actually the inspiration for that work comes from a somewhat sensationalist article written several months ago about Chinese collectors who dominated the auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, buying up Chinese art for skyrocketing prices and, therefore, posing the threat of turning the value ratio of Asian and Western art upside down. The whole article was kind of cataclysmically portraying the issue, like, “Oh my God, they’re going to push back Western European art and change the course of the history of art.” One of the items that broke the record was a Ming period vase, which Sotheby’s expert Nicolas Chow referred to as ‘macho’ in describing its form.
M: The aesthetic comes from sports gear advertising campaigns, but it’s also inverted because after a longer look, you see that the models don’t really have any connection with sports.
Do you try to work outside of that historical tradition or from within the system? M: We like to acknowledge systems—we often reference other stuff and we appropriate imagery a lot, so we like to know, just maybe for our cause, what is the root of something or where does something come from, and what is its meaning at the time. It just kind of fits into the context that you built around the work.
D: In our work everything is a reference to another thing, so it’s like you take existing systems and mash up their “data” to create your own system, which makes a different meaning. That’s maybe how all of the works are created.
In your photographic series Contemporary Eco Styles (2012), you extend your critique of artworks to consumer goods. What do you think of our society’s obsession with consumption?
D: I wouldn’t say that any of our works are necessary critiques because we’re not critiquing in the regular sense that we’re saying, “Oh look, this is bad” or “This is not working.” It’s more like inverting stuff—how can we get this thing that doesn’t fit our meaning and the way we think it should operate to create another value system? Or, in a way, expending things in a way that they become absurd. We used all modes of branding or production or advertising in order to brand something which is supposed to be completely sustainable, organic and ecological.
M: More than critiquing the consumer culture, it’s a mode of entertainment. It’s turning the propaganda of ecology into a fashion editorial, and playing with that.
On that note, do you think the green movement is something sustainable or just a myth of advertising?
D: It’s as sustainable as American Apparel, if you consider what the company does in order to promote sweatshop-free labor, support gay rights and commit to other socially responsible acts, in contrast to all the negative stuff that they’ve been associated with.
M: There isn’t one thing that could be universally good for everyone, and throughout history, this has been proven many times. Showing objects as sustainable is ironic in a sense because an idea or a process can be a sustainable thing but objects always fall into decay.
What do you make of our culture of connoisseurship, or the idea that objects should be coveted?
D: That connects to the question of why we’re opposed to making physical, finished artworks. One of the reasons is the fetishization of the object, which has to exist as perfect. A lot of our work is about being imperfect and in progress. When we make a performance it’s sort of like the making of a performance. It’s like [David] Fischli and [Peter] Weiss’s video, The Way Things Go (1987). They staged a set of objects in a huge factory and, basically, the whole idea is really simple but it’s beautifully done: the fall of one object triggers another. Our thought process works more in that way.
M: I also feel like objects have a really dull life after they’re made.
That reminds me of your video UnStill Life (2010), where a single event leads to an entire series of events.
D: We like the idea of cataclysmic events, like the butterfly effect. In the contemporary world, it kind of makes sense because small changes affect big changes so quickly today.
Which brings up the point that your work is very oriented toward the humor of the absurd. Is not taking things seriously the only way you can be a taken seriously as an artist these days?
D: I would say it’s commercially better to take things very seriously. I don’t think humor is the most valued thing. If you made a list similar to John Baldessari’s Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell nowadays, I’m sure all kinds of easily labeled forms such as “socially conscious,” “universally accessible,” “ghetto” or “queer” would be way rated much higher than humor. Humor is way trickier to understand because of its nuances, going from sarcasm and irony to black humor to LMFAO. It is a matter of subjective interpretation, whether you are disgusted by something intended to be funny or just find it enjoyably un-PC.
M: It depends on what kind of artist you are. For some reason, women tend to be way too serious in their work while guys can always pull off immature jokes.
Maybe not laugh out loud funny, but chuckle to yourself funny. In terms of absurdity, you’ve also talked about the uncanny of the hyperreal. Can you elaborate on that?
D: That statement was connected with the photo series Substitutes for Present Sense (2011), where we were making temporary sculptures and installations and photographing them, using common household objects and displacing them or arranging them in some OCD way. There was way too much work invested into the creation of it—that’s what makes it uncanny.
M: Or we were talking about the WorldWide Gallery Traxx mixtape (2012), where we did interviews with one-hundred white cube galleries around the world pretending to be an architectural investigating some features of the interior, like, “What color are the walls and the floor?” Of course, it’s the same all over the world. So we cut the recorded material into nine tracks and we gave them to nine DJs to remix into these very dancey pop songs.
You also recently collaborated with Sterling Crispin on a limited-edition line of t-shirts. Do you follow fashion?
D: We don’t go to fashion shows or anything, but we do follow fashion in a different way. I like the mix of high fashion and low fashion, street and ghetto style versus totally luxurious stuff, which can also be tacky.
M: Anything that’s trying to be controversial or political, but without the aim to change things, is a fashion.
What’s the draw, for you, of digitalization?
D: We’re fascinated by the idea that it can be spread virally and shared so easily. If you don’t want to set your work in a real space, you can take virtual space as your gallery. And I really like the fact that it’s equally accessible to a twelve-year-old girl from Moldavia as well as a collector who lives in New York.
Recently, a lot your work recent has been dependent on digital media.
D: No recently, over the summer, we were in residence in Berlin for two months and at the end of the residency we had the premiere of a new performance [KnockOff, 2012], which we’re not presenting digitally yet because it’s so, I would say, corporeal—it’s really about being there.
M: We were working with a group of guys from a mixed martial arts club, who were also security guards in a really amazing strip bar and who all happened to be Turkish immigrants. They’re kind of violent street men with a soft side and a charismatic presence. With them, we did the reconstruction of the Jean Claude van Damme’s action film Knock Off (1998) as a performance, where they executed fight moves in front a green screen. Their movements were superimposed on the backgrounds of typical action scenes and projected simultaneously, which created an effect similar to watching the making of a movie while being in the cinema at the same time. We had a choreographer [stuntwoman and artist Helga Wretman] on stage training them at every moment. Two weeks ago, we did the same performance, this time with Croatian performers, who are completely different in a way, to the point that you can sense the change in mentality. Each performance is both a copy of the previous version and its sequel. And we’re preparing one in Norway in eight days. So it’s been working with different people who are national archetypes of a violent young man, but who have no previous experience as performers. We try to push violence in the direction that it becomes a choreography and a mediated experience.
Do you think that globalization and consumerism go hand-in-hand with violence?
M: We were more interested in how it’s connected with tolerance. So far, all three shows were done in Europe. A lot of this is built on the image of immigration. Also, it kind of started as a low-quality imitation of brands. The people we work with are the ones who would sell these knock-off goods on the side. There are so many interesting connections we were looking into, like the branding for Axe shower gel, which is aimed at a super young target group but is promoting this brutal masculinity. There are so many brands that play on this image of the contemporary guy. But as a brand, they acknowledge it’s absurd.
D: We’re interested in this idea of hypermasculinity and men when they’re in a group. How can their behavior be choreographed so it still uses the elements of violent behavior and domination and so on, but transforms them into something poetic? How to create an abstraction of the violence? Basically, it’s the same movie. We’re making various “mockbuster” versions. Each time it’s with different actors. The “narrative” is pretty much the same, but it’s always a reinterpretation.
I’ll keep the immigration questions to a minimum, but has your own status as immigrants informed your vision in any way?
M: Yeah, definitely.
D: [Laughing] Let’s leave it for the visa office!