The Weather Diaries.

A book review by Edith Lázár

In the Fashion Series

In its long script history, clothing has been the canvas for symbolic connections to communities and places, as well as memory and sensitive experiences. Costume on this account is the main illustration, be it in its traditional understanding or in court pompously elaborated forms. Even though in today’s accelerated fashion the correlation between clothing and identity in reference to a place is difficult to pin-down, fashion still remains particularly tied on to the making process, that is the creation of recognizable forms, colors and scents – dressing the body and keeping it within. The Weather Diaries retraces the influence of cloth-making over identity and does so through the lens of the soft emotional appropriations that local fashion is building nowadays. At the same time, it presents works wrapped around the natural and structural beauty of the western Nordic Islands region, infused with a strange charisma and a mark of tempestuous weather. On this line, the material, the actual fabric of the clothing, stands out as an aspect of utterly great importance in the process of reclaiming identity. Firstly, it traces a connection between manufacture, art, design, and performance in what has come to be the fashion world, and then signals how dressing up the body also comprises aspects of the relationship between practice, aesthetics, ritual, and the magic spark that clothing holds so dearly.

Artists Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer, better known as the mixed media duo artists Cooper & Gorfer, were assigned by the Nordic Fashion House to curate the 3rd Nordic Fashion Biennale. In this frame the duo approached the Weather Diaries project by bringing together twelve artists all of them originally from Iceland, Faroe Islands and Greenland. With multilayered backgrounds, designers Mundi, STEiNUNN, JÖR, Guðrun & Guðrun, Barbara Í Gongini, Bibi Chemnitz and Najannguaq Lennert, highly skilled craftsman Nikolaj Kristensen, jewellery designer Kría, along with renowned artist and performer Hrafnhildur Arnadòttir a.k.a. Shoplifter, performer and writer Jessie Kleemann, and experimental film makers Rammatik have inserted some of their homeland experience and personal understanding of the moodish places they grew up with. Channeling these Nordic influences, Cooper & Gorfer made fashionable interpretations of designs, while combining photography and art history in an almost anthropological manner. Published by Gestalten in a textile covered edition, with a graphic work depicting an adorned raven, The Weather Diaries is more of an extended making-off which, accompanied by a short documentary, reveals parts of the two year documentation process lying behind the mastery of the exhibition.

The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale by Cooper & Gorfer
The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale by Cooper & Gorfer

The photographic works of Cooper & Gorfer are sewn in an appropriation of art history, with folktales and aesthetical reminiscences of XVIII and XIX siècle paintings. Digitally processed to create painted like surfaces, the works create a world of storytelling which half relies on the image and is half invented by the viewer. But even as dreamy scenes, the images entail a nomadic and highly tensioned feeling, where landscape and extreme weather have found their analogies through much darker romantic lens. Photographic constructions bring in mind Turner’s touches or Caspar David Friedrich‘s heavy silence, with people exceeded by the natural grandeur and Pre-Raphaelites inspired compositions, amidst a more earthly reinterpretation of Ophelia with an organic body-clothes-soil lingering. Nevertheless, the series also encompasses some baroque-like portraiture turning our attention to the Danish influence over these far Nordic islands, as controversial as the subject still is. Such representations place clothing back in art, in the sense that costume, vestments and fabrics have always played an important part in painting, bearing symbolic affiliations as well as being an expression of the artists’ skill in rendering materiality. To extrapolate, the role of the designer or cloth creator is similar here to the role of an artist, working both with symbols and the virtuousness of the fabric to create a body image. In this context, one should call to mind the crucial significance of clothing and adornments for portraiture, where all the painting and clothing stylings are worked around them.

Bibi Chemnitz, The Fifth Daughters. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.
Bibi Chemnitz, The Fifth Daughters. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.

Through these fashion stagings the duo goes beyond the idea of fashion photography or editorial retouches, defying the usually seen relationship between fashion and the past in particular. It is well known that one of fashion’s main critiques addresses the conversion of the past into an endless creation of new, where references are less and less clear or relevant, not to mention the culture of waste it entails. Baudrillard has made quite a standpoint of it, ironically referring to fashion as the enchantment of codes, with no site of origin, or, to put it in another way, a kind of black hole readily absorbing anything and devaluing it. Processed through the filter of art history and clothing representations, the works reposition clothing, fashion and history on the same line and highlight how, by keeping the past alive in different forms, these Nordic designers challenge the remembrance of other times, in order to cherish the cultural heritage and look to the future in a manner that effects an emotional intensity, in contrast with the figures of excess. The romantic lens worked up by the duo thus tackles a critical aspect in the sense that romantic artists were opposed to a decayed system of representations and practices in art just as in life. By praising nature they went back to the roots of senses which communed with nature and the divine forces, where folklore is one of the effigies for the mixture of nature appropriation, care, and the imagination of individuals.

The folkloric correlations function in a much larger context, consistent with the movements that Nordic lands have constantly generated around the revival of their culture. It’s a phenomenon best underlined in music or illustration art, where artists are boldly combining traditional poems and their visual ties with new media. As previously mentioned, the collective of artists work with different mediums, but the importance of folklore or the organic materiality does not only hold their attention because of everyday life encounters, it is also felt in the making process. Jewellery designer Kría and artist and performer Hrafnhildur Arnadòttir a.k.a. Shoplifter, are both inspired by much more bodily features, from hair and bones to the mythical and memorial feelings they create. Nikolaj Kristensen makes whole garments in the traditional beading of glass pearl, while Guðrun & Guðrun follow the tradition of patterns on knitwear; although stylized and simplified, they are traceable in the symbols women used in clothing in order to spot their men even from a long distance when they were to come home from sea travels. Najannguaq Lennert stretches the dark shades of the soil onto clothing, while STEiNUNN finds inspiration in the flora. Jesse Kleemann does more than handicraft collars – she writes poems and beautiful sad stories based on Inuit mythologies and culture. Her “Sassuma Aarna”, featured both in the book and in the documentary, has that melancholia and tragic tonality of the far beginnings of the worlds.

On the other hand, designers such as Mundi, Bibi Chemnitz, JÖR, Barbara Í Gongini or the film duo Rammatik rise up the flag of fashion in the mixture of digital, tech and – a little far-fetched – fantasy future, even though they still reach across the cultural heritage, from prints and hems, to hybrids of representation between old costumes and new stylings or new ways of cloth making inspired by artisanal methods. Barbara Í Gongini does not simply braid (de)constructive pieces, she has also devoted special attention to low impact products, all wrapped up around different levels of avant-garde touches.

Bibi Chemnitz, Sara and the Dog. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.
Bibi Chemnitz, Sara and the Dog. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.

The digital manipulations and intertwined displays made by Cooper & Gorfer perform as tools for constructing a stream of continuity between the artists. However, the images are sometimes too richly digitalized and reworked in the figurative manner of art history, resulting in an over-texturized surface. On the one hand, the duo’s approach creates astonishingly beautiful sceneries as in Bibi Chemnitz’s “The Fifth Daughters” where the garments merge into the landscapes, a metaphor for the identity liaison with home places, but, on the other hand, it is exactly this image processing that sometimes loses a good deal of the materiality of the designs and their carnation. Nevertheless, in its dynamics and close-ups, the short video/documentary grasps a part of the tactility of a designed item, from fabric details to fluidity and body movement. Mundi’s plated fish-dress is a very fine example of how the editing becomes fade in comparison with the drowning scene that shows a naturalness of underwater fluidity and a witty manufactured and thought-out garment. The printed bands of fish resembling ribbons flow like glowing silvery flesh that outgrows a young woman’s body. It’s interesting to see that both of the scenes (photography and motion) exceed the natural landscape framework, while also developing a juxtaposition of symbolic schemata. The landscape view is thus overlapped by the pagan symbolism of the fish, as a woman’s womb understood in its sexuality and fertility coalesces with the fish as the predominant source of food for norlanders. It therefore makes for a sustained play between the icon and the experience of everyday life, while tracing a connection between clothing and places at the same time.

Different ways to counter-balance the usually superficial and unrelational understanding of fashion are pointed throughout the whole book, with the opening section comprising three essays which overlap the universally shimmering fashion industry. Each of them insists, in one way or another, on the conditions that have shaped Nordic fashion and thus the relationship it entrusts between clothing and creativity, in comparison to fashion centers engraved by alienation. Among these explanatory essays, Mahret Kupka’s philosophically impregnated “On the Brink of an Abyss” becomes a boundary stone which eventually unravels the book. Her profound vision moves beyond the images alone and onto the creative process, and is thus concerned with the practices and poetics constituent of our imagination. Relying on Wilhelm Schmid’s art of living and new ways of coexistence she advances a soft re-configuration of it. If the new practices of liberation and imagination have been discussed by Schmid as impingements of the barriers luring us almost on the verge of destruction, Kupka instead considers such ways of living should be more likely understood as the use of energies that steam out from the fragile equilibrium between resisting forces. The framework she constructs places Nordic people in the eye of the storm, between resisting forces and tensions, among which the climatic features and the limited resources – still in use like in the old days: wool and animal skin – prevail. These constraints to isolation underscore in fact a basis for creative struggle that works both ways: as a playful work with what is at hand, inventing new ways for them, and as a responsible use as well. Later, such an idea is reinforced by Guðrun & Guðrun’s statement that: “(…) in a time of crisis, people will go back to another kind of luxury.”

Gudrun & Gudrun, The White Boat. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.
Gudrun & Gudrun, The White Boat. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.

This endeavor towards a much more intimate and profound approach to fashion reflects even in the book’s idea of a journal, reuniting the work and documented experience of the curators with the artists’ perspectives and some shared pieces of thoughts, scattered throughout interviews and personal diary pages. As an interesting feature, it also includes an excerpt of a real journal dating back to 1975. The Weather Diaries finds itself in-between an artistic form of presentation and a much more personal approach stressing the intimacy of a journal. Along with Mahret Kupka’s essay, Matthias Wagner K. and Pauline Brown’s introductive ideas construct a frame for the pictorial presentation, yet they keep a rather distant tone even when attempting to reconciliate an elaborate discourse with a personal engagement. Too often the outcomes of fashion writings, even if they do cover different points of view, tend to sweep off the more intricate impressions as to avoid the superficial stigmata of fashion of which every fashion writer is aware. However, the other patchwork of texts intertwined with images flow smoothly, and one can feel through literary metaphors, hints or direct claims the touching upon some beautiful and warm experiences during the research and documentation period, and, not least, Cooper & Gorfer’s most treasured encounters. The storytelling of images runs through mountains, sea and the sky, a triangulation that always seems to be simultaneous in the eye of the artists gathered in the book – curators included – almost like a sharing of perception. Water references are much more powerfully displayed though: from Hrafnhildur Arnadòttir’s almost ghostly swimming woman in colorful patches of wool, to Barbara Í Gongini’s “Juanita with Black Hands” who impersonates an abysmal dark mermaid, Bibi Chemnitz’s “Holding the Sea” or Guðrun & Guðrun’s two girls standing in “The White Boat”, fearlessly piercing the viewer with their gaze. In a poetic way, it could be said that The Weather Diaries is somewhat about Sassuma Arnaa: the sad and beautiful story of the mother of the sea, the one who divides and unites concurrently, one to be cared for while being hard to map, an overlapping of water never to be forgottent even when crossed.

But it would be wrong to put forward only this dreamy face of Nordic fashion, since it’s about the artists’ hard work and their sensibility to that which surrounds them. The Weather Diaries is an enjoyable book that gets you high on aesthetics but, at the same time, presents an exercise of awareness over everydayness and landscape, its history and beauty, their influence over our creative acts, implying both a strong grip on identity and prejudice.

Mundi, The Wind Portrait. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.
Mundi, The Wind Portrait. Used here by kind permission from Gestalten. All rights reserved.
Editions Soon

Copyright © anti-utopias / Xpose Art Collective 2011-2016. All rights reserved.