(c) Photography: Ronald Stoops
fairy tales
Walter Van Beirendonck A/W 1986-87 - Bad Baby Boy
Photography: Patrick Robyn

Fairytales, the first theme of the exhibition, looks more closely at the narrative strategies in Walter Van Beirendonck’s work. Language is everywhere, throughout all his collections. The use of phrases, slogans, words and graphic play with language in prints and on knitwear is perhaps one of his strongest trademarks. Many of the slogans are fragments from song lyrics, which he combines with words or phrases from completely different contexts.

In 1994, Van Beirendonck introduced his mascot, Puk Puk (a reference to the crocodile man of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea), into his collections. He was a small blue alien from the planet Dork. Through his mascot, Van Beirendonck was able to incorporate highly critical statements about such socially sensitive themes as HIV and safe sex. In Van Beirendonck’s work, good and evil, the two opposing powers in every fairy tale, take shape in the form of charming insects, such as ladybugs, or the adorable figures from his toy collection, as well as the mask of Darth Vader (the villain of the Star Wars movies) or Bolivian devil masks. The Oruro festival in Bolivia is known for its devil dances. The figure of Rey Moreno (the black king) leads the Morenada dance groups. This dance is a reference to African slaves transported to South America. The richly decorated costumes refer to the wealth of the slave owners, while the bulging eyes and protruding tongues represent the suffering of the slaves.

The work of artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy reflects a fascination for the years of childhood, not as a source of innocence and purity, but as a time of repression and violence. Their 1992 performance Heidi, with alienating life-size dolls, evokes associations between Heidi, the myth of the American ideal of purity and the idealised image of family life presented in the media, and horror films. It is not a coincidence that Van Beirendonck repeatedly refers to the work of Kelley and McCarthy as a source of inspiration. They use the same visual strategies, in which tableaux of sweetness and naïveté inevitably have their dark sides and evoke a degree of shock in the viewer. In Van Beirendonck’s Killer / Astral Travel / 4D-Hi-D (spring-summer 1996) collection, he places the tale from the Swiss Alps against the background of the advancing AIDS virus, which reached its tragic apex in the 1990s and inflicted devastating wounds on the gay world. The little goat symbolizes the virus slipping into bed with the unsuspecting Heidi. For the fashion show, the models wore stuffed masks that completely covered their faces with such statements as ‘Terror Time’, ‘Get Off My Dick’, ‘Synthetic Hell!’ and ‘Blow Job’.