Artist Benjamin Shine gives an insight on his series of tulle works, working with John Galliano and how he started working with tulle.
words by Ellie Brown
In the work of Benjamin Shine, materials and techniques traditionally associated with fashion design lend themselves to art-based practice. With a background in fashion, having studied at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design and Central St Martins, London, Shine is best known for his series of tulle works. Whether crafting portraits of well-known individuals, collaborating with Givenchy for a series of sweatshirts and t-shirts that play with notions of masculinity/femininity (tulle being traditionally used in womenswear), amongst other endeavours, what is consistent in the tulle works is their ethereal qualities. Shine encapsulates a moment in time in his working of the material – wonderfully epitomised by his installation ‘The Dance’ for the Canberra Centre, Australia, in which dancers appear amongst a haze of multicoloured tulle and the correct lighting. Most recently, however, Shine collaborated with John Galliano for the Maison Margiela Artisanal Collection at Paris Couture Fashion Week 2017. The outcome, a black tulle visage pouring out of the lining of a white coat, was both undoubtedly a triumph and a fine example of talent in artistry.
NR Magazine: First of all, how did the collaboration come about with Galliano for Maison Margiela’s Haute Couture Artisanal Collection for SS17?
Benjamin Shine: I was invited to meet John [Galliano] around October 2016 to discuss potentially collaborating - so I went over to Paris, and [Galliano] was very complimentary of my tulle work and he wanted to see if it could be applied to a haute couture piece. There was a lot to work through from a structural point of view – such as, how to turn the tulle, which usually hangs on a wall, into a three dimensional moving piece.
NR: Despite the hurdles, was it relatively straightforward to work out how to do it?
BS: In hindsight, it was straightforward! But initially, I knew there were various limitations when it came to working the tulle into shapes. There are certain things that can cause problems when it comes to how to make sure that the tulle is viewed properly – lighting is one of those things. It’s a very strange thing, but if the lighting is not quite right it can affect the work to such an extent that you can’t see what the image is. But, we got around that, and worked out that black tulle was the best way to avoid that issue arising. Then there were other issues to consider, such as how the tulle could move independently of the coat, as though it was circling, or suspended outside the coat. Yet, these were all just creative challenges; you pose the idea and try to come up with the answer. I did a lot of tests and samples - many of which didn’t work - in order to get to the one that did.
NR: Could you outline the process of how you use the tulle to create these works?
BS: It differs depending on the end result, but for the Margiela collaboration (which I would describe as ‘image-based’ rather than a ‘sculptural form’), it required using different techniques. In general, though, I work as if I’m producing a painting on canvas. Pinning the tulle at various random places, I then work the fabric from top to bottom, trying to retain the natural flow that exists within the whole work, whilst also working to draw out the detail of what it is I’m trying to portray. There’s almost this double effect, as if the tulle has created the image whilst it’s in motion.
NR: What led you to use tulle in the first place?
BS: It’s funny, I used to walk up Brick Lane to get the tube to Central Saint Martins when I was studying Fashion Design, where there are all these cheap fabric shops, and one of them was piled from the floor to the ceiling with tulle, the window was just full of tulle! At the time, I never thought about doing anything with the tulle, but that’s where the seed was planted. I was drawn to the fact it was a really cheap material that could be used in great volume to create something fairly economically - and it came in every colour under the sun. That was just really appealing to me.
NR: What does the materiality of the fabric portray for you, and does that differ from work to work?
BS: I find that the materiality acts like energy, that manifests into an outer form. It offers a way to describe ideas of invisibility, solidity, flux and impermanence that enable you to question and consider the relationship between the superficial and the spiritual. So I don’t feel that the impact differs greatly between the pieces I create. I think that they always generate that illusory effect of energy in a state of flux - momentarily suspended in motion for the viewer to contemplate.
NR: For you, in using fabric, could you see your work as transcending the boundaries between fashion and art – or is that not that important in what you’re doing?
BS: It’s not something I especially dwell on. I think it probably happens, but I think that’s more a case of disciplines merging, and the disciplines do do that. There’s transcendence between those boundaries which happens as an entirely natural occurrence. It’s not something that I’m actively pursuing, but in the case of the Margiela collaboration, it was really interesting to see the response to the piece. People thought it was more a piece of art than it was a piece of fashion. But I think that’s something that haute couture strives to do – it strives to be the finest expression of artistry, within the context of fashion and ideas that can be extrapolated from it into the mainstream. John is working at couture level, and he wants to create artistic moments because everything comes from those.
NR: The concept behind the Collection (the digital age, filters and layers) - how do you think the coat explores these ideas?
BS: The idea of exploring filters and layers is the starting point. It introduces the idea of how we express our true selves, and of who we are inside – which is an interesting concept in relation to fashion, which is concerned with the external and our outer appearance. So it was a fascinating project, because it struck with the interest of mine in my tulle work, exploring the relationship between the superficial and the spiritual. In that sense, then, it was interesting to use the delicate tulle material to not only depict energy within, but also to convey the inner dimensions of the coat. In other words, to allow what’s inside to be expressed outside. So in the piece for Maison Margiela, the inner lining is literally breaking through the coat.
NR: You’ve mentioned previously that you wanted the tulle to look like smoke: how can the natural elements reflect digital life – does that come down to the spiritual elements you talk about?
BS: Yeah: it’s not so much that the tulle reflects anything literally digital, like pixels for example. But smoke plays into the idea of fog or haze, that blurs the reality of how we present ourselves in the digital world. It’s hard to see the truth when we’re putting up these smokescreens, illusory mists and filters.
Find out more about Benjamin Shine’s work at www.benjaminshine.com