The Iris Van Herpen exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Iris Van Herpen Blinded Me with Science!

An exhibition of the designer’s work comes to Canada, where a writer re-considers her relationships with nature and technology.

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Aug 16 2018, 8:00pm

The Iris Van Herpen exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.

On a recent August day when I simply could not even with the sun, I visited the cool, dark galleries on the top floor of the Royal Ontario Museum, where the traveling exhibition Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is currently on view until October. Originally curated in collaboration between the Dallas Museum of Art and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, it has traveled from Atlanta, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Phoenix, before ending here, in my hometown of Toronto. As a child, this is where I spent many field trip days awed by dinosaur bones and terrified of the simulated bat cave. Nature, I thought, was alternately cool and boring, as gross as it was beautiful. My focus wandered when faced with these contradictions.

Van Herpen is more resolute in her attention. She often expresses an awe for life, and doesn’t distinguish between natural and artificial forms of intelligence. Last year, she told The New Yorker that the Large Hadron Collider was “the most beautiful thing” she had ever seen. “Now I find it hard to compare, because how can you compare such a thing to—a tree?” She doesn’t love all technology equally. She didn’t learn to make clothes on a sewing machine, and she doesn’t sketch, preferring to mold materials to mannequins with her hands. She calls the body her muse and nature her influence. To her, technology is a part of nature—it is all one big, beautiful loop—but more than that, she says it is bringing together the restrictions of couture and the element of organic chaos that drives her.

A dress on view at the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Across two galleries, the past decade of van Herpen’s work is displayed on mannequins with faint scale patterns printed on their fake skin. Less a lizard pattern than a fine grain, this slight, animalistic texture is one of the many unnerving aspects of being so close to her work. Barely lit, every lifeless body wears a van Herpen garment that casts a long shadow, and the low tones of musician Salvador Breed’s accompanying score give the space a hallowed, sacred sensibility.

In this version of the exhibition, her work is presented alongside frequent collaborator Philip Beesley, a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo. He is the director of an organization called Living Architecture Systems, which “explores the subtle phenomena and constantly-changing boundaries at the outer-edges of current technology,” which the museum copy calls “Sentient Architecture,” a form of engineering practiced with the principles of neuroscience. Aegis, the hanging canopy in the center of one gallery, is suspended over van Herpen’s Dome Dress. It contains a “curiosity algorithm,” which searches for new patterns of behavior in its immediate surroundings.

Since 2012, Beesley and van Herpen have worked together on similar concepts, which sound simple until seen up close. To me (an idiot), Aegis sounds like buildings with brains. A smarter person might see this with more clarity. Beesley is influenced by the term “noosphere,” defined by the theologian Teilhard de Chardin as a “thinking skin” for the planet, and what we might expect to be the earth’s next form of evolution. If the planet can think about us, then maybe their collective can manufacture apartments and homes and offices to do so as well. Much of our ethical concern about technology has centered on surveillance—the loss of privacy when we are constantly seen or heard by video cameras and microphones. I have not yet considered the question of what it might mean for a structure to think about me. Do I want to stand on a planet or sleep in a room that thinks about me? Do I do that already?

A dress on view at the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.

This part of the exhibition infers pop culture parallels, summoning movie stars in addition to van Herpen’s preoccupation with actual ones. The canopy was made of what I took to be unnervingly intelligent metal birds. They waved their feathers when they felt you walking underfoot, and emitted a screeching noise and bright blue light when you stared into their tiny computer faces. This should have reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock, but mostly I thought they looked like a creature Natalie Portman might have found in Annihilation, or some failed experiment hiding in Oscar Isaac’s tech billionaire basement playroom from Ex Machina. Ridley Scott and David Cronenberg came to mind, as they frequently do when art imitates movies, or an episode of Black Mirror, which is, as the name suggests, an endlessly reflective loop of moral parables masquerading as social commentary. In my limited imagination, crowded with one too many movies, I can practically see the scene of van Herpen’s atelier, a dress turning to her to say, in the voice of Stanley Kubrick’s Hal, “I’m sorry, Iris. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”

The experience of trying to describe what Beesley and van Herpen are doing, with words and allusions, is part of the fun. It must be fun for some people. I was frustrated by my own inadequacy but soothed by eavesdropping on other museum visitors, who were also at a loss for language. One small child, standing under Aegis, told his father he thought it looked like “an Eiffel Tower fluff,” one of those moments that make me wonder who the real critic in the room is.

The question I often forget to ask is, I know, the result of looking at clothes through screens. I spend too much time thinking, how will I describe this? When I stood in front of a dress labeled Glass, I remembered to ask, what would this feel like? When I did speak it out loud to a friend my want came out more like a need—I think my exact words were, “I would do murder to touch that.” No violence was required. Perhaps anticipating the lengths I would go, the exhibition has several prototypes laid out for visitors to touch, although the signs ask that we do so gently. I did not want to imagine what a “thinking skin” might feel like, though I was pleased to find that Glass did not have the bounce of plastic its materials suggested. It was as hard and sharp as real glass itself; it could have cut me if I hadn’t been gentle. One dress is made out of what van Herpen has called “translucent metal,” a contradiction I had to feel for myself. Knowing what the words “translucent” and “metal” mean did not mean I could know what it would be. I hoped that maybe it would mimic putting your hand in front of a crashing wave. It was more literal than I expected—stiff and firm, I could see through it, but it held hard above my palm.

A human hand is what makes couture, and it’s also what could wreck it. Most fashion exhibitions do not let visitors handle the goods, for obvious reasons: this is not a place where “you break it, you buy it” applies. But when considering van Herpen’s work, touch is the sensory experience that matters most. Her concepts are as ephemeral as the nature that inspires her—hard to grasp in your head until it’s in your hand. She was thinking about alchemy while observing crows resting outside the window of her Amsterdam studio, and the result was 2008’s Chemical Crows, a gown made from the gold ribs taken out of hundreds of children’s umbrellas. Refinery Smoke, from 2009, is a grey-brown cloud of tissued fabric that answers a question no one has ever asked: what would it feel like to wear pollution? Only van Herpen would think, first, to wear the filthy smoke surrounding us, and think next to make it look like beauty. Only van Herpen would think that air could be made into something we can feel.

My favorite was Magnetic Motion, as simple as van Herpen can ever get. Carved from crystal, it’s a tube dress with an exaggeratedly wide hip, the precious stones intricately cut so that every line looks like lodestone. Her designs, even though they mimic the elements, don’t look like they’ve been dug out of the ground; they are not like other archeological relics in the museum, found whole. Their origins and their handiwork are immediately apparent. In this respect, van Herpen works with clothing the way scientists use microscopes. She makes us see what would otherwise be unspeakable, and touch what would otherwise be invisible. I wonder if her designs think the same about her.