wayward 21: The Mantle
betonsalon, paris, France. 2009
An Interview with Hans Askheim for the occasion of The Mantle
You’re undertaking a new performance called The Mantle for this project, in which you present models in bomber jackets and life vests. Can you tell me a little bit about what is going on in this situation?
This work stemmed from of an interest in contemporary clothing that holds a mythological status. It relates to the work I have done previously dealing with ancient Greek tragedy. I made a piece after Ovid, referring to Metamorphoses. It’s he story of Diana and Actaeon. I have always had an interest in objects holding a kind of power, or embodying a relationship between power and mythology. I was interested in seeing how these kinds of mythical things still had currency in contemporary society.
So for instance, the robes of religious people, the bishop’s vestments for example, have the oldest history. In any kind of religion, the clothing of the religious person was a symbol of coded power. And augmenting that coded power is also ritual power. This is what I was interested in, the idea of ritual embodied by the material substance of clothing.
By wearing certain clothes the individual metamorphoses into another; perhaps into a cipher of the thing he represents. And so with the priest, he becomes a channel for God by donning these particular vestments.
In this way, I wanted to bring together these differing levels of mythology, coding and cipher. Of course, it also has something to do with the channelling of culture and belief into an item of clothing. Maybe the clothing itself relates to the unravelling of the mystery of what they represent. If we look back at the older items of clothing that people wore, for instance the robe, the robe has a kind of ‘flowing-ness’, which evokes flying. It‘s like the movement of wings.
This brings me on to the bomber jacket, which was used for flying as well. And I think this is important actually, that skinheads didn’t wear tank commander’s jackets, but flying jackets instead.
In this they refer to transcendence…they are aspiring to fly?
This all came about by their enjoyment of motorcycles in the 50’s. The MA1 American bomber jackets were usually worn by people from lower-class families or by people who had dropped out of society. In the 60’s skinheads would wear these jackets. This style then gets adopted by the queer movement in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
The very same jackets were also used by anti-fascists at the same time. So people from various kinds of ideologies wore contradictory clothing. It demonstrated a strong belief system. The skinhead wore them as a part of their right-wing politics, but gays wore them as a fetish item, referencing the people who regularly beat them up. Beyond that immediate fetishisation it became a symbol of power. It had something to do with walking down the street wearing something synonymous with a group you’d want to avoid; it’d make you seem dangerous. And today the hoodie has the same effect. The hoodie I suppose goes back to the idea of the monk, or the ascetic hermit that hides himself.
For this performance I just wanted to pick up on three different things. There is religious clothing, which carries with it the legacy of two millennia of usage and there is the flight jacket that goes back 50 years. I also wanted to look at inverse of the flight jacket, which was the life jacket, or life preserver; specifically the ones used in aeroplanes. Interestingly, the likelihood of actually using a life jacket is incredibly small. In order for the life vest to be used the aeroplane has to crash into the sea and the people have to be able to open the door and exit the plane; something that the vest precludes. And for that to happen the aeroplane has to be intact and not broken-up on impact, or have sunk. The passengers then have to be able get into the water and only then you can inflate the life jackets.
The point is that these life jackets must have some other purpose. So in a fairly material way, it relaxes people anxious about flying. Life jackets aren’t a practical item to keep on an aeroplane. So there are various reasons for them to be there. It has to do with authority and appearing to care for the safety of the passengers. There needs to be, in the worst-case scenario, an imaginary way out. So it has a secular ritual function: the ritual at the beginning of the flight of watching the attendants pulling on the tags of their jackets, blowing into the tubes, and displaying the flashing beacon on their lapels. It moves you into another mode of existence, closer to some kind of a religious ritual – or it is some kind of pan-religious ritual, nothing specifically to do with a particular religion. Either way, it definitely has something to do with sharing a belief in safety. Where everyone is dimly aware that it may not actually help. The seed of doubt is there simultaneously.
So these three items of clothing operate in a sort of triangle between each other. The bomber jacket evokes danger and potency, and the life jacket has more to do with motherhood, and looking after things. The ritual of the life jacket commands a certain patriarchal authority, as well.
I’ll also be presenting a video accompanying the performance. This actually relates back to Kenneth Anger and to a film of his called ‘Scorpio Rising’, where the protagonist at the beginning puts on various items of clothing, in order to invoke a powerful persona, a persona that then goes out into the world. So we see an act of preparation for some specific action, which is anticipated.
I would like to ask you about your work in general. You work a lot with film, but also installation and performance, many different things. But regardless of what medium you are using, a common factor is that you are creating very complex scenarios and worlds, but there always seems to be a key thread, a principle concept. Is that correct?
I think a lot of it has to do with the survival and the metamorphosis of culture and ideas. My preoccupation with metamorphosis is both from a military and practical perspective. This is most obviously expressed with the bomber jacket that gets used in the performance The Mantle. The flyers need to keep warm in the aeroplane, this usage is then reassigned by street culture. This then carries the power of its original status, whilst transforming it into a garment that is actually ‘anti-status-quo’ – anti-establishment.
And the same thing happens with a lot of my works, for instance the piece Le Societe les Amis des Judex references the transformation of popular cinema into the surrealist idiom. I put this down to my interest in Greek tragedy and mythology. Another example is in The Sons of Temperence where I present a story about an archaeologist in the future, who is trying to interpret information from an object.
The important point is that I am dealing with the complexity of situations and that the artist has a different role from that social, political or economic commentator. The artist’s role is perhaps to experiment and discover another means of engagement with things. I’m talking about things that are difficult to describe, that can’t be pinned down so easily, except through making visual art, poetry, or music.