The High Museum of Art in Atlanta recently hosted a collection of works by the Dutch designer, Iris Van Herpen (“IVH”) (Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion). The show was diverse and complex and I am grateful I was able to make it to the museum before it closed earlier this month. I was immediately inspired to write about it. Interestingly, the process of writing opened up a whole new way of looking at my own work. Before I returned to my modest exertions in the studio though, I recorded these thoughts and observations about the exhibition.
Point of beginning: I am rapidly drawn in by the unconventional, diverse and harmonious use of materials and form. The pieces, all presented on the female figure, are vibrant, innovative, and impeccably crafted.* The human form as an armature sets the sculptural limits of each piece, but within their respective envelopes, there is room to explore a variety of 3-dimensional ideas. With chain, leather, polymers, film and other materials, through hand, laser, and 3-d print technologies, a coherent vision emerges. This work exemplifies the holistic nature of design: a fusion of artistic sensibility, utility, and high craftsmanship. My designer-mind turns at fever pitch to process all of the surface nuances and architectural splendor of the pieces. At times, I feel I am practically hyperventilating from excitement. A fresh encounter like this is potentially life-altering. I am having an IVH “moment”, and I recognize this kind of experience as one of the hallmarks of my growth as an artist/designer/maker – the very best of creative cross-fertilization.
There are conceptual underpinnings to Iris Van Herpen’s work, to be sure. Technology is a strong driver but at its core is the notion of chaos. This one idea, chaos, has so thoroughly captured my imagination that I am sure I will never look at anything the same again. This is not the “chaos” of common parlance (as in disorder or break-down), or the formless, primordial reality posited by the ancient Greeks; but rather, the mathematical concept relating to non-linear systems dynamics.** While I certainly have an incomplete understanding of the concept (and intend to apply myself further to the task of improving that understanding), I begin to appreciate this notion of chaos as a core dictate of process embodied in the exhibited works. Via bundled and recursive layers, each piece is a composite of complex inputs. Each suggests a semi-permeable system, one of feedback loops, altering vectors, potentialities, of scaled iterations, re-curving, reorganizing, and unfolding to infinity…except that they are all neatly arrested in space and time as discrete finished works. There is a sense that this designer/artist/visionary has, in the completion of each piece, dialogued with chaos and deepened the scope of her dance with it. One aspires to the level of individual and collaborative creative freedom, technical prowess, and innovation on display at this extraordinary exhibition.
There are a lot of other ideas that might be explored in connection with this exhibition, and I ran the gamut as I refined this post: fashion and sustainability, the promises and limits of technology in the face of environmental degradation, holistic creative practice, to name a few….but these topics are for other posts. For now, I am content to rest in the strange, paradoxical comfort represented by chaos. Maybe that is the seduction of the exhibition and of Iris Van Herpen’s work – the hope, light, and magic in these pieces are reminders that we are each manifestations of pure, unfolding process, modified at points in space and time by myriad influences, each exerting forces with varying degrees of potential or predictable outcome. We are indeed, living, breathing chaos, emergent processes of vectors known and unknown. We might as well relax and enjoy the ride!
*Throughout this article, I make a distinction between the sculptural, exploratory pieces and the more “accessible/market-friendly” couture (as seen, e.g., in the runway footage looped in conjunction with the exhibition).
** Apparently the term “chaos” belies the true nature of the dynamical systems it signifies although it continues to be used. See James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking Press, 1987.
K.C. May, 2016