Interview with Gwen van den Eijnde by Priska Morger
Q : You seem to use a lot of animal habits in your work. Is there a symbolic reason?
Yes, I came to intuitively incorporate animal characters into my creative process.
For now, I am focusing on shapes and silhouettes that evoke animals and do not deliberately use animal material to make my costumes. When selecting materials to make clothes, the animal theme often is an intrinsic factor. Many archaic body adornments were made of raw materials of vegetal or animal origin: leather, fur, wool, feathers, horns, porcupine quills, fish skins, etc. … This “animal” aspect of a garment has deeply functional and symbolic roots. We may, e.g., clothe ourselves in a bear’s skin to keep us warm, but also to acquire the qualities of strength and power this animal represents.
The character of the horse – Lipizzano – emerged when I visited Villa Wenkenhof for the first time. An object stored in a large cupboard immediately caught my attention: a large white porcelain horse serving as an elegant table decoration designed by the Rosenthal company.
Instead of peopling Wenkenhof with costumed characters that evoke the Baroque world – such as Louis XIV and Louis XV (whose portraits face each other in the villa), or Neo-Baroque with Louis II and his Bavarian castles – I created a horse that enters the rooms of the villa, evolving outside the stables (Reithalle).
In L’Odeur de la Mandarine, a film by Gilles Legrand, a stallion enters the decor of a house and breaks a chandelier with his wild movements. This powerful image inspired me. The horse masks designed by Janine Janet for Le Testament d’Orphée by Jean Cocteau also inspired me. But in the performance that I imagined for Villa Wenkenhof, horse and rider cohabit in the same figure, in a hybrid mode, morphing the animal and the human.
Finally, to quote one last reference to cinema, the horse’s head obviously alludes to Peau d’Ane by Jacques Demy. In this tale, clothing and skin are symbolic accessories that revive the action, and I greatly admire the visual imagination of this film.
Q : Obviously, you are greatly inspired by the Baroque period. I found many aspects in the hybrid forms (Gebündeltes, Gekreuztes oder Vermischtes – Mischling – misfit) of Baroque costumes and that’s why I think you are an avant-garde artist. Are you representing the past, present, or future in your work?
My passion for Baroque times can be traced back to films and, in particular, period costume drama (mostly films from the 1980s such as The Draughtsman’s Contract by Peter Greenaway, Amadeus by Milos Forman, or Dangerous Liaisons by Stephen Frears). In my youth, I was fascinated by the costumes that Anthony Powell created for Pirates, a film by Roman Polanski. He used original, museum-quality lace for his costumes, and made extraordinary wigs. I started to invent “my own private 17th century”, by transposing what I saw in films, beginning to build my first costumes, making cardboard hats, shoes with red heels, and wigs made of balls of wool.
I am interested in history as a creative material. By juxtaposing historical references in the form of a collage, I mix different layers of the past. Peter Greenaway said that there is no such thing as history but rather historians, i.e. narrators and storytellers. I believe, history has to be read and read again because it largely explains the context of our contemporary life.
Moreover, as an exact reconstitution of a historical period is an illusion, I deem it more interesting to stylize a period while bringing it to life. The film Fellini Casanova is as such a wonder because black shirts were not worn in the 18th century, any more than people used to sail with gondolas on a plastic sea! Yet this film resembles very much the spirit and the imagination of the 18th century.
Recently, I proposed a course at RISD on the subject of hoop skirts. For the last 150 years or so, women have no longer been wearing crinolines and our look at these women’s items of underwear – actual cages that gave fullness to skirts – has changed. My intention is not to have crinolines worn again in the streets, but rather to analyze these objects that I think both fascinating and bizarre because they are so anachronistic. They transform the female body into a sculpture. Today, these accessories have disappeared. What sculpts the body today is your subscription to the gym!
Q : What is your driving force when creating your costumes and performances? What inspires you? And how do you intertwine fashion and costume?
The process evolves quite naturally as I give myself a lot of freedom when I compose my costumes. They are designed as sculptures, like collages, borrowing from varied materials. I do not think of a balanced mix of elements that refer to fashion and costume, but mix eras, cultures, and genders. Conceived in this way, my costumes invite you to travel through time and space.
I think my enthusiasm and blaze of energy comes from a certain fascination with the “transformative” power of dress. Choosing your clothes means choosing your way of existing in the world. This can be a very fun experience and exploration.
Q : Is this your ESCAPISM from the real world? Creating fantasies?
Yes maybe – but I think these glimpses of the unreal, these pockets of dreams and imagination, these artificial paradises, are necessary to life. I think art does not necessarily have to reflect the real world. I think that a creator offers his imagination, his fantasy, his subjective experience to the world.
This is why I deeply agree with the motto that you invented for the Fashion Design department of the BaselSchool of Design: “Fighting mindless uniformity by doing deeply committed fashion.”
Q : Why did you call this publication Evolution Is Our Dream? What is the purpose?
“Evolution is our dream” was made out of a series of eight costumes. I showed these eight silhouettes to eight people working in various artistic disciplines, and they responded individually by writing a text. French writer Martin Page wrote a poetic text, whose first sentence is “Evolution is a dream”. This phrase became the title of the publication. My idea was not to channel the reading of my work but instead to multiply points of view, by asking that of a writer, a choreographer, an architect, and several art curators, making my work transcend the actual fashion field.
Q : What is the essence of a student’s attitude and what do you think of the school system today?
I encourage my students to do a lot of research – without rushing to have something “finished” to show in their portfolio. It is a question of investing in the creative process.
I also encourage them to work in a multi-disciplinary manner. This is so important because I think one does not learn a “profession for life” today, but much more a form of association and interaction across disciplines. This is why a rich artistic general culture is fundamental to know how to communicate with your creative colleagues.
In terms of schools, I think that we should not attempt to duplicate or to follow a model course, a way of teaching – such as the fashion design courses provided by the Central Saint Martins in London and the Royal Academy of Antwerp. Although these schools have allowed the emergence of great talent, I think that education relies on the individuals who teach, deeply committed, with enthusiasm and vision.
Q : What is the message you want to convey to the audiences?
I do not know if there is a particular message, there may be several inter-woven ribbon-like messages. I cannot distinguish them individually as my work process is very intuitive. But I think my message is for sure poetic, and a little surrealist. I try to inject fantasy into the everyday through my performances and my appearances, as well as through the associations of ideas that occur in relation to spaces, costumed characters and audiences.
I am also interested in a form of ritual. I am currently researching Native American dress. This subject matter is full of symbols, and one needs to take into account their relationship to the environment, to sacred beliefs, to animism while looking at these garments.
I think that I shall call my next performance: “Do not despair, the magic is still there, all around you.” I heard this phrase in a song mixed by DJ Ellen Alien in Berlin, and it intrigues me a lot.
Q : You worked a lot with the Swiss Textile Federation and various Swiss foundations – so what is your view on the art movement here? And how do you relate it to your work?
Switzerland has been very generous, especially as I am not Swiss! There is a social quality in Switzerland, a curious mix of the local and international, of the old and contemporary that I really appreciate. Creatively, Basel is one of the most interesting cities in Europe because it invests and supports a generation of young contemporary artists, which many other European countries fail to do.
I do not know to what extent Switzerland influences my work, but I go where my work is appreciated and supported. In recent years, three major projects were based in Basel, successively at Kunst Raum Riehen, in Japan via a travel grant of Atelier Mondial, and presently for Villa Wenkenhof. I am curious to see where these adventures and experiences will lead, perhaps once again to Basel?