Everything has a Story (yet to be told) The Costumes of Sietske Van Aerde
Michael Curran, 2018
Sietske Van Aerde's costumes emerge from a process of discovery, a love of materials and a fascination with sculpture. Her work is influenced by a love of Art, Film and Theatre and her pratice is lodged in a exploration of costume throughout history and within the folkloric tradition of mumming and carnival.
Van Aerde rejects the simplistic fashion of co-opting a limited definition of storytelling as a sales strategy which is so popular today. In fact she actively defies it. A theatre costume designer's chief responsibility is to be aware of the structure and themes of the play and the ideas of the director. Story telling commodified as a gimmick as highlighted in a recent article by Sujan Patel: “7 Companies That Are Killing It with Brand-Driven Storytelling” - is of no interest to her.
At a time when storytelling and art are being commodified in the form of branding of to support capital and the “authentic” is used as a marketing device in which the oral tradition or personal account becomes a cheap trick to seduce consumers – her interests lie in exploring things at a different and deeper level.
A good barometer for her oeuvre is her 1000 Costumes – a small notebook full of cartoons detailing one thousand outfits from the practical to the most absurd. The pamphlet acts as a kind of manifesto – a proposition for things yet to come – but it also articulates the sense of a never ending process of multiplication of garments and disguises – the work is never done. In this little book you will find amongst other things : a fluffy bikini, there's a hand in the dark, an asparagus evening gown, an enormous angel cake, a masked fish, Botticelli's Venus, a salamander, a broken egg, conjoined twins, an octopus, a dancing cheese and a walking cello. These cartoons – drawn in different styles are templates for things yet to come – a lexicon of gestures, shapes, garments for possible use and inter-combination. Corpse Exquise come to mind – the melding together of unlikely elements and chance encounters. Her theme is the unexpected combination of form and often unwieldy fabric or construction, the shape of the puppet or the carnival head. At the core of her work is the costume as many things – a mutating stage apparatus
somewhere between the wearable and the sculptural and the feeling that each 'garment' is somehow alive and still transforming. The sense that everything has a story waiting to be told – and the telling is how these garments are used, in how they take life from the performer's actions and the drive of the tale, dance, drama unfolding. The 1000 Costumes are of course closely aligned to 1001 Nights and the inter meshing narratives of a story that is never ending – of a far greater narrative arc than the details of each particular tale. Van Aerde's work is always referencing information outside the parameters of the story to suggest the very organic world – the world of stuff – the world of matter, the world of substances – the 1001 mediums.
In Borges Metaphors of the 1001 Nights the author describes four metaphors in relation to the tales.
The first is that of a river in which all the stories flow – the fluid that keeps them mobile – the genie inside the jar – the voyages of Sinbad – the magic lamp – the cave called Sesame - the chief protagonist who holds it altogether – the storyteller Scheherazade – who's life depends on another story yet to be told. This flow is the creative urge itself. The second metaphor is the web of a tapestry and here with Van Aerde an important reference. Up close the tapestry is like “a chaos of colours and arbitrary lines, a dizzying expanse of chance – but secret laws delimit it.” It is made up of recurring themes – repeating motifs just as Sietske might use the mask, the enlarged glove, the gross footwear as a repeating interlocking motif in her work. The third metaphor is the dream - “the dream divides into another dream” - the costumes hybridize into another costume – they are recycled – adapted, in the dream they are re-purposed. The fourth metaphor is a map of Time. This is deep time – processes of erosion – decay – renewal just as Sietske in in work utilises archetypes – the giant – the monstrous - the shapeless – the grotesque – spectres of deep time – creatures of ancient theatre and indeed process itself and the act of creation – a costume emerges from a journey – an interaction with stuff and what emerges is a surprise. “ The Arabs say – no-one can ever read right through the Book of Nights. The Nights are Time, which never sleeps. Keep reading as day declines and Scheherazade will tell you your own story.”Van Aerde's work is the story of materials – colours – masks – frills – dyes – fabrics – cellophane – sequins – cut n paste – industrial – home-made – fanciful – the story of continual making.
Van Aerde is influenced by films in which there is a high level of theatricalisation – film-makers such as Fassbinder in which the mise en scene possesses grotesque or extreme aspects. A good example would be The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant which is indeed about a fashion designer's who is obsessed with a young women. The costumes are extreme – including fright wigs and references to art nouveau drawing and 30s dress making with lurid 70s colours. Other influences are Cocteau – particularly – The Blood of a Poet for it's use of masks – and painted blind eyes. Perhaps the greatest influence is Federico Fellini. Fellini drew and planned clothes for all of his work. La Dolce Vita was inspired by a gown made by Cristobal Balenciaga in 1957 – the film Roma by a bikini – he said. In Van Aerde's work we can see the garish colours and cheap materials made gorgeous from Giuletta of the Spirits but the greatest influence in terms of her work so far is to been seen in relation to Fellini's Satyricon – a re imagining of ancient Rome and again a labyrinthine story that has no main focus – more a series of arresting visual shocks that occur one upon the other. In relation to 1000 costumes it is interesting to observe that Fellini began his career as a cartoonist – jotting down his ideas quickly and impulsively with fluid marks. Sietske's recent work plays direct homage to Satyricon with clear visual quotations from the film. Similarly her designs are intricate – picaresque and labyrinthine. Like Fellini she is interested in individuals as types and very digressive plots. There is a strong drive towards surplus, excess – the unmanageable – the too much.
Satyricon was heavily criticized as being confusing and without a convincing story at the time of its making – rather than understood as a phenomenon of unfolding and diverging events and indeed as a sumptuous spectacle. In the film a shot that may not have a narrative necessity or seeming significance -possesses an opulent aesthetic force of its own. Similarly Van Aerde is concerned with certain costumes or juxtapositions of material creating a visual impact which is so arresting it creates a shock, a pleasure, mirth or disapproval. There is the sense of a fresco of oddities – of uncanny figures and models that emerge from the deep unconscious.