The metaphor of the prosthesis is often used to highlight the importance of garments. During a pandemic, however, it takes on a whole new dimension. At the beginning of 2020, the face mask was still a social phenomenon largely confined to the Asian region following previous outbreaks of SARS. But as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the face veiled by a mask became the global image par excellence for an extension of the human body whose main function was to provide protection from a (hidden) peril. It didn’t take long for the fashion industry to spot the potential of this new “accessory” and start selling ornately decorated face coverings. Originally introduced as a medical utensil, the face mask underwent a somnambulistic metamorphosis into a fashion item that no longer had a solely practical purpose, but was now intended to satisfy an aesthetic need among its wearers.
This brief excursion into our present time marked (or rather plagued) by COVID-19 demonstrates the extent to which a small piece of cloth has not only changed our appearance dramatically, macabrely merging us in this crisis into an ornamental mass, but also radically transformed our entire appearance such that we increasingly resemble sinister mannequins without visible facial expressions. Even in a grave pandemic, the longing to express individuality via our appearance remains a deep-seated human need.
However, Maria Visser’s works (fortunately) don’t concern the side-effects of the pandemic; instead, they deal with clothing in the broadest sense and its diverse manifestations. Starting out in painting, Visser began taking an artistic approach to clothing and its cultural molding as fashion early on in her studies, using the very same media that are usually associated with the fashion sector. A fitting example is the magazine Chic, devised and founded by her when she was still a student, and whose visual language and format refer to the world-famous Vogue. For her current exhibition Future in Store, Visser is now producing the third issue of Chic. Like the exhibition title, it examines the phrase “What has the future in store for me?”, a common expression in the English-speaking world. The word “store” is deliberately ambiguous, alluding on the one hand to the common retail term “in store” and on the other to the uncertainty of the future.
The shorter form Future in Store ambivalently alludes to a central psychological message of clothing and fashion which, produced by manufacturers in seasonal collections, always represents a symbol and a fixed point in the future for their fashion-savvy customers. The importance of the spatial presentation of fashion can’t be overstated, the cruise shows staged in extravagant villas where mid-season collections are exclusively displayed to affluent customers having become common practice for major fashion houses. This architectural aspect of presentation is artistically addressed by Visser in several ways, such as by creating architectural miniatures at the beginning of each new work and so, as it were, enabling the spatial presentation to take place as a parallel process of her collections. One of these miniature models entitled “Space Stores Condensed Time” shows how space nestles around each work like a cocoon.
The inclusion of architecture plays a key role in Visser’s artwork in that the creation of her own collections and their presentation by means of a “défilé” is an essential part of her oeuvre. However, what used to take place as a performance in pre-pandemic times must now be carried out by means of digital tools. Her specially designed fashion and jewelry collections “Future – X”, “Facades” and “Comb Through Gills” are presented by models in front of a green screen and then transferred to the miniature model. The already cool aesthetics of her futuristic-looking works are artificially heightened by digital production. Regarding the “Future – X” Collection, the vividness of the models is especially clear.
When designing her objects, Visser makes use of cryptic text semiotics that don’t simply subordinate themselves decoratively to the human silhouette, but claim an aesthetic autonomy and interpret the wearer as a physical extension of traditional presentation possibilities. The wearer of the often bulky-looking objects experiences a sculptural quality that, combined with the enigmatic nature of the semiotic systems used, underlines the ephemeral avant-garde idea all the more strongly. By wearing a certain “image,” the person comes to symbolize a diffuse idea of the future. A parallel can be seen with Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics: by adding prostheses or fashion objects, the human being becomes a signifier of a mental image of the future that’s never fixed and instead is always in a permanent state of emergence.
Maria Visser’s art is characterized by a complexity operating on the boundary between sculpture, performance, installation, and publication. It astutely reveals the mechanisms of the fashion world without being judgmental. Using various forms of expression, she playfully fuses her own interpretations of well-known fashion aesthetic codes and thus penetrates to the core of the fashion world which, revealed as a highly complex terrain, unites deep human longings in its supposed superficiality, and whose social significance can’t be overestimated.
– from CHIC issue 3, Future in Store (2021)
The presentation of the body seems to benothing short of constitutive for the socialhuman. It’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t play to the gallery whenever they’re in contact with others. Each interaction, even in infancy, is intended to arouse a reaction in the other person. According to Jacques Lacan, the first conscious encounter with oneself – be it in a reflection as in the myth of Narcissus, or in the mimicking mirror of one’s parents – is the moment at which the ego develops, the personality is formed, and human autonomy unfolds as we realize our own existence.
From then on, the questions “How do others see me?”, “How do I see myself?” and “How do I want others to see me?” play a key role in social interaction and thus also in the way we present ourselves. Ritual body paintings, yet also tattoos and make-up provide a specific indication of how the body can be translated into an image. Seen thus, clothes replace the decoration and design of the body’s exterior. And apart from their purely practical function of providing a second cover to keep us warm, clothes become an element of the picture, making the body a canvas. Patterns, colours and shapes merge with the wearer to form a whole perceived as a more or less characteristic appearance, as a personality between individuality and uniformity. Nevertheless, fashion – especially in the artistically experimental forms of haute couture – becomes independent in its own world of design. The search for identity through a stylish exterior and an interior meriting protection is abandoned in favour of producing an image which in a sense becomes autonomous from the individual. Although the body remains the wearer of symbols and designs, they no longer reflect complex inner worlds but become appropriations and interpretations of existing ideas.
An example of this is the groundbreaking, elegant Mondrian dress by Yves Saint Laurent, which he first presented in his 1965 autumn collection. Instead of emphasizing the female form, it treats it as a framework for an abstract composition borrowed from art history. The originally two-dimensional painting is translated into an animated three-dimensionality and the display of an abstract image takes precedence over an individual seeking expression and self- presentation.
This is where Maria Visser’s work comes in. Deliberately abandoning the established context of the designer-driven world of fashion, she places herself in the traditional, historical context of art. Moreover, she floods the exhibition gallery with symbols and elements of the catwalk, presenting outfits and settings, decorations and models as fleeting wanderers between very different levels of meaning. Sculptures and spatial elements, dance and music, stage and exhibition space, music videos and fashion magazines, visitors and performers: in Maria Visser’s projects, the divisions become blurred and simultaneously open up a polyphonic field of meaning. Individual battens form words which as strips of fabric then become T-shirts, historical narratives about witch-hunts mingle with pejorative terms for women in several languages, while young men and women model clothes which don’t appear to be made for their bodies: stiff, solid fabrics in predominantly grey, white and silver, imitation leather, fur and tricot. Instead of clinging to their bodies, they ‘mark’ them, frame them, and form compact surfaces and geometric volumes in a manner evocative of OskarSchlemmer’s stage.
In Visser’s presentations, appropriation and creation merge into an elegant, stylish amalgam confidently penetrating the realm of art and shifting its boundaries far into the social sphere. By addressing the surface of fashion design as such, she emancipates it in favour of an individual world of symbols packed with social and everyday cultural references. Appropriation in her work means reinterpretation, form-finding equates to passing comment, and presentation in both the exhibition gallery and the pseudo-fashion magazine is a narrative creating dialogue between the symbols and codes with consummate ease. Visser’s ‘fashion’ no longer reflects individuals with their inner desire for self-presentation, but society with its constraints and contradictions.
– from CHIC issue 2, Y2K17 (2018)