A daring installation is laying fashion bare, writes David Phair
It's not every day a fashion installation encourages its guests to try on quirky exhibits made from latex, laminate strips and wire twists. Then again, it's not every day a model slips off a daring flesh-coloured latex all-in-one to reveal herself in her birthday suit.
Art-to-Wear, a visual sartorial feast, featuring three Hong Kong artists - Daphne Lau Shuk-man, Grace Tang Ying-mui and Movana Chen Li-yun - provided just that before a crowd at last weekend's opening at Gallery Benten 17.
That the guests barely raised an eyebrow at performance artist Saffron Leung's potentially show-stopping disrobing was perhaps another surprise. Keen-eyed exhibition-goers would have noticed though that the invite was for over-18s only.
Yet Leung's tour de force never detracted from the show's underlying purpose, which was to challenge everyone to think about what they wear, how they wear it, the feeling it gives them and what it means to be a woman.
Cheryl Rodriguez, director and producer of Gallery Benten 17, which is hosting the installation, says the event attracted the attention of a 98-year-old neighbour who was so fascinated she invited herself in for a beer.
'We had theatre performer Leung wearing the latex piece in one corner,' says Rodriguez. 'She was like a little elf or pixie, moving around and up and down for an hour to music while the crowd watched her. It was very intense and personal, and fascinating to see how she tested the audience's reactions in such a small space.'
Rodriguez says she was particularly impressed by the audience's 'sophisticated' low-key reaction when Leung continued her performance to music by Dutch DJ and composer Janno Vaartjes, leading to the peeling away of her latex skin.
'I lived in Japan for 10 years and we would've felt the shock there,' she says.
Lau, the artist working with the latex, says Leung's suit took five hours to create, painstakingly painting the pungent liquid layer by layer onto the performer's body.
'I've worked with a lot of materials exploring the female body,'' says the graduate in costume and makeup from the London College of Fashion and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
'At the start, I found traditional corsets fascinating as they restrict the body and create an hour-glass shape. Women wear them to achieve what is seen as a perfect body.'
The slightly built artist, who once took slimming pills because of the pressure society exerts on women to have the perfect figure, then experimented with fibreglass and mannequins, and drew on T-shirts she wore.
Lau then moved on to latex, which fascinates her because 'it's just like a snake shedding a skin and that makes for a very powerful image. It also reflects the texture of the person on which it is painted, and their body shape.'
Leung's latex skin was the first Lau had created for someone else. 'In the gallery, this latex garment becomes lifeless on the floor when it's taken off,' she says. 'But then you question what it would feel like on your own body and, of course, what makes the perfect body - if that even exists.''
Tang's contribution, by contrast, comprised thousands of wire twists that, while complementing Lau's work, appeared like abstract sculptures bending in almost dreamy lines.
'Initially, I felt they had no real shape but afterwards it struck me that some were like germs and bacteria, and some like animal parts and even plants,' says the fine arts graduate who studied at Goldsmith's College and the University of Westminster in London.
She loves the brightness of the wire twists and particularly the flexibility of working with them, as other kinds of wire are harder to bend and lack the ability to create the fluid shapes she seeks.
A previous exhibition she staged using wire twists provoked a passionate response from the public who couldn't wait to wrap themselves in the creations.
'I think they thought it was very avant-garde. The phrase I'd use in Cantonese is chiu bao which means explosively fashionable.''
Chen's exhibits look the most like clothing, with dresses and accessories such as handbags.
As with the creations from Lau and Tang, the effect of Chen's pieces on the observer is an immediate desire to touch and examine them. Only then comes the realisation that the items are made from the plastic lamination used in magazines.
Chen started using the medium in 2004, having collected so many magazines that she had to stack them up, discovering she measured 139 magazines tall. What intrigues her is how the lamination can
be transformed by knitting it into fashion.
'It's not just about beauty,'' she says, mentioning that she wears her creations. 'It's about looking closely at something lifeless and finding out it's not really a dress in a material you'd expect.' This is so important to her that she keeps a record of all the magazines she uses.
'I know, for example, that 60 pages of an I.D. magazine can be transformed into a dress,'' she says.
Was it difficult for the three female artists to work closely together?
Tang laughs and says there are many female artists in Hong Kong but it was the first time she'd worked so closely with this group. 'Actually, it was a very good feeling,' she says. 'Women talk a lot in general, and about their emotions, and we all became friends.'
She thinks it may have been different had they been men. 'I think they like to be more precise
in some ways and don't like to talk that much.'
And with a giggle she adds: 'They also tend to be more competitive whereas we're not.''
Art-to-Wear, G/F, 17 Wa In Fong East (at Shing Wong St), Central, until Dec 31. Open Mon-Fri, 3-7pm, Sat and Sun 12-6pm (by appointment). Inquiries: 2559 0054