Literature makes great use of seasons as the ultimate metaphor for the cycle of human existence. Winter is full of cold decay, while spring offers the chance for renewal. The seasons reel around and around, so marking the passing of the years.
These photos above were taken last year, when the scent of early summer hung in the fields. I needed photos of a dress I had made for a GCSE art project, to present alongside the creation itself. (Nearly a year on I've now finished my AS level in Fine Art). Time has not so much taken flight, as hopped and skipped in seven league boots through the months. Days have been measured in train journeys, homework, blog posts. They are also measured in photos – the camera charting subtle changes in my appearance throughout the year. It's hard to define exactly what is different, but it's a definite that ‘something’ has been altered.
I'm also sure that my mum doesn't look quite the same as she did last summer when she modeled for me, but because I see her every day, the alterations have been too small for me to register. It's only when comparing photos from ‘then’ and ‘now’ that transitions can be noted. But in terms of change, it's the snapshots of my brother that are the most telling, He's at the age where he looks different every month as he grows taller and his hair hangs longer. This has been matched by his increasing willingness to engage in conversation and discussion. He asks perceptive questions about articles I've been reading, and is more than happy to hear my monologues on German history (all in the name of revision!) For, of course, ageing at any stage is not merely external – but is matched by an internal process of ripening, growing and extending both knowledge and the ability to think.
This dress that I made for my art project focused on the visible concepts of ageing and decay in the natural world. One usually leads to another, whether in the shift from a ripe peach through to a wrinkled husk, or from smooth skin to the lines that scrunch themselves across the face. It is an entirely natural process. The trees bud, blossom and drop leaves six months later, while our hair fades as the decades stack up. My primary inspirations for the project were a series of photos by Sally Mann, and a collection by designer Hussein Chayalan.
Mann, best known for her loving portraits of her family as they grew up, has an extraordinary sensitivity towards the human face in all its many variations. Her black and white portraits capture the vitality of life, while also acknowledging the presence of death. I was particularly interested in the way in which she picked up on the textures and marks that make each individual’s skin personal.
Hussein Chayalan, like Mann, is unafraid to explore the subversive. He has designed furniture that can also be worn, envelope dresses that could be folded up and sent, and, in a collection that inspired my own project, a set of garments made using fabric that had been buried in his garden for nine months. These pieces, shown on graduation, signaled the start of a long and highly innovative career that still continues. I loved the thought of the fabric waiting under the ground like entropic treasure, slowly discolouring among the roots and bugs. The addition of iron filings sped up the natural process of decay. The ground is both a place of life – a surface that potato leaves and flower heads spring from – and of death. Like the seasons, it is a symbol of renewal as cycles continue. Chayalan’s use of fabrics recovered from the soil somehow reversed the normal lifespan of a garment, letting it fall apart before it had even been made.
The work of these two artists became the stimulus for my final piece: a dress that charted the course of changing and ageing. The photos were transferred onto the silk in a painstaking, highly irritating process involving the pasting, sticking and rubbing away of each image. I am never doing that again. The monochrome portraits – ones that I had previously taken of family and friends – ranged in the ages of the subjects from two to ninety-two. My rough plan was to represent the transition between child and great-grandmother, with the young faces at the top of the dress, graduating down to the oldest at the hem. I then set to work artificially ‘decaying’ parts of the skirt. The bodice, and the petal-like middle section emerged unscathed, but the lower sections of silk were subjected to scissors, paint and flames. I frayed the fabric with a boot brush, hacked away at holes and dripped rust coloured ink in large puddles. As with the faces, I wanted the material itself to display the passing of time. Smooth smiles change as lines and creases are added.
I used my absolutely gorgeous mum as a model for two reasons. Not only is she an expressive and captivating force in front of the camera, but the dress features a photo of her on it, meaning there was a lovely double effect in her appearing on the garment she was wearing. The way the light caught her hair leads to inevitable Pre-Raphaelite comparisons, but I think they're apt. She’s beautiful.