Alexi Freeman, Tessa Blazey and Jane Burton

In conversation with Karen Woodbury

The exhibition Future Artefacts brings together three very distinct creative voices, each well known in their respective fields for their unique and particular vision: that of fashion designer Alexi Freeman, contemporary jeweller Tessa Blazey, and photographic artist Jane Burton.   

Throughout the collection the delineation between fashion, design, sculpture and photography is well and truly blurred, enabling it to sit outside traditional categorisation. The collaborative nature of the project has enabled the artists to use their technical strengths and creative imperatives to influence and embolden each other, as they riff off the historical and pop cultural references imbued in the narrative.

How did the collaboration evolve?
A (Alexi): I rocked up to Tessa’s Blade Runner party in 2008 and I recall there being some pretty unreal sci-fi costumes there. A couple of years later when I opened an ALEXI FREEMAN boutique in the old GPO building, I remembered Tessa, and her amazing Fiction jewellery range and I thought it would be pretty darn awesome to stock her work in my store.

T (Tessa): Not long after I started stocking Alexi’s store we decided to team up to collaborate on a design entry for the Powerhouse Museum International Lace Award in 2011. The proposal featured an elaborate sterling silver dress constructed of customised jewellery components. It was an ambitious proposal and we were both excited - and terrified - to discover our design had been selected as a finalist in the awards exhibition -  so now we were going to have to construct this fanciful piece, resulting in the work Neo Lace Gown.  Since then we have collaborated on five major pieces, which have been shown at the Powerhouse Museum, Craft Victoria, Pieces of Eight in Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria.

How did Jane Burton's involvement transpire? How have you responded to her interpretation of the work?
T: Karen I believe we have you to thank for Jane’s involvement. You suggested it might be great for us to work with a photographer from your stable and we found Jane’s work captivating. We were looking to create and communicate an evocative narrative around the works. Jane’s photography is so mysterious and ethereal it seemed the perfect fit. It has been so inspiring working with Jane and to see our works in a whole new light. We have road tripped to many wild and beautiful Victorian locations together such as Cape Schank, Point Nepean and Organ Pipes National Park to realise these images. She is such an intrepid photographer. On one occasion, we were photographing the Interstellar Gown at St Pauls Beach, Sorrento at sunset – Jane was standing knee deep on a sandstone reef as the tide was rapidly coming in. We had to scramble around in the rising sea to capture the last light of the golden hour to save camera cases and other shoot paraphernalia from floating out to sea.

A: Working with Jane has been a very collaborative process at every step of the way bar the moment where Jane has opened and closed the shutter. As a three-way discussion between Jane, Tessa and myself, we have agreed upon the locations where each piece should be shot and how the work should be placed in the environment. We are thrilled with the resulting photographs, as we feel they evoke the near future scenarios we were searching for when setting out to produce this body of work.

Jane, you came into the project much later, bringing your own interpretation of the work. What were your initial thoughts about the garments Tessa and Alexi had produced and how did you work with the objects using your own vernacular?
J: Initially, when I was invited by Tessa and Alexi to collaborate with them for an exhibition of their distinctive garments, I presumed that I would be photographing them on a model, as is my mode. I could easily visualise how their exquisitely constructed pieces would look draped upon the body and how I might enhance and sculpt form with the affects of theatrical lighting. The materiality of chainmail against skin excited me; the semi-transparency; their web-like or reptilian appearance; the tactility. But as things developed, the concept, or narrative of the project evolved and it was decided that the gowns would be photographed in the landscape, presenting quite a challenge to me: how to give form to garments that are designed for the body, in the absence of a body?

Tell me a little about each of your practical creative input into the project? 
A: Since my early investigations with crocheting red anodized wire to make a kind of arterial chainmail late last century, I have been fascinated with the idea of creating metal textiles. When Tessa and I met we shared a vision of some sci-fi inspired designs we would like to create and we felt that we could collaborate on some pieces that became greater than the sum of their parts.

T: Coming from a jewellery background I approached the project imagining how these pieces could become complex and elaborate scaled up versions of necklaces. For Neo Lace Gown we utilised chain, jump rings and a customised module we designed (to be cast), which linked all the components together and created a geometric deco-like pattern in the dress. The first piece, Neo Lace Gown, has a gossamer or web-like construction with hundreds of threads of fine chain linking to the diamond shaped modules which frame the overall graphic in the gown.

J: As I came into the project later, I hadn’t seen so much of the making of the garments, just the arrestingly beautiful results. I felt rather daunted by borrowing or handling these delicate and unruly creations. So I was very glad to have Tessa and Alexi with me on each of the photo-shoots, grateful for their assistance in placing and arranging the gowns in the landscape. But more than this, it was great to have their camaraderie on these trips into the wilds, where we shared our thoughts and inspirations for the work. This fed into our collective vision of the narrative we were creating; the scenography viewed through the lens of a post-apocalyptic future.

Are the roles in such an undertaking clearly demarcated or is the whole process more fluid and symbiotic with both personalities influencing both design and production?
A: I think it’s fair to say that I’m a lot more comfortable wielding a pair of shears and Tessa is a lot more useful with a micro torch, but for the most part our collaboration is a pretty fluid process that is adapted on a case-by-case basis. We create these pieces with a loose plan in mind, but also with plenty of wiggle room for the design to shift and change over time.

T: Once we have a plan for the aesthetic of a new piece and what materials we might be working with I guess I come at each of the projects from a more technical angle. For example, what components might be best to use and how can the piece be constructed to be beautiful but also work well structurally. Can the substantial weight of these metal components be spread out across the body so the components don’t collapse under the weight of the piece?

What was the most challenging aspect and conversely, what has been the most rewarding about the project?
T: I would say for me the intensive time commitment has been the most challenging aspect of the project overall. The series of gowns we have constructed have literally taken us thousands of hours to produce over the past 7 years. Fitting this time in around our individual practices and lives has been tricky at times. This exhibition has been a long time in the making and now seeing it all come together to communicate an evocative narrative has been incredibly rewarding. I have found seeing our works placed into wild landscapes in Jane’s photographs has enabled me to see the project in a new light, which is very exciting.

A: What she said.

J: It was a great challenge to find a way to successfully photograph garments designed for the body, in a landscape setting without a comparable form on which to mold them. Each landscape we visited was dynamic in its own way and the challenge was to make each gown part of that setting whilst at the same time giving it a life-force and presence of its own. I was very much driven to somehow ‘animate’ these gowns; have them tell a story. Working in the wilds is always a challenge but one I relish and prefer to the blank confines of a studio. But then, natural landscapes are untamed and changeable, in light and weather conditions. This meant that I approached each photo-shoot with a resolve to just leap in and work quickly and intuitively. I had to trust my instincts in practical ways as well as to trust in my conceptual interpretation of the mis-en-scène. This was liberating and rewarding.

The themes in the work are very distinctive, can you expand on your influences and the narrative surrounding the work?
T: The collaborative pieces in Future Artefacts are heavily inspired by the aesthetic of science fiction, the techniques of medieval scale armour and art deco. We also pay homage to the incredible costume work that Paco Rabanne did for the cult sci-fi film Barbarella, with constructing plastic and metal textiles. 

A: Yeh I totally agree and I feel the one-off pieces that jeweller Shaun Leane did for the runway shows during Alexander McQueen’s life were also hugely influential. We’ve constructed a fictional narrative around the idea that the pieces we’ve made have been discovered and consequently photographed in a near-future setting. Jane Burton’s photographs are then displayed to contextualise where the pieces were discovered, while the pieces themselves are unearthed and placed in the gallery as the archaeological exoskeletons of previously undiscovered cultures.

The photographs have been very effective in rounding out the ‘story’ for the exhibition. What influenced you to choose the specific locations?
T: The landscape has become a very significant element in the exhibition as a way of reimagining the works and the stories around them. The carefully chosen sites are otherworldly and ethereal and could be set in some post-apocalyptic future. The locations were inspired in particular by the Jupiter landing scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

J: As Tessa expressed, the landscapes were chosen for their primeval appearance, their anthropomorphic resonances, or post-apocalyptic aura: places sculpted through volcanic eruption, by wind, and water; structures built by man and then abandoned. These settings speak of the history of the earth and of its inhabitants, past and future.

This Q&A was first published in the Future Artefacts printed catalogue 2017. 

Future Artefacts is presented in collaboration with Karen Woodbury Fine Art and first presented at Craft Victoria in October - November 2017.

Explore the exhibition webpage for Future Artefacts here


Image: Future Artefacts, collaborative work by Alexi Freeman and Tessa Blazey, photograph by Jane Burton.