May 1, 2022 / Amber Weir

The hybridization of nature and technology creates dualities between the organic and inorganic, the human world and natural world, and mortal and eternal spaces.

A model stood in the center of the runway and looked like she had been cast under a spell, by her haute couture. In this breathtaking moment, she lost the silhouette of a woman and transformed into an ethereal figure of divine feminine power who radiated beauty, grace, and mystique.

Each material of the model’s dress turned effortlessly, it floated and fluttered in a delicate and controlled circular motion. But this wasn’t magic. Her dress was an optical illusion, designed to place the audience into a trance through engineering and craftsmanship — and yes, it worked.  Her dress glistened and shimmered, hypnotizing the runway audience. Similar to how humans have lost all their thoughts staring into ⁠the element of love: the sea.

The designer behind this Hypnotize collection is Iris Van Herpen, who merges art and technology to create kinetic (moving) couture.

Now, the art world has always been able to envision the imaginary. Salvador Dalí was able to imagine new realities through surrealist paintings, which presented the world through a distorted lens where clocks could melt or a fish could attack a tiger. The major difference with Van Herpen is that she has been able to distort reality in the physical world.

Van Herpen's designs are essentially wearable artforms that embody her awe of the natural world. Symbiotic relationships and reciprocal cycles are at the core of Van Herpen’s work. The constant movement of her kinetic couture echoes flux and reflux, the natural rhythm of life, underneath the blazing stars.

Her Root of Rebirth collection was an ode to the fabric of life below our feet: fungi. The designs were layered and entangled to represent the fibers of mycelium threads under the soil, which are constantly communicating and exchanging nutrients with each other. Through using lazer cutters and 3D printing, the garments looked like they had come to life and were wrapping around the models. Van Herpen’s designs put a light on the invisible life of fungi and showcase it acts as a tiny microcosm of the human circulatory system. Over time, mycelium strains wither and fray, just like fabric does. But fungi, even in a state in a state of decomposition, can be reborn, similar to fashion design.

Van Herpen also looked up to the sky for inspiration. When Apollo 8 took off into space, for the first time in human history, people were able to see the vast expanding vacuum of space. Astronauts saw the earth as one collective entity, with no borders, just a rock held by the crust, mantle, and core. The Earthrise collection was a beautiful moment, where the women models defied gravity and floated through the sky, creating a new form of freedom and empowerment. The dress was made from thousands of blue color gradations which would twist and turn, hypnotizing the audience.

Now, the relationship between art, nature, and technology hasn’t always been so smooth. The battle between modernization and art is a long-standing battle. Perhaps even a full-blown war.

Enter Casper David Fredrick. Frederick was part of the sublime seeking, 18th-century Romantic movement of artists who feared that technology and industrialization relied too much on thinking and logic, which was the death of an individual’s spirit and soul.  

In their eyes, the wave of Enlightenment thought was too focused on reason, rather than human emotion. (And ironically, coinciding with this Age of Light was the Age of Violence and Bloodshed from colonialism and war).

The Romantics worried that if people only take about gains (of reason), and not what has been lost (one’s soul), how could humans see that they were to nature? 

Frederick painted a self-portrait, Wonder above the Sea Frog [1871],  where a man stands alone on a rocky mountain edge, amongst the ubiquitous fog. He hears birds singing a song in exchange for each other. Then, he witnesses each tone of blue, grey, and white in the vast landscape, and realizes he prefers the in-between shades of colors, to the most poignant colors — subtly is modest and beautiful.

He slowly becomes indistinguishable from the cold sky and ragged clouds surrounding him, leaving him with fear. He knows one wrong step could end him, but the world would keep spinning, and the mountains watching would be indifferent to his death.

This moment brought him to a state of tranquil bliss, the kind you get when admiring the delicate leaves and scent of mint, basil, parsley, or lavender. But unlike herbs, this wasn’t beautiful, because beauty is comfort. This was sublime: terror mixed with hints of appreciation, because in this state humans can transcend rationality and experience the wonders of creation.

In many ways, the Romantics were right about individuals losing their souls through modernization.

Last Christmas, I was standing waiting for my train at London Waterloo station. Fog and mist were dashing and darting across the station and any chuckles of laughter from a distance were soon lost by the looks of anxiety radiating from people standing on the platform edge. They couldn’t hear any people around them, since they were consumed by different forms of technology.

Everyone seemed disconnected and numb — but that’s how you survive in a society which feeds on stress.

On days like this, London feels dark and soulless. Maybe it is the rising train prices, privatization, or just the never-ending austerity policies. Maybe it is the constant pressure to be available online to communicate. The city is not a place for the sublime: even when the sun is dazzling in London, the buildings are screaming red from all the blood they took to build.

In the city, we have become isolated from each other and I worry about the further isolation that comes with the virtual world. Part of me is terrified of a future, where the virtual world is more valued than our physical world. My mind conjures up ideas of a dystopian place where people have assimilated into robots: artificial intelligence replaces human emotions, algorithms replaces critical thought, and virtual spaces are more appreciated than the natural world.

When Mary Shelley — Romantic author — wrote Frankenstein, she too was scared about technology detaching individuals from the natural world. (When Victor Frankenstein creates the monster, he stopped appreciating the sublime in nature because he became consumed by technology).

So, my moral panic about technology is really no different than what has come before, and what will probably continue as technology progresses.

Truthfully, what matters to me is connection ⁠— connection with other humans and connection with the natural world.

Perhaps I resonate with the Romantics because I, too, idealize the past. I am a dreamer and wish to live in a world where we all can experience the wonders of creation every day.

As the city grows, so does the world the Romantics dreamed about, and I have accepted that it is not necessarily a negative. Romanticism should be seen as a way of feeling, rather than a strict philosophy.

Iris Van Herpen acts as a reminder of how technology merged with art can embody the natural world in a more immersive way than traditional art ever could. She feels naturally, just like the Romantics did.

It’s truly beautiful that in a busy modern day landscape, audiences can pause and temporarily forget about their daily lives as they view Iris Van Herpen’s collections. Her shows remind us that we as humans are not separate from nature. It’s mesmerizing, it’s humbling, and it’s a reminder of how art connects humans throughout time. ■

By: Amber Weir

Layout: chantha le

Photographer: Alec Martinez

Stylist: Noelle Campos

Hmua: Emma Brey

Model: Maliabo Diamba

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.

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