Art

From Peeling Skin to Talking Dolls, Highlights from the Detroit Design Festival

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The main gallery of Cristin Richard’s ‘Metabolism’ with film and live model installation (photo by Bruno Vanzieleghem, courtesy Cristin Richard)

DETROIT — The 2015 Detroit Design Festival brought a flurry of activity to the city’s environs, the capstone to a busy September. In a whirlwind of conferences, events, and openings, it becomes a little difficult to stand, and yet, there were a few really outstanding pieces that came through the chaos.

Cristin Richard upped the stakes with a brand new installation, Metabolism. Entering the candlelit and mostly empty main room of the former Detroit Savings Bank, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the full wall projection, which features a woman slowly peeling away petals that cover her skin to reveal her naked body, pale-white with high-contrast black tattoos. The petals seem a natural extension of her skin, suggesting feathers, or a snakelike process of molting — we cannot see her face, but the methodical plucking of these pieces, one by one, seems detached, calm, and somehow generates a Black Swan-esque level of horror as the petals progressively fall. So engrossing is this process, that it came as a surprise to notice that the model herself is lying prone in a coffin-like altar in front of the projection.

This is the sting of Richard’s work — she deals not only in sculptural creations made to look like skin or other bodily membranes, fashioned meticulously out of sausage casings sourced from local meatpackers, but in live female bodies, as well. Her models/collaborators are living pieces of the installation, and in this case the vulnerability of the projected body was shockingly amplified by the realization that the body itself was laid out before the viewer. Richard’s models are impressively passive, but the truly interesting moments are the ones where their inevitable humanity pokes through their pose.

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Some of the bondage objects in the vault gallery of ‘Metabolism’ (photo by Bruno Vanzieleghem, courtesy Cristin Richard) (click to enlarge)

As I approached the figure, naked but for skin-like petals adorning her body like the appliqué beading on a piece of tight formal wear, she stirred, cleared her throat, a hand moved, then back to rest. Horrifying. With film as a distancing mechanism, one is able to observe the girl on the wall with detachment. However, with her laid out in front of you, she is impossible to avoid. A deeper venture into the vault of the bank chamber — whose old and peeling paint perfectly alludes to the action of the film, giving one the sense of being very much inside the skin of the film’s subject — one discovers a number of detailed bondage toys, rendered in intestine (collaborative pieces made with Simone Else). Whether these signifiers add to the conversation happening in the main gallery is debatable, but they do afford the viewer an opportunity to marvel at Richard’s and Else’s dexterity with intestinal lining, braided and molded into discernible and unsettling shapes: cat-o-nine-tails, handcuffs, butt plug. Days after the opening, I find myself still struggling to digest Metabolism.

There was also a “Talking Dolls Art + Design” showcase that seemed particularly prescient, given the recent New York Times article about (horrific!) cutting-edge talking doll technology. There was the last of Nick Cave’s outdoor dance performances, a blowout at Detroit Riverfront Park that featured dozens of his trademark colorful haystack Soundsuits working in joyful synchronized movements, a marching band back-up, and a whole stable of dancers dressed as horses. There was the Red Bull Creation Project and a party, which issued a challenge for local creators to manifest their best ideas around renewable energy and recycling in a 72-hour build window, then present their creations at Recycle Here! — Detroit’s premiere recycling collective. Local makerspace OmniCorpsDetroit (OCD) took top prize for the challenge, with a human-scale hamster wheel attached to a generator that charges when a human runs on the wheel. An attached meter revealed how much human effort it takes to generate the same energy saved by recycling a bottle.

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OmniCorp’s human hamster wheel, being demonstrated by some volunteers in the crowd at Recycle Here! (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

That’s just a flavor of the fun, hilarious, educational, and disturbing events of the past week. While DDF is often hallmarked by the biennial DLECTRICITY event — which mimics international Blanche Nuit celebrations — it is nice to have a different set of highlights in DLECTRICITY’s dark year. In a festival as far-reaching as DDF, it is hard to draw general conclusions, but it strikes me that design should not be solely treated as a method for creating aesthetic or engineering solutions. It can be wielded powerfully to influence thinking, change our behavior, and add levels of depth to things as mundane as a recycling, as close as our own bodies, or as vast as our surrounding community.

The 2015 Detroit Design Festival took place September 22–26 at various locations throughout the city. Metabolism: Cristin Richard took place on September 15 at 5001 Grand River Ave, Detroit. 

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