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(c) Photography: Ronald Stoops
fairy tales
W.&L.T. S/S - A Fetish For Beauty, Photography: Ronald Stoops

Alterations reflects how Van Beirendonck questions our accepted ideas about beauty and sets out in search of alternative images of the body. He works with the most diverse body shapes, from muscle-bound bodybuilders and robust ‘bears’ (a characteristic type in the gay community) to tender boys and fragile Japanese girls to fantasy figures.

In A Fetish for Beauty (spring-summer 1998), we find elongated models on stilts, wearing T-shirts with prints of preoperative drawings for plastic surgery. Van Beirendonck is interested in the way beauty can be manipulated through plastic surgery. His work also embraces the concept of the avatar, the man-machine, in which surgical alterations and intelligent prostheses transform the bodies of the future. French performance artist ORLAN, who has plastic surgery performed on herself, embodies this idea. In Believe (autumn-winter 1998–99) Van Beirendonck presents two models with prostheses, in the form of horns on the head, as a kind of contemporary scarification. In the cultures of Papua New Guinea and Oceania, scarification of the skin is an extension of the principle of the mask as a second ego, as well as a protector to ward off evil spirits.

With the beauty rituals of ethnic tribes as his example, Van Beirendonck also experiments with all kinds of make-up, such as Maori facial tattoos in stick-on latex interpretations (spring-summer 2001). Masks in all kinds of shapes, forms and materials offer an alternative to our classic idea of make-up. Much of Van Beirendonck’s ethnic inspiration comes from the peoples of Papua New Guinea and the Nuba area (Sudan). The manner in which the Papuans relate to their bodies, make-up and hair — not just the privilege of women, but primarily a male experience — appeals to Van Beirendonck.

Beauty goes hand-in-hand with creating one’s own identity and the freedom to shape it by way of one’s own body. It is no coincidence that the glam rock of the 1970s, and more specifically David Bowie’s chameleon-like appearances and diverse alter egos were a great inspiration to the young Walter Van Beirendonck. The exhibition Mutilate?, which Van Beirendonck curated for the city of Antwerp’s Fashion 2001 Landed project, was not about mutilation but rather an accolade to the power of transformation throughout history and across diverse ethnic customs.

In 2003, Van Beirendonck designed the costumes for the dance performance, Not Strictly Rubens, by the Royal Ballet of Flanders. The muscular bodies of today’s dancers are far removed from the ideal figure of Peter Paul Rubens. For this reason, Van Beirendonck designed costumes made of hundreds of handmade tulle rosettes, in order to recreate voluptuous body shapes. He employed a similar technique for the meandering sculptures for Erwin Wurm’s solo exhibition Wear Me Out at the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp (29/5–25/9/2011), for which he collaborated closely with the Austrian artist.

In his Dissections collection (autumn-winter 2000–01) Van Beirendonck constructed shirts and jackets in multiple layers. The collection was partly inspired by Erwin Wurm’s Jakob/ Jakob Fat (1999), a performance in which a man turns himself into a sculpture, manipulating his body by putting on more and more articles of clothing.