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"The Absent Presence"

25.04. – 22.06.2008

Curated by Malin Barth

In his conceptual works Hussein Chalayan uses film, installation and sculptural forms to explore perception and the realities of modern life. We can discern different layers of narration, with strong implications to his autobiography as a Turkish Cypriot and as a nomad between worlds.
Chalayan´s multi-layered narratives are molded into neo-mythological, futuristic visual rituals.

In this project he deals with the tantalizing issue of identity as DNA and its reflection in the geopolitical environment. The Absent Presence is an enigmatic story based on identity, geography, genetics, biology and anthropology. He opens the arguments on how certain identities can or cannot adapt to new environments and generates a research based narration for this cross-disciplined installation with filmic images and sculptures. There is a serious scientific and theoretical research behind the end product presented to the audience. The film displays the interplay of the real and the imagined with a series of collected clothes and digitally deformed crystallized garments. A DNA extraction process from the clothes collected from among immigrants in London, an anthropological evaluation of this material, and a 3D manipulation all treated through the London soundscape intricately reveals the approach to Chalayan to the ubiquitous dilemma of identity.

Opening speech by T-Michael, tailor/designer/artist.


Hussein Chalayan
by ArtReview June 2005

Combining what many categorise as different creative disciplines, the recent films of Hussein Chalayan embrace a spectrum of interests, from fashion to architecture, choreography to anthropology. Having received critical acclaim as a fashion designer over the past decade, Chalayan has of late been discussed and exhibited more and more frequently within a contemporary art context. In acknowledgement of his evident artistic creativity, Chalayan – born in the divided city of Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1970, but resident in London since the age of 15 – has been invited to represent Turkey at this year’s Venice Biennale, an honour that he admits represents “a new arena” both for his work and for its usual audience.

Hussein Chalayan’s studio lies at the hub of London’s East End contemporary art spaces. This location, combined with Chalayan’s inter-disciplinary approach, suggests that his working space will be a similarly multi-dimensional environment of stored props, rails of past and present collections, AV equipment and more. In fact, the studio still appears very much dedicated to fashion, with clothes neatly hanging on either side of the room, while in the centre his assistants measure and cut lengths of cloth for his 10-year retrospective exhibition at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. But although the atmosphere feels highly focused, it is no longer clear where a piece of material will end up: on the catwalk, in an exhibition display, or even in a costume for one of his films. “There has not been so much room for cross-disciplinary creativity in the art world,” Chalayan says. “I am interested in turning one idea into something more, in stepping away from such restrictive categorisation.” It is his confidence in the belief that “all disciplines are woven” that propels him, allowing him to make work that disintegrates the boundaries we still perceive to exist between fashion and visual arts.

Less than two years ago Chalayan finished his first film, Temporal Meditations (DATE), which was conceived as a one-off production for a fashion collection of the same name. Filmed in Cyprus, and often actually referred to as “Cyprus” by the artist, a territorial dialogue unfolds on an open runway with an abandoned aircraft as the backdrop. Chalayan is interested in using film to contain the variety of his interests and to extend his work further into what he calls the “realms of movement, space, sound and object. Each element appearing in my films is executed in a different way, but the whole allows them to merge, bringing everything together within one shared language.” As in his other films, it is difficult to put a finger on the central idea behind Temporal Mediations because it consists of so many layers of narrative. But Chalayan suggests that his work is “generally about identity and displacement”, and broad references to travel, cultural rituals, codes of behaviour, imposed territorial conditions and border controls certainly recur throughout the films.

Chalayan insists that he is not yet well known as an artist, although his second film, the Tribe Art Commission Place to Passage (DATE), has already been exhibited in five international art venues. Projected on five screens, the film presents a woman going about day-to-day essential activities such as eating, sleeping and dressing, all within the confines of an enclosed, spatially restricted travelling pod. Although the pod itself travels – from a London car park to the glittering shores of the Bosphorus in Istanbul via a barren lunar landscape – the woman’s enforced environment precisely circumscribes her actions. Again, a set of pre-determined conditions of movement is the key theme, Chalayan taking issue with the effects of ‘temperature change, pressure change and in-flight entertainment’ that characterise an era shaped by what he calls the “violence of travel”.

Another film, Anaesthetics (DATE), was recently shown at the Moderna Museet in the exhibition “Fashionation”, which brought together a selection of creative individuals working between fashion and visual arts including Matthew Barney, Vanessa Beecroft and Martin Margiela. Split into chapters, the film first investigates the strict aesthetics of Japanese food; as Chalayan points out, “the customer is never involved in the production of the food, in the violence of its production; we just eat its aesthetic result”. The Christian Holy Communion, the taking of bread and wine, forms a later chapter exploring the rituals and codes of conduct inherent in organised religion, while other sections of the film return to the idea of travel as a disembodied experience. “Each scene is like a kit, a stage set for a different zone,” explains Chalayan. “But it’s more related to performance than theatre, because the work presents a series of formulated actions that can only be made timeless on film and not when presented live.”

The different chapters that make up Anaesthetics could easily be presented as separate works, but the idea of complex layering is actually a key structural motif. Just as we peel off the different strata of meaning with each successive chapter, the white-suited assistants in the film peel clothes from the walls of each scene to be worn by the main characters in the next setting. In fact, in both Chalayan’s film and fashion work, the act of gradually stripping away or unfolding layers is used as a device to symbolise adaptation and change: the woman peels off the blanket that covers her in Place to Passage; a letter opens out into a full-length paper dress in his “Airmail” designs; furniture upholstery, and finally furniture itself, turns into dresses in the 2000/2001 ‘Afterwords’ collection.

For the Turkish Pavilion in Venice, Chalayan is working on a specially commissioned five-screen projected installation, a “scientific and aesthetic experiment as narrative” titled The Abscent Presence. At the last Biennale, Turkish commissioner Beral Madra presented a group exhibition in a building shared by several other countries’ representatives, but Chalayan’s solo presentation merits a dedicated space (Fondazione Levi, the site of the Scottish Pavilion in 2003).

During the research phase of the new project, seven people unknown to Chalayan and foreign to the city of London donated an item of clothing to the artist. DNA was extracted from the clothes and analysed to form a series of facts on which to base imaginary – but entirely possible – characteristics for each individual. DNA, as Chalayan points out, “can only offer a few clues, such as someone’s race and gender, state of health and certain allergies; the rest has to be imagined from the clothing itself”. Three of the seven samples will be used to create graphic, animated representations of each individual, based on the form of the original garment and its status as a foreign element in London’s alien cityscape. The five-screen projection will be accompanied by items of clothing exhibited as static objects, so that the entire installation incorporates both the real and imagined presence of the three strangers. Chalayan is excited at the possibility of crossovers between the reality and the fantasy.

The Abscent Presence is not a documentary, but rather an abstract and creative reading of information that highlights the way we form cultural stereotypes and claim knowledge based on approximation. According to Chalayan, it will act as “a form of interrogation, a confrontation of assumed readings of immigration” – a confrontation, in fact, that reflects on his own presence at the Biennale. His first concern on receiving the invitation to exhibit in Venice was that having a London-based fashion designer representing Turkey might “annoy people”. But his resistance to prejudice and categorisation – his subject matter in The Abscent Presence, as in so much of his previous work – should deter audiences from making hasty judgements.

Special screening:


"Place to Passage"


Tribe Art Commission2 / Hussein Chalayan

I cooperation with Galerist, Istanbul

Leading fashion designer Hussein Chalayan has been awarded Tribe Art Commission2. Second in an ongoing series of international art projects sponsored by the B·A·R Honda Formula 1 racing team, Tribe Art Commission2/Hussein Chalayan premiered in London at the Old Truman Brewery on Wednesday 5 November 2003, before touring internationally.

Hussein Chalayan’s acclaimed collections successfully break down the boundaries between design and fine art, resulting in some of the most memorable moments in fashion history. For this commission, he has created an interactive multiscreen installation, incorporating film, 3D computer animation and a specially composed soundtrack.
Inspired by a visit to the B·A·R Honda factory, Chalayan uses the medium of Formula 1 racing to explore the implications of speed and technology on contemporary society. With the help of a recent automotive design graduate from the Royal College of Art, Chalayan employed 3D modelling and state-of-the-art F1 fabrication techniques to create his own visionary version of a racing car. This aerodynamic pod-like structure became the centrepiece of place to passage, the film Chalayan made with conceptual animation company, neutral.

In Place to Passage Chalayan takes the viewer on a complex psychological journey through the contemporary urban landscapes of London and Istanbul, via the barren setting of Dungeness and an icy wilderness. As in F1 reportage, the perspective fluctuates from the objective to the subjective. At times the viewer is a mere bystander, following the speeding ‘pod’, with its androgynous female passenger, as it pursues its relentless route around them. At other times they find themselves cocooned on the inside, the pod acting as a calm refuge for reflection. Strands of the passenger’s life begin to flash past, and we become aware of the symbolic dimension to the journey. As the pod traces a lifecycle, Chalayan examines how velocity affects our senses and memories.




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