Tradition of Fearlessness
The photographer Elle Muliarchyk was born in Belarus and grew up between Vietnam, Prague and San Francisco, until one day she decided to move to New York to become a supermodel. Feeling creatively limited by her modeling agency she sought revenge by sneaking into designer boutiques and creating her own fashion shoots in dressing rooms worldwide, wearing the most expensive dresses. While she often got discovered, kicked out and nearly arrested, her intriguing -almost sublime- imagery and guerrilla approach received international media coverage after an expose of her work appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
Since then Elle expanded her work to photographic and film assignments, always keeping in touch with her ‘hit and run’ approach. One of her most recent film projects includes Psychic/Dossier, wherein a model visits various psychics in New York in different disguises. The dramatically different readings the model received show how we can literally ‘design our fortunes’ through our appearance.
It seems that, in most of her projects, Elle seeks the border between the dramatic and the insane. Staging one-person-fashion shoots in the middle of the night in dodgy areas in London (Bella Freud) and sneaking into churches dressing statues in haute coture (Begotten) are only tips of icebergs from her vast expanding oeuvre. I wanted to know more about Elle and asked her for an interview.
Was there a particular moment in your career as a model that triggered your desire to take matters into your own hands?
Even before I started shooting myself in dressing rooms I teamed up with photographer friends and organized, modeled in, art-directed and sometimes styled shoots for magazines. I had to do it in total secrecy because my modeling agency would have freaked out. They demanded total control – over the clothes I wore and even what/how much I would talk at the casting.
Fashion and art are so different and yet weight so heavily on each other. Where is the line, where fashion becomes art?
At first I wanted to answer like this: Fashion blurs into art when you don’t give a damn and just do it for your own selfish satisfaction, when you feel ‘obsessed’, when you can’t help it.
But realistically, it only works this way, if you want to have a communication with yourself only – the sound of one hand clapping. At this point fashion and art have two identical functions – vehicle and commodity – both playing with aesthetics and the ‘hotness’ of the market. Both reflect the mood and the ideas of the world today. Both are seasonal, trendy and for sale.
I think people who see the Berlin Wall between fashion and art are conceited and live in a century-old mentality. I tell them – get over it!
How does your time as a model influence your work and where is it still relevant?
Although it opened many doors for me in the beginning, it only made it harder later on. It totally messed up my head in terms of achievement and reward. On one hand, when I was a model, I received many things I didn’t earn, like constant acceptance and approval (something every normal person works so hard to get). I walked around in a constant morphine-like state. On the other hand, when I DID work very hard (to the point of risking my health and sanity) climbing higher and higher up the ‘ladder’ of editorial levels and finally I saw myself in Vogue…. Nothing happened! I didn’t get credit for the hardest things I’ve achieved!
It’s still hard for me, even now, to be proud of the things I have achieved as and artist. I would much rather be a gay boy now – it’s much more helpful career-wise!
How do you read the relationships of aesthetics and emotions?
Even though at the first impression my work is all about the ‘cool idea’, the aesthetics’ effect on emotion is number one for me. I remember when I was at the Chicago Art Institute. I was standing in a room, which displayed the largest collection of Monet’s Haystacks in one space…ever. I was crying like a baby. It was so powerful. And I had no explanation for it. My absolute dream is to create images that stand on their own, that would make someone cry or laugh, no questions asked,
How did the danger, you were seeking in your first series (Bella Freud, Saints, Psychics), influence your aesthetic?
It helped me to connect with my gut instinct even more! When I got something that I thought was kinda cool I had to say ‘basta’ and move on. Otherwise I would get either arrested or mugged. It’s so easy with digital photography to get trapped in trying to achieve the perfect shot. I think the dangerous circumstances give me a taste of an ‘analog way’ – I have to trust what’s in the camera and I can’t go back.
I was very intrigued by your series 4 Sale, especially the picture with the wolf and the old man. Can you tell me about the process and the idea behind that project?
Myself and three other female artists decided to work for a year and use each others bodies in any way we wanted to create whatever work we wanted. As it happened we were all naked in the end. The idea behind my series was recreating the sketches I made of the crazy sexual dreams I had when I was a teenager. Yes, I had seen the wolf and the old man in my dreams exactly as you see in the photos!
The old man is my favorite too! I immediately recognized him from my dream, when I was casting old men for my Phillip Lim short movie last summer. He was a sort of ‘God’ in the movie – an untouchable magical creature. So I felt horrible asking him to be in a nude picture. I though “Oh my God, I can’t corrupt him like that…” But I asked him anyway… Anything for the arts.. haha!
What did you learn from your Psychic/Dossier series and what did you hope other people learn from it?
The idea was actually NOT to expose the Psychics. I wanted to show that your future’s forecast can change dramatically based on who you THINK you are! You can affect your OWN future and your life in the most powerful way. For the ‘beginner’ clothing is a powerful tool to help establish a comfortable confident territory of the person you want to become. Clothing is like a car: you drive it to the place you wanna be. But a Hummer, or a Maserati, or a Beetle, or a School Bus – all will give you a different kind of fun on the road!
Read more of the interview on No New Enemies.
Have no fear. We’ll keep you posted.