Part of: Prosthetics

Q&A: Annelie Gross on 'Defects'

published on 7 May 2013

Lou Stoppard talks to artist Annelie Gross about her influences and the thought process behind her orthopaedics-inspired 'Defects' series.

Lou Stoppard talks to artist Annelie Gross about her influences and the thought process behind her orthopaedics-inspired 'Defects' series.

Artworks from Annelie Gross' 'Defects' series

Lou Stoppard: Tell me about your Defects project and how it came about.

Annelie Gross: I studied fashion design in Germany but then I started going into my family’s business. They are orthopaedic technicians and I grew up in their workshops. I went there and started playing with those orthopaedic materials. I realised it was much more interesting and special to play with those materials instead of making normal clothing, so I started creating artifacts. I came to study Fashion Artifact in London and that’s how this project happened.

LS: What is it that you found so exciting about the orthopaedic pieces and the materials, what drew you to it?

AG: What’s exciting about it is that it’s very different. I was using polyethylene - it is used to create corsets for people with scoliosis and what was so beautiful about it is that it creates a second skin around the body. You can shape it in any kind of way that you like. You can create either a normal body shape or also a very distorted body shape. It’s so appealing, you really want to touch it. It’s a bit like wax and gets warm when you wear it on the body. It’s technical skin.

LS: I was going to ask you about that - about working technically when you are producing your objects. Your artifacts are technically amazing, was that one of the biggest challenges when producing them?

AG: Yes it was. I really loved the craftsmanship part and wanted them to be very high-class with a high-end finish. They had to be perfect, so I split my work. I was doing it half back home in Germany in the orthopedic company, and then I did the other half in London because there I had more support with my leather work. I wanted them both to be perfect and then combine them.

LS: I was interested, because I was reading the description of your work, the way you talk about when you were doing ballet and gymnastics. In those kind of arenas, contorting the body is seen as something that is quite beautiful, but then you talked about how by contrast the body being in abnormal positions in other contexts is seen as something quite shocking and quite distressing. Why do you think that people have such a fearful attitude towards disability in the body?

AG: I don’t know where that taboo comes from really. When I was researching about gymnastics, body movements and at the same time body deformities, I found that they are very close to one another. I did gymnastics too and it’s so close to an actual body deformity sometimes, but when you do gymnastics or dance, it’s meant to be very elegant. Within the movement it looks extraordinary and beautiful, but when you freeze the position, it sometimes reminds me of a disability or body deformity.

LS: Over the past few years some designers have tried to look at different shapes, so women who are smaller or taller or a larger size than your average model size. But also someone like Lee McQueen looked at disability in a more obvious way. Is that diversity something that you think is quite lacking in fashion?

AG: It is, I really think so. We’re always looking at the most beautiful women and the most beautiful men with perfect bodies. There is not so many people that actually have that luck to be so so pretty, maybe it’s not even luck being beautiful, but I think diversity is really lacking. It would make fashion a bit more human and attractive. It was really brave when McQueen worked with Aimee Mullins. Also, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster was beautiful and there is a German model now called Mario Gallo who has a foot prosthesis and is still on catwalks. I think there is a little starting point there, but much more can be done.

I really wanted a healthy person that doesn't do too much gymnastics or ballet to freeze in that position and to see what it’s like. It’s actually painful but it’s meant to be beautiful.

LS: That’s interesting that you mention McQueen in that context. Who are the people whose work you admired and looked up to while you were studying?

AG: I looked a lot into McQueen because he’s just brilliant to me, he did everything already. But I was also looking a lot into dancing. There is this one piece of Marie Chouinard called Body Remix, where they were using orthopaedic props with the dances. But, in terms of fashion, it was mostly McQueen, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. I was also looking a bit into Frida Kahlo because she actually had to wear a corset and she thought about shaping her body and creating something beautiful out of her disability or transforming it into something else.

LS: What have you found that the reaction to your work has been like, do people tend to be quite shocked by it or do they find it quite liberating?

AG: They were mostly touched. I got some feedback from people that actually had to wear orthopaedic aids when they were younger and they came to me saying that it really reminded them of their childhood. The dancers I was working with were really curious about the pieces, they wanted to wear them and see what the body does to them. They were very curious.

LS: Talk to me about making the pieces. Each one relates to a different kind of orthopaedic issue, tell me a bit about that.

AG: It’s a mixture of orthopaedic issues and movements that you have to learn in dance or gymnastics. I did one piece that made you bend like a hunchback and then I had another corset that would make you bend sideways called Scoliosis. It’s a bend of the backbone. I chose that position because it represented the material that I was using - polyethylene - since it came from this affliction. I also did a foot piece that’s really pushing the foot in a very painful position, but it’s so common in gymnastics that you are in that position. The hand piece was the first piece that I did. It is about spasticity. When I was researching deformities, I saw these positions of the hand that a spastic person gets when they have cramps and I figured out that it is so similar to the dancing position of the hand. I really wanted a healthy person that doesn't do too much gymnastics or ballet to freeze in that position and to see what it’s like. It’s actually painful but it’s meant to be beautiful.

LS: That is quite central to your work, are you adamant about how it has to be presented? The pieces can’t just be looked at as standalone artifacts, they must be put in that context of the body?

AG:  I also like to see them in an exhibition environment. You can definitely see them without the body. It looks quite awkward, you can only guess for some pieces where it goes but on others it’s very obvious. But when you put them on the body, I think it has to be a dancer that’s wearing it because otherwise they cannot really go in those positions, they need to be quite flexible to fit in them.

LS: Do you think that a lot of the fashion that your generation is producing is maybe just a bit limiting? It’s similar to what we were discussing earlier but I think that a lot of fashion is not very kind to the body. It’s not very considerate of the body and restricts it in a very different way to what yours does because yours is deliberate restriction. It’s almost toying with restriction but some pieces of fashion, they’re about making women and men uncomfortable to look beautiful but not in a subversive way. Is that something you find frustrating about fashion?

AG: Yes, I would say fashion changes the way that you move too, so it is very related to my pieces. People suffer for fashion so much. A simple example would be high heels, they really hurt but we still wear them to look beautiful and also with other fashion pieces that you have to lose weight to wear. It’s a lot about suffering in fashion and I find this relation quite interesting, suffering to look appealing to the eye. I wanted my pieces to represent that. You want to be in that position but you need to work to get into it and will suffer by wearing them.

Interview by:
Lou Stopard


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