Friday, April 25, 2008

ELLE MULIARCHYK TALKS TO ANA FINEL HONIGMAN

For the last year, twenty-one year Belarus-born artist and professional high-fashion model Elle Muliarchyk has pioneered a girly graffiti. Her witty and insightful art plays on fashion's fantasies and everyone's notions of rarified space and unobtainable status. Since the 1970s, the predominantly male subculture of graffiti writers have asserted an anti-establishment identity by building an evidentiary record of where they've been as they established their personas by tagging public spaces. Muliarchyk's self-described 'guerilla fashion photography', which she stages in dressing rooms of high-end boutiques, accomplishes the same goals but in a novel, uniquely beautiful and thoughtful way.

Muliarchyk achieves what the New York Times termed 'Pretty Larceny' by smuggling her camera and assorted incongruous objects into upscale, exclusive dressing rooms in countries as disparate as Turkey and Bulgaria and photographing herself dressed in the stories' prohibitively expensive wares. Once inside the dressing rooms with the unattainably priced precious garments she has selected, she quickly and stealthy poses with her props. Among the objects she has brought into shops are a man-sized teddy bear, a King Kong paw, a WWII gasmask and bags of autumn leaves from Central Park which she struggled to sweep off Chanel's floor and clean from a $6,000 silk Prada dress.

Fashion photography legend Patrick Demarchelier discovered Muliarchyk when she was 16 in a Manhattan cafe and was the first high-fashion photographer to photograph her. One of her foremost fans, he was quoted in her New York Times Magazine feature profile as enthusing, 'her ability to draw inspiration, in a very limited time frame, is amazing.'

As a model, Elle has been photographed by top-tier photographers including Ellen von Unworth and Terry Richardson. She began her own project when 'practicing' poses in a Bloomingdales as she was on her way to her first shoot with Demarchelier.

Since that time, she has been profiled in the New York Times, the London Times and on Fashion Television. Her work has been compared to photographs by Cindy Sherman, Vanessa Beecroft and Lee Miller. Her images, which impressively straddle various styles and aesthetics - while always remaining compelling and skillful - can be seen on Showstudio.com, a groundbreaking on-line exhibition space for Internet art, founded by British fashion photographer Nick Knight.

The shops where she creates art are often less supportive. Staff at Gucci called the police when she was discovered photographing in herself in one of their dresses, yet the bemused police officer let her take his photo, after he took her fingerprints. At a Bottega Veneta shop in New York, a salesman who peeked through a crack in the dressing room curtain and spied her reclining on a chaise longue in a sheer chemise and blue wig assumed she was shooting an internet porn video. And she was knocked unconscious when a saleswoman hit her on the head while opening the dressing room door as she lay curled up in a dress on the floor of Knightsbridge's Cavalli store.

These are only a few samplings of the extraordinary wealth of anecdotes that Elle has accumulated during her trajectory from poverty in Belarus to acclaim in New York's rarefied art and fashion worlds. We met in Manhattan's Once Upon a Tart cafe to load up on latte, share a giant gingerbread snowman, and talk.


ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: Do you feel that you have had a relatively smooth transition from fashion to art?

ELLE MULIARCHYK: I have always been very interested in art, even before I was in fashion. I never studied art for a degree but everywhere my family traveled, we always went to museums first. Art was always very important for my family - art and travel. When you die, you will not be thinking of the money you earned but the places you have seen...

AFH: Yet in the wider art-world, there are still perceived divisions between the art and fashion. Hence the endless stream of shows and articles investigating the question of whether fashion is art.

EM: Perhaps, but I think that now more than ever, fashion and art are linked. Fashion tends to be at the vanguard of mass media imagery and the influence of mass media imagery on contemporary art has been enormous. Warhol was a key figure in this. He bridged a lot of gaps between high art, and popular culture. For example he made the images of fashion icons like Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe more accessible and commercial to the public. And I think it great that nowadays many artists collaborate with fashion companies and communicate and express their ideas in a very accessible media. The result is that, if you cannot afford Jeff Koons' brilliant rabbit you can get a miniature one from Stella McCartney. And that connection makes you feel extra special. If a Real Artist designed the curious design on a Louis Vuitton bag, then, in a way, that connection almost justifies spending half of your salary on a bag.

AFH: Was fashion therefore always a peripheral part of your artistic ambitions?

EM: When I became involved in fashion, I decided to be the best model but otherwise I didn't know anything about it. At that time I was so stupid. My dream was to live a very 'Sex in the City' life and go to parties. Before coming here, I was an exchange student in San Francisco and every night, before falling asleep, I would think of New York. There is a special psychological technique for having your dreams come true. Before going to sleep each night, you need to paint your image of your future and it will happen.

AFH: What do you envision for yourself now?

EM: I no longer do it now, but when I was fourteen, I would close my eyes and visualize myself in New York doing the exact same things I am doing now. So, I guess it did work. I have quite a few new dreams that I am planning to realize!

AFH: Has New York lost its allure now that you're here? Are you blasé about it?

EM: Having lived in the jungles of Vietnam, then regularly waiting with my mom (three nights in a row) on the line to buy ugly blue 'Chernobyl' chickens, or toilet paper in minus 30 degrees C before, later moving to Prague, Paris and the California, I chose New York as my home right now.

AFH: On behalf of my hometown, you're welcome.

EM: Almost nothing is impossible is here. New Yorkers are very accepting and hungry for the new crazy idea. Sure, there is a negative side in it as well - in the way that everything is ultra disposable here. But if you are strong and have a talent to constantly re-invent yourself, then New York is your oyster.

AFH: Is the lifestyle here how you envisioned it would be?

EM: I go through stages of going out and partying like crazy but then I realize that all that fun can rush by in a blink of an eye and once I feel like I am not learning anything, then I go through stages of reading and meeting friends instead. I enjoy having a superficial life and then having a deep life.

AFH: Is your work a merger of the profound and superficial for you? And do people suggest dressing rooms for you to photograph or is exploring them yourself part of your process?

EM: When I started this project, friends would suggest locations because I never went shopping in high-end boutiques. I never had money, so I never even thought of going into those stores. I dreaded even walking past them. Especially when I lived and worked in Paris. It is a very intimidating experience to work as a model in Paris for the first time. I had to be very 'professional'. My agency told me not talk to anybody during photoshoot or a fashion show, so all I could do was walk around the shops after work, looking in the windows where everything is so sparkling and beautiful. I remember when I spotted the most gorgeous dress from the street and went into the store, the sales people just burned me with their eyes. Every move I made, they were X-raying me, I couldn't stand it and left. The next day I had to walk by the store again, and they were standing outside looking at me like 'I hope she doesn't come back inside.'

AFH: I doubt that Elle, though I am sure most average people are unwelcome in those boutiques.

EM: For the normal middle-class, working people these stores exist in a reality that is completely disconnected from theirs. I myself, especially coming from Belarus, used to feel that I belonged to a 'cast' of society that is prohibited from visiting them, until I found pleasure in this way of relating to these stores and their clothes. Even now when I go there I try to wear clothing that makes me look older and more conservative, maybe like an Upper East Side lady. Then when I am finally inside I have the last laugh!

FH: Are you now familiar enough with these environments that you scout out your own locations?

EM: Most of the times, I don't know what the dressing rooms are like inside. Very often the dressing rooms are locked. It is like a geisha ritual to be let inside these spaces. The sales person unlocks the door and personally hands the clothing on the hangers, carefully laying out other items on the bench.

AFH: So, the dressing rooms themselves do not determine the photograph?

EM: I've shot literally in close to two hundred stores, or more, and most of the time I shoot on the spur of the moment. The way my picture looks depends more on how I feel at that moment, rather than the dressing room itself. I let myself be surprised by the circumstances.

AFH: The chicken suit in one of your images certainly seems like a surprise.

EM: That happened once when I was driving from Oxford to London and stopped in a small town called Cheltenham. It was such a small town and because it was Sunday nothing was open, not even the gas station. The only open place was the weirdest party shop, just like in The League of Gentleman! They had a huge chicken suit.. and a dressing room! It was perfect.

AFH: Yet others of your images seem more determined by your emotional state than the serendipity of finding some odd object to wear.

EM: Another picture where I am curled the corner of a dressing room was taken after I met with the passport office and was sure I was being deported back to Belarus. My make-up was running and I was crying and crying. I was sure I was going to spend my life working on a sardine factory in Belarus but I passed a store and decided to go and have my picture taken to cheer myself up. And I think my pose and the style of the image really reflects what I felt just then. However, I have done a lot of research for several of the shots. For example, it took me about three months to scout a perfect and large enough dressing room to be able to squeeze inside a huge rubber paw for the "King Kong" picture.

AFH: Where do you get your props?

EM: Different places, but always for free, or with a very low budget. For example, I was staying at the house of my friend's aristocratic family in London and they had this beautiful antique mirror, which I became obsessed with. I smuggled it out of the house by the security doorman under a bed sheet. Could you imagine if they caught me, an ungrateful guest, at the first opportunity when the owners are gone, taking antique furniture out of the house? I dragged it onto the bus and on the tube, all the way to YSL in Knightsbridge. However, I paid dearly for my mischief - after that picture appeared in Sunday Times the aristocrats stopped inviting me to stay in their amazing house in Mayfair. One of my next crazy caprices is to hunt down a group of four or five typical Russian 'babushkas' from Brighton beach (little Odessa in New York), convince them to come them with me to Manhattan and pose with me in some posh boutiques on Madison Ave!

AFH: Don't sales people inquire what you're doing with packages?

EM: Yes they often do. Often they ask me to leave things outside the dressing room and I need to make up stories as to why I won't. For example, I bought this huge teddy bear at Harrods with a credit card and wanted to just drag him a few blocks down Sloane Street to whatever dressing room looked good. So, I carried him in a plastic bag and I went into Dior. But though the teddy was very hard to remove from the bag, he was impossible to stuff back in. It was so hard that I actually called the salespeople into the dressing room. I had to admit that I'd taken the bear out of the bag but I didn't tell them I was taking pictures. Instead, I said that I was going home to New York and it was a present for my god-daughter and it had slipped out of the bag - even though it had taken me two minutes to work it out of the bag. The two salespeople and security guards all were struggling to help me get him back in the bag.

AFH: They must have just thought you were some super-flaky, super-fluffy rich socialite. So, is part of your art is inventing the ways out of these tight situations?

EM: Certainly!

AFH: Have designers reacted well to what you do?

EM: Some. There were some magazines that wanted to shoot me talking to some of the designers I work with as a model. But it never happened.

AFH: Are you interested in dressing rooms as public or as private spaces?

EM: Both. I want to start photographing in the mass dressing rooms where women have to fight to try things on too. It is really interesting when shopping becomes animalistic. That is when we become like animals and somehow it gets in our blood. There are many things, which are addictive, like drugs, cigarettes, even coffee and chocolate, that work with your body chemistry and those things are explainable. But how is shopping affecting your body chemistry?

AFH: Maybe it is just the adrenaline of the fight, or of the hunt?

EM: Perhaps but that still doesn't fully explain to me why a dress can create a physical, not just emotional need. I mean, women feel physically better when they buy a new pair of shoes! Part of what I do with my work is train myself to become immune to that desire. I do this, and then that need does not effect me.

AFH: Is this like an adverse technique? Is it working?

EM: Well I might not be the best test subject. I am already an extremely un-materialistic person anyway. Since I was 14, I have lived out of only two suitcases. If I buy something, I give something. I exchange. And with this project it works for me in the sense that if I want a dress, then instead of acquiring it, I acquire the memory of it. I'll try it on, wear it and photograph it in order to not want to possess it, by purchasing it, any longer.

AFH: Which makes sense since when you buy something part of your attraction to the thing is the hope to have experiences in it that you'll remember. Optimally you want extraordinary experiences. And you create those without making the purchase.

EM: Exactly. I am speeding up the process.

AFH: Have you ever gone to create a photograph, and the particular garment you wanted to use was no longer available?

EM: Once I saw a stunning Chinese style dress in a shop window uptown. I didn't have time to photograph right away but I asked the sales people whether they could remove the dress from the window for me when I returned and they assured me they would. But I returned only two hours later and the manager informed that the dress had been sold and I couldn't try it on. I asked him whether I could just try it on to order it from the designer, but he refused because the dress was allegedly a limited edition garment that could not be remade for me.

AFH: I imagine that situation make the dress an even more tantalizing example of the type of inaccessible garments you create your work with, right?

EM: Yes it did.

AFH: You've received particularly strong positive feedback from people within the fashion industry, right?

EM: After the New York Times article, I had an exhibition at Via Bus Stop, a gigantic shop in Soho. It was a cool party, with lots of champagne and sorbets, and the Gods of fashion photography like Mario Sorrenti came. He told me that he liked my photographs and I almost started crying. I have to hold my breath when talking of him because of the awe I feel when I think of how beautiful he makes women look in his pictures. I had no idea that a hero of mine like him would appreciate what I do. It was unexpected but nice. Later a Berlin magazine 'photography-now' featured me in the spread side-by-side with Annie Liebowitz. And they wrote as much about me as about her. Then I really felt like I was a lucky mortal sitting on the top of Olympus with all the other Gods!

AFH: Elle, that's fantastic! Does that recognition mean more to you than the responses of viewers without a fashion or art background, or are you equally interested in the reactions your work elicits from a more general audience?

EM: It is all important to me. Now this is really funny - a week ago some surfer dude sent me an email. He said that he appreciated what I did because normally he'd look at his sister's Vogue in the bathroom as just a magazine with 'hot chicks' in it. But my story made him pay attention to the actual 'fashion' part of it. He said, 'You made dudes like me look at fashion as something cool and fun.' That was one of the cutest compliments I've ever received!

AFH: Now he'll read Vogue for the articles. Which fashion photographers influence your aesthetic decisions?

EM: The photographers that have always inspired me are Man Ray, Erwin Blumenfeld, Jean Loup Sieff, Helmut Newton. And I absolutely love Nobuyoshi Araki. Before I even knew who he was, one of my most favorite photos was his image of a girl kneeling in kimono eating a watermelon. Then a few years later I visited the retrospective on him at the Barbican and fell in love! He recorded the real life in such a beautiful way that showed pain and irony of it... I love how he portrays women - vulnerable and surrendered, but still with love and respect. Even more that fashion images, I am inspired by the cinema - Hitchcock, Jean Cocteau, old Japanese movies.

AFH: Are these references you explicitly pay homage to in your compositions?

EM: No, I don't decide what the images will look like beforehand. I will often realize afterwards that an image reminds me of something but only after I have taken it. When shooting it, I am not thinking of those references. I only react to what inspires in the dressing rooms. Though now I am inspired by serial killers.

AFH: Cinema images of serial killers?

EM: No, when I was a 10-year old child in Belarus, there was a serial killer in my town. Every other month, he would rape and kill a girl, stabbed her and burned her body with cigarettes and dump her body on a rooftop of an apartment building. My mother was actually chased by this guy. He grabbed her arm as she ran up the stairs. She was banging on peoples‚ doors until someone opened the door and she was able to escape. For a year my family lived in fear of leaving our house. It was truly traumatic. but in some sense I was fascinated by this killer. I collected the newspaper articles about him. At the time, I found my fascination sick. Even at that age I felt I was doing something wrong, but I couldn't stop it. And now I have been reading a lot of Georges Bataille, so I feel freer to go back and explore these desires in my art.

AFH: Those images of yours informed by Bataille are particularly reminiscent of Guy Bourdin's photography. They are fascinating but back to the issue of fashion and art. What connections do you see between fashion and art running past the obvious fact that both are expressive, creative, primarily visual mediums?

EM: In my opinion, fashion and art have been always been inseparable. I would say they are like Siamese twins. One of the historical figures I am fascinated most by is Marchesa Luisa Casati, whose family was the richest in Italy. Her father was a cotton industry magnate but Luisa's life was dedicated to the goal of 'making a piece of art out of herself'. She was a fashionable icon of her time and a muse for people like Jean Cocteau, Ballet Russe and later the surrealists. The Palazzo Del Leoni in Venice, where she organized her famous balls masques became Peggy Guggenheim museum. I believe a large part of the collection came from Marchesa's private collection. Later she died in poverty with $25million debt, and that was after Cecil Beaton tried to take care of her.

AFH: She was a creature who made art from fashion, but are there historical figures you consider role models on how to transition between the two disciplines as an artist?

EM: There are. For example, Man Ray considered himself a painter, but he constantly worked in, and improved, fashion photography through his commercial affiliation with Bazaar. In one of his first fashion assignments for Poiret, before he shot a model next to a Brancusi golden bird sculpture he declared, 'I'd combine fashion and art.'

AFH: Who are photographers you see effectively carrying on this tradition?

EM: Steven Klein and Meisel now have the creative control to put a darker, more off-center sensibility out into the mainstream of fashion. They produce exquisitely rendered work, with a distinct point of view. Which to me is the definition of art. This is a great inspiration to me, and this is what I'm striving towards. So if art has begun to incorporate more fashion imagery, fashion, at least in the arena of photography, has begun to veer more toward art.

AFH: Do you think this conflation of mediums is caused by Post-modernist theory legitimatizing the collapse of boundaries between intellectual and popular cultural?

EM: Yes, I think the Post-Modernism era is one of the key factors of fashion and art blending together. As some writers describe post-modernism, everything has been done and seen before, and the information is so easily available. It's almost like it's obeying the laws of Darwinism - they need to 'cooperate' to survive and evolve.

AFH: I see your point, but of course, though fashion might be seen as light culture but it is never 'low-art'. And, post-modern theory was more about mass culture merging with 'high' art than two areas of elite culture mingling.

EM: And they are already linked. There is a growing trend for the luxury market in fashion, and we can see exactly the same thing in art - there is the obvious 'chase for the most expensive artwork', as well as in incredible, eye-popping budgets that are required for creating contemporary artworks, like the Jeff Koons' blooming dog or Gregory Crewdson's set-ups. Fashion industry elevates the image of their brand by connecting it with high art, thus letting people connect and feel as a part of that incredible world.

AFH: Considering there are top photographers, like Ellen von Unworth or Corinne Day, who began their relationship to fashion as models, would you want to move into fashion photography?

EM: I don't think I want to move into fashion photography per se. Being on the other side of the camera, I have worked with top photographers and realized that in fact, the client buys the photographer's name while hiring them but the photographers are not really free to express themselves. However I'd like to experiment using fashion as a medium to communicate my thoughts. It's appealing to me because it reaches wider audience and I would imagine I can sneak in some subliminal messages (but it's a top secret - ha-ha), because fashion is looked upon less critically. It's a form of entertainment. It's much more 'harmless' than art.

AFH: Is what you do illegal?

EM: Yes it is illegal because designers are concerned about copyright and they would be worried that I am photographing their dresses to reproduce them, or mass-produce them.

AFH: So it is intellectual property thief?

EM: I don't know but I know they do not want me to do it.

AFH: Is that part of the thrill of what you do? Do you agree with my comparing what you do with graffiti?

EM: I do feel that way. Sometimes I'll be walking with friends past a store and I'll say triumphantly 'I shot in that dressing room', or I'll see a dress in a magazine and think 'I shot that dress'. I am leaving my mark on the fashion world, and leaving it in secrecy. That works for me. I take it as a challenge because I work really well under pressure. Creativity is like mercury. The more pressure there is, the more I feel like I am morphing in to some other creature. A dressing room is totally public. There are so many people in and out, and in and out, but at the same time, it is exclusive and private.

AFH: You mean that it private but not personal, and you make it personal for you, right?

EM: Yes. Exactly. I claim that space for myself. No one in the store knows what I am doing. I do it for myself, which is why it is an invisible mark, like of a ghost's; but I have a record of what happened there. When I was a girl, I read a lot of science fiction where a person entered in to a special box they would evaporate and resurface somewhere else. For me, the dressing room is that transportative space. I enter it and I explore a different dimension for 5 minutes. When I come back, everything remains the same but I am a little different.

AFH: Is another aspect of your work mocking assumptions about models as feminine ideals?

EM: It is funny, because I want people to know that models are human. For a couple of years I lived in models' apartments‚ with 12 girls sharing two bathrooms and one kitchen. I have very few models as friends, we don't share the same interests, but I still think of models as a pretty admirable and fascinating group and a profession. They are very misunderstood.

AFH: The model demographic, you mean?

EM: Yes, the model demographic is among the kindest, most compassionate and accepting groups of people. Judging from my experience, most of the time, they come from poorer backgrounds into this profession where they are being pushed around all the time, constantly fighting off people like patronizing party promoters or rich old guys. They have to learn to be resilient but also diplomatic and friendly.

AFH: Do you talk to the other models about your work as an artist?

EM: Not really, but I was in the bus the other day and another model told me that she had seen articles about me. It was nice. I hope they are genuinely happy but I am suspect most of them are just jealous.

AFH: Do you think there is a stigma placed on people in fashion when they try to enter in to the art world?

EM: Let's be honest. Many people I know complain that if a person tries to enter the art world it's just because they could not get enough acclaim in their 'fashion' world so they hope that maybe they could get more attention and 'coolness' by peeing on their dresses or their models! But I don't agree with this. I think that every person that stands strongly for something and is not afraid to let it show in their work is an artist. This kind of person is a material that contemporary culture is made of. Many of the great artists did the most significant work just by simply recording their lives. Like Araki and Warhol. If the art touches people in some way, be it awe-inspiring or repulsive, or even repulsively boring, it's still leaves a mark in history.

AFH: So artists are role models of their time?

EM: Not role models, but models.

AFH: I understand that modeling is part of your autobiography, but do you think there is a more general stigma, in the areas of the art world that consider themselves 'serious', towards artists coming from fashion backgrounds? Is this a concern for you?

EM: It's a very good question - the subject of 'seriousness'. I really have barely any experience in the New York art world. But I already have been deeply disappointed by how many of those art people trying to keep a reputation of being 'reputable' working artists. I have a funny story. About a month ago a famous gallery owner ripped my stockings in a crowd of people, totally by accident. I told him jokingly that I would send him those stockings with a bill and a letter from my lawyer. He loved the joke and told me to send it straight to the gallery. The next day my friend, who is a lawyer and who is also a talented writer, helped me compose the most hilarious 'investigation' letter. We described the 'attacker' as 6'6" tall giant, and me as a 'frail young victim', etc etc, and I sent the whole package including the ripped stockings to the gallery. While some people thought the joke was to die for, I got a strong reproach from others. They said, 'Elle, how could you do this??? You have gone too far. Now nobody will take you as a serious artist!'

AFH: Do you regret having done that?

EM: That was a bummer. I had thought I could be the most appreciated being spontaneous in an art world! For a while after this incident I was considering 'To be "serious", or not to be?' So I decided I just want to live for the hell of it and not calculate every step I make. Life is too short for that. I may as well live in Belarus!

AFH: That sounds extreme.

EM: Have you seen the play Tumbling off Broadway? In it, there is an old man who amasses a lot of money and never spends it because he wants the paper to print the amount he is worth when he dies. But the day he dies is the day the newspapers go on strike.

AFH: Serves him right. What do consider the most striking difference between art and fashion, if not between the two communities?

EM: Art is very generous. Art gives to history. Whether or not consciously, artists create the intellectual wealth for the whole of humanity through the whole of history. Though I have noticed that art no longer seems to deal much with ideas relating to transcendence. So in that way, perhaps, it is becoming more of an ephemeral matter like fashion.

EM: I was already kicked out of MaxMara even before I took my camera out.

AFH: I'm surprised they wouldn't want to participate.

EM: Salespeople don't care whether the store or the designer gets publicity, they just care whether they make a sale. Maybe they feel vandalized.

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic, PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University and Senior London Correspondent for the Saatchi Gallery's online magazine.

Copyright 2003-2008 © The Saatchi Gallery : London Contemporary Art Gallery


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