HAIR IN FASHION AND ART

Utrecht, 2016

INTERNATIONAL NEW YORK TIMES

Grappling With Hair Issues

by Nina Siegal

 

UTRECHT, The Netherlands — A pair of pink stiletto heels sprouting hair. Wool bow ties decorated with locks of human hair. Stylish coats made entirely of human hair.

 

Go ahead, say it: Macabre. Creepy. Weird.

 

The organizers of the exhibition HAIR!, at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, were aware from the very beginning that there is something viscerally off-putting about using human hair as a material for art or design, especially when it ends up close to our skins. But they wanted to explore that response, and ask: Why?

 

“Something happens when hair gets separated from the body,” said Harm Rensink, one of the designers of the exhibition, which runs until May 29. “At the moment you don’t think of it as part of the body anymore, this itchy feeling arrives. It makes you want to look, but it makes you also not want to look.”

 

Several years ago, Ninke Bloemberg, a fashion curator at the Centraal Museum, became fascinated with the common practice in the 19th century of collecting locks of a beloved’s hair and asking a jeweler to fashion it into decorative jewelry, worn against the skin. The museum has a collection of such pieces.

 

“When you talk to people who are not familiar with that tradition, they always say, ‘Ewww,”’ Ms. Bloemberg said. “I’m so intrigued by that idea that you wear hair of someone else on your skin.” And she was intrigued to find out if that tradition had continued in any form: “What is the status of hair at this point?”

 

Ms. Bloemberg (who has long brown hair and bangs) began to research the subject of hair as an artistic material several years ago, and when she had gathered a fair amount of evidence that hair was indeed a material that contemporary artists were still exploring, she planned an exhibition. She enlisted the help of two exhibition designers, Niek Pulles (who has shoulder-length hair and a beard) and Harm Rensink (who has very short platinum blond hair), to create a dynamic flow of hair through 1,000 square meters of exhibition space.

 

“At first we wanted to focus on the repellent aspects of hair,” Ms. Bloemberg said, “but we thought people will bring that into the exhibition with them already. So in the end, the things we chose are all pretty attractive.”

 

The visual allure of some of the pieces, such as an elegant latticed leaf made entirely of human hair or a wood hairbrush whose bristles have been replaced with lush blond hair, can make a visitor question his or her own natural aversion. Works by other artists seem to propose hair as an untapped renewable resource, exploring how it can be employed to create something both beautiful and functional.

 

For its project “Hair Highway” (2014), Studio Swine from London combined human hair with natural bio resin to invent a new composite material, from which they made objects and furniture, like a 1920s Shanghai-deco-style vanity, or dressing table, presented here.

 

The artists, who collaborated with Pearl Lam Gallery in Hong Kong, use hair from China, noting in a project description that “Asian hair grows particularly quickly, up to 16 times faster than hardwood mahogany. It’s also very strong — a full head of hair can take the weight of two African elephants.”

 

The Dutch fashion and textile designer Anouk van Klaveren created an interactive performance piece, originally staged at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, in which she cut visitors’ hair and added it to a bow tie made of wool to create a “personal bow tie.” The production process was designed to mimic a factory assembly line.

 

“By combining the wool and human hair in one product, I try to make people aware of the fact that wool is also just hair, but people see it in a completely different way,” she explained while installing the work in the gallery. “There’s always something funny to people about using human hair, but wool is just a product to us.” She added, “Mass production is normal to us, but if you use human products people think about it very differently.”

 

Although there is a fashion element to the exhibition — one of the seven gallery spaces is devoted to hair in fashion — it is not a show about hairstyles. Where it does deal with hair still attached to someone’s head, it tends to focus on the crafting of hair into a design element, or hair’s role in the exploration of identities.

 

Almost half of the fashion room focuses on the tremendous range of the New York-based Dutch hair stylist Christiaan Houtenbos, who created many famous looks, including the singer Grace Jones’s signature flat-top hairstyle. The curators also put on display the styling kit that Mr. Houtenbos took to China to style Nancy Kissinger’s hair when she accompanied her husband, the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in 1979.

 

In the same exhibition room are three family portraits by the Dutch artist Levi van Veluw from his series “Natural Transfers,” in which he and his mother and sister are photographed from the shoulders up, their faces obscured by hair stuck to all the contours of the face. “If you look at it as a viewer, you see three portraits and think they are all the same person,” Mr. Rensink said. “But in the end he tricks you, because they are all different people.”

 

Some artists use single hairs as a line or thread to make intimate embroideries. For example, the Japanese-American artist Masako Takahashi, based in San Francisco, threaded strands of her own floor-length hair through a needle to stitch a diary into a Japanese silk scroll. The full scroll, about 12 meters long, will be exhibited in a narrow hallway of the exhibition. But it won’t be possible to read the words, because it is written in a made-up language only she knows.

 

One thing that is not referred to directly in the exhibition is the Nazi’s collection and reuse of human hair, collected before gassing victims, for example, at the Auschwitz concentration camp and sold to German companies to make household products.

 

“Everybody thinks about it, at some point when they see all this hair collected,” said Mr. Pulles, one of the exhibition designers. “That’s also why we made the exhibition have a darker element as well. But we wanted to also keep the frivolity and the lightness in the show, too, so it’s very dynamic.”

 

The Serbian artist Zoran Todorovic seems to make an oblique reference to World War II in his piece “Warmth,” which was originally created for the 2009 Venice Art Biennale. He collected hair from 288,000 individuals at salons, military barracks and jails across Serbia, and had the hair felted into blankets that look like gray wool. The artist also videotaped the process of collecting the hair.

 

A pallet of the blankets is on exhibit here, and he is offering to sell them to patrons for 100 euros a piece. “Probably hardly anyone will buy those,” Ms. Bloemberg said. “But it’s interesting that they can.”

 

Photo's coutesy of Centraal Museum Utrecht