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Reclusive fashion icon Martin Margiela makes comeback as artist with eerie wonderland of human bodies

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Martin Margiela's
Martin Margiela's "Vanitas" (2019) is on view as part of the former fashion legend's first eponymous solo exhibition held in Korea at the Lotte Museum of Art in southern Seoul. Courtesy of Antwerp City Collection

By Park Han-sol

It has been well over a decade since Martin Margiela, who left an indelible mark on the world of fashion as the founder of French haute couture house Maison Margiela and the creative director of Hermes, left the industry for good in 2009.

The Belgian designer's trademark deconstructed designs made with unorthodox materials turned him into a household name in the 1990s. His choice to stay out of the public eye throughout much of his career ― refusing to grant face-to-face interviews or photographs ― further grew his image as an intriguing recluse.

It was not until October 2021 that Margiela made his surprising comeback in Paris ― not as the iconoclastic fashion designer he once was, but as a visual artist.

And after making stops in Paris and Beijing, his eponymous solo exhibition has landed in Seoul at the Lotte Museum of Art (LMOA) for its third iteration.

Despite the change in his creative identity, Margiela's desire to keep a low profile remains the same.

In fact, the artist chose not to make an appearance during the opening of his three exhibitions. The curatorial team at the LMOA had never even communicated with him in person. Everything was done strictly through emails and photos, they said.

Martin Margiela's
Martin Margiela's "Torso Series" (2018-2022) / Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

It's not surprising then that "Martin Margiela," a showcase of some 50 installations, sculptures, collages, paintings and films, is as mysterious and veiled as the creator himself.

Sometimes, that veil is literal, as seen in "Dust Cover." The monumental installation, consisting of brown imitation leather enveloping an indefinable object, is reminiscent of Man Ray's iconic "The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse." By refusing to show what is lying underneath, the piece resists any attempt at clear interpretation.

At other times, such covering becomes figurative, as no clear explanation is provided for subject matter depicted in plain sight. "Torso Series," made up of six silicone sculptures, and "Bodyparts B&W," which are oil pastels painted on a repurposed projector screen, all highlight human body parts as an unidentifiable mass. The mutant forms blur the line between masculinity and femininity, actively steering away from the millennia-old tradition of nude sculptures that aimed to create an aesthetic ideal.

Martin Margiela's
Martin Margiela's "Red Nails" (2019) / Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Some of his works give a slightly more direct hint of his past self as a boundary-pushing icon in the fashion world through their themes ― but with an added touch of the uncanny.

"Vanitas" refers to a row of five faceless silicone heads, each one implanted with real human hair of different colors to visualize the inevitable passage of time ― from blond to brunette to silver. It's his nod to the Dutch tradition of vanitas which evoked notions of mortality and the fleeting quality of life through still-life depictions of skulls, candles and withering flowers.

"Red Nails," an enlarged set of red fake nails that takes up the entire corner of a room, delves into the constructed norm of beauty and how the sexualization of female bodies has evolved ― or devolved ― over time. The glossy products that are meant to be seductive, when amplified to a comically large scale, seem to induce a sense of inexplicable disgust for their gross artificiality.

"Martin Margiela" runs through March 26 at the Lotte Museum of Art.
Park Han-sol


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