BY JESSICA HEMMINGS
Maria Blaisse exhibition review
Sept./Oct 2005 issue 07: 48–51.
The Dutch designer Maria Blaisse was recently introduced as a keynote speaker at a conference on interdisciplinary textile research as the happiest artist around. As she took to the podium to discuss her ongoing research in “flexible design” it became evident that Blaisse has earned this unusual introduction through a working practice that consistently engages with an increasingly rare emotion: joy. Blaisse designs objects that are to be played with and explored – enjoyed rather than agonised over. As a designer her role is not as much that of an inventor as it is that of an enabler, adept at releasing contained energy from existing materials. Blaisse explains that her approach to design is guided by an “understanding about when a product is self-evident, natural, which means that you don’t make it up but allow it to emerge by looking at the qualities of a material with respect so that shapes arise naturally.” Needless to say, “self-evident” in the skilled eyes of a designer such as Blaisse is often the very stuff that eludes the rest of us. Common materials, simple forms and a great dose of ingenuity have earned Blaisse a solid reputation in what is considered by many to be largely uncharted areas of design.
In Adorned in Dreams the fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson writes that dress is “the frontier between the self and the not-self.” Much of what Blaisse has designed over the past twenty years occupies this nebulous space between the self and the not-self. Her creations manage to both amplify and distort the body, often at the same time. The space around the body (another form of the not-self) is accentuated and activated by the introduction of the stark geometries she places on the body. Many of these objects are static sculptural investigations as well as dynamic garments or accessories that enlarge, restrict, contain and extend shape and movement. Surprisingly, it is often her most innocuous static shapes that present the most challenging and engaging forms when worn on the body.
When static, the objects Blaisse creates are relatively easy to name as sculpture. But when they are understood as types of dress they are less easy to define. As performance pieces they become even harder to categorise. Photography and video are used to capture this transient research that often involves collaborations with professionals from other disciplines, such as dancers. As a result, the designs speak to, and command the attention of, multiple disciplines: sculpture, fashion, performance, prosthetics.
The beguiling simplicity of her forms as well as her engagement with industrial, often recycled, materials aligns itself with a craft sensibility based on haptic regard for the chosen material. Over the years, neoprene rubber, foam polyamides, vacuum moulding and lamination techniques have all found space in her repertoire. As she explains, “The advantage of synthetic material over, say textiles, is that because it is not beautiful or nice to touch you do not get distracted. This allows you to see something for what it is, completely unadorned.” This lack of adornment remains evident even in finished pieces that are striking in their simplicity and control. Even her use of rubber, an organic material, is handled with attention to its plastic qualities rather than the ability of the material to degrade and return to its organic beginnings.
By the mid-1980s Blaisse was occupied with research for the Comma series. The project began, as many great ideas do, innocently enough – a response to her children’s request for fireman hats to wear at a party. Working with the rubber inner tube of a tyre found at home, Blaisse not only fashioned hats for a party but began research and experimentation with the material that continued for years to come. Countless experiments allowed her to isolate the specific tyre inner tube that offered the greatest usefulness to her work. Cutting a variety of simple shapes from the inner tube such as diamonds or triangles presented almost limitless possibilities of positive and negative shape. A combination of flexibility and memory allowed the materials to form around the head, and later body. The tendency of the material to return its original tube shape offered an energy that could be restricted or enhanced. These early works, like many of the pieces to follow, do not have a rigid orientation. Instead their relationship to the body often takes on multiple variations as is evident in works such as “Flexicap” from 1988.
In New York City Blaisse was spotted wearing the “Flexicap” and invited to work with the celebrated Japanese clothing designer Issey Miyake on a series of hats for his spring/summer 1988 collection. In response to Miyake’s linen dresses that season, Blaisse designed hats from pineapple fibre, a material that referenced the linen dresses, but offered a supple strength activated by the long sweeping strides of the catwalk models. An investigation that began as a response to her children’s request for party hats found its home on the fashion catwalk. Such leaps of context and end use are not unusual, or surprising, to this designer. Blaisse has developed a working process that is firmly centred on the rigours of her material investigations and tenaciously avoids the distraction of dwelling prematurely on end use.
From her millinery investigations, Blaisse began to consider the body as a whole. A commitment to simplicity remained, while the larger scale and broader investigation of materials resulted in works such as “Spheres” a production for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1989 with dancers from the Dutch National Ballet Company. As her forms grew, dialogue between the wearer’s body and the objects gained increasing importance. Collaboration took on a central role and by 1995 Blaisse was producing works such as “Red Circle,” an intense collaboration with a single dancer that allowed for an entirely focused exploration of the relationship between organic body and synthetic form.
Larger collaborative explorations followed with groups of professional dancers and accompanying musical compositions often recorded on video and in photographs. It is undeniable that these professionals play a considerable role in realising the kinetic energies of her forms. These concentrated studies of material and flesh are genuine collaborations, with equal input from the muscles, bones and minds of the dancers as the density and form of the adornments Blaisse constructs.
In what represents both a material and conceptual departure and a return for Blaisse, the Onda Collection is a series of knitwear inspired by a piece of seaweed found on a beach in Ireland. In collaboration with the textile designer Karin Marseille, Blaisse has designed a collection of garments based on six basic shapes that theoretically make up one person’s entire wardrobe. Unlike previous projects, Blaisse has returned to the materials of her early education at a textile designer. She is also quick to note another difference in this project: the knitted tubes invite, rather than restrict, the motion of the wearer. The similarities this curling knitted form shares with the sliced edge of the inner tube that captured her imagination for so many years have not escaped the artist. It is an inevitable return she sees as part of the cyclical and self-referencing nature of design.
For Blaisse, the self and the not-self are manifest on numerous scales. They appear in the organic body and its synthetic adornments; the motion of the body and the stasis of space; the performative body and the observing audience; a body moving free of restriction and a body moving under restriction. Perhaps most importantly, the self and the not-self are manifest in the mind and body engaged with play and the mind and body restricted or incapable of play. The designer’s dislike for the distancing energy conventional art museums and galleries often cultivate has encouraged her to pursue alternative ways of exhibiting this work to the public. At a recent retrospective at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in Australia a number of works were displayed on the floor in the central room of the gallery. Viewers were encouraged to handle the objects, playing with the possibilities these shapes offered in relation to their own bodies.
Sadly I, for one, found it difficult to break through the gallery taboo of “do not touch” and actually feel at ease playing in such a public space. It may not have helped that the first object I chose to touch was apparently the one that the gallery guards were most concerned about protecting, causing a circle of eyes to train on me as a causally tried to dispel the sneaking suspicion that my efforts at playing were probably the least creative they had witnessed all day. Nonetheless, I do not think that I am the only person to concede that I have long lost a part of myself that Blaisse has kept alive. It is the ability to explore concepts and materials without intellectualizing and explaining: the ability to allow time for play.
Maria Blaisse retrospective of work from 1985 to the present is on display at the Centraal Museum of Utrecht, The Netherlands from the 21st of August through the 16th of September, 2004.