I first discovered the deliciously decadent fantasy world of David LaChapelle as a spotty teenager when I used to flick through my stylish older sister’s copies of Vogue. His sexed-up, approved over-the-top, glitzy style and explosive colour schemes – which shamelessly celebrated glamour, popular culture and materialism – were mesmerising, especially to a shy thirteen year old whose most fashionable outfit was an all-in-one stone-washed denim number (this was the first time around when it wasn’t cool).
Over the years, in a fantastic plastic kind-of-way, I have grown to admire LaChapelle’s razor sharp aesthetic, despite the crass nature of some of his chosen themes. Amongst celebrity and fashion circles, he is a master when it comes to knowing what makes a pretty picture so when I heard that his first political show, controversially entitled ‘Rape of Africa’, had opened at Robilant and Voena in Mayfair, I bolted down to the gallery like a horse on speed to check out the kitsch king’s take on more serious affairs.
Having turned his attention to fine-art in recent years, LaChapelle’s latest work is an open critique of western consumerism, presented as a mash-up of Italian Renaissance art and his glossy signature style. The show lends its name to the centre-piece, a tribute to Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’, with a modern day twist. At first glance the photograph features a regal and supine looking Naomi Campbell as Venus in elegant tribal attire with one breast exposed and a handsome semi-naked model, Caleb Lane, as Mars in a post-coital state, surrounded by young angelic boys. On closer examination the boys are carrying guns and Mars is casually resting a finger on a gold human remain, possibly an arm/leg bone, with gold hand grenades, treasures and a diamond-encrusted skull scattered beneath him, in contrast to the African Venus’s more modest surroundings of a goat and cockerel. Behind the opulence, a hole is blown through a neon-lit montage of ‘Sun Bleach’, an American-stylised brand of detergent, to reveal a war-torn landscape with several cranes busy at work, destroying what is left of the distressed land.
Make no mistake, this is LaChapelle’s unapologetic statement piece, drawing our attention to child soldiers, unethical gold and diamond mining, and the derogatory view of African women being viewed as an exotic commodity by Western cultures, as their homes and countries are ravaged for the consumer’s benefit.
LaChapelle continues in this vein using models in art history to point a finger at the world’s obsession with materialism. In the gallery’s library, a vibrant colour-infused piece streaked with flowing pale blue, yellow and pink ribbons explodes from between the bookshelves. Another photograph inspired by Botticelli, ‘The Birth of Venus’, depicts Venus’s emergence onto the eden-like landscape, looking serenely into the distance, flanked by two male admirers who replace the Zephyr wind-gods and Nymph in the original painting. On closer inspection, LaChapelle again highlights contemporary consumer society by drawing our attention to Venus’s bling footwear (aquamarine diamond-encrusted shoes), with her male admirers wearing gold Puma trainers and a diamante-encrusted fishnet vest, with a metallic blue Nike tick sprayed onto the barefoot of one of the men.
Perhaps the most controversial piece likely to cause offense is ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, an image depicting the pope sitting on a gold throne inside a grand cathedral atop of mounds of treasure troves filled with pearls and gold, with four bloodied naked bodies, bound, blindfolded and scattered beneath the valuables in various states of trauma.
Similarly, a triptych of Michael Jackson in various messiah and saint-like poses flirts with the viewer’s tolerance. The first photograph, entitled ‘American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly’, shows an illuminated Jesus sitting amongst a rugged forest landscape, carrying the dead body of Michael Jackson as his white, diamond-encrusted glove lies limply on the floor just beneath his hand. The subsequent panels present Jackson in a saint-like pose with a gold pocket watch and a white dove resting in his hand, standing alongside a female holy saint. The final panel shows Jackson as an Archangel with white feathered wings, contrasting with his black Thriller-style outfit with tears streaming from his eyes, as Jackson’s right foot stamps down authoratatively on the devil’s chest.
As I wandered around the gallery examining the photos, I found myself underwhelmed by LaChapelle’s rather uninventive, shallow and juvenile take on the various themes. Although the photos were distinctively LaChapelle in their refined visual quality, there was no intellectual interpretation required here, challenging you to think beyond what was presented. However, as I pondered further, I realised that it was actually me who was missing the point.
LaChapelle’s work has always been known to be bold and gaudy, compelling and repelling in equal measure, a formula which he uses to leave an imprint on your inner psyche. For example, ‘Rape of Africa’, viewed from afar is a stunning visual of beautiful colours portraying beautiful-looking people, commanding your attention; however, once you are drawn in, it presents you with a harsher reality, hammering on the door of your conscience. Thus, for the MTV and Twitter generation, LaChapelle may be more effective in using a hard-hitting pop culture imagery to bring home the message to a much wider audience than, say a political activist might, through more traditional forms of communication.
Having made his name through photographing the rich and famous, many of whom epitomise the consumerist attitudes that he now criticises, this show is a brave and interesting turn for LaChapelle. As I stepped back out into my dull monochrome surroundings devoid of his magical splashes of colour, it gradually dawned on my inner cynic that the exhibition whiffed slightly of hypocrisy. Apart from the preparatory drawings for ‘Rape of Africa’ included in the exhibition, all of the other portraits are up for sale. How much was LaChapelle making from this show I wondered, and how much of that money was he planning on donating to African NGOs?
I guess whether you’re wearing jewels indirectly responsible for destroying a continent or producing meticulously crafted portraits about jewels indirectly destroying a continent, beauty always comes at a cost.
David LaChapelle: The Rape of Africa is currently on show at Robilant and Voena, First Floor, 38 Dover Street, London W1 until 25 May 2010 (robilantvoena.com/exhibitions).
Having spared the time to attend Mr LaChapelle’s exhibition and write a review of his work leading to increased exposure for him, Amelia’s Magazine had a bit of a nightmare experience with Robilant and Voena’s press office in trying to obtain images for this piece, which are apparently available on request (depending on who you are). So, in the absence of official images from the gallery (and to avoid having to deal with snooty, unhelpful people), we took the liberty of coming up with our own and a few more from the ‘LaChapelle Studio’ as seen below (all illustrations by Lisa Stannard).
Mildred the Surfing Sheep by Bex Glover.
Hi Stuart, sildenafil could you give us a brief potted history of Finisterre. When did you start the brand and what kind of clothing do you make for whom?
Finisterre was started in Tom (the founder’s) bedroom with a laptop and dialup internet connection around seven years ago in Cornwall, when he realized that there were a lot of surfers who were getting waves in cold water locations who were not well equipped in terms of gear to keep them warm before and after their surfs. Tom started selling amazingly warm fleeces that were popular with guys on the water. The team grew to about five, and the range now includes merino base layers, super warm insulation jackets, gilets, and waterproof jackets. The business was started with surfers in mind, but the reach has expanded into other areas such as climbing, snowboarding, skiing, and cycling, and this is reflected in the ambassadors and product testers that we work with. We have top ten big wave surfers, round the world cyclists and guys climbing Everest working with us and refining our gear – it’s an exciting atmosphere. That’s about it. We generally hold the idea that Finisterre stands for three points of commitment – Product, People and Environment. Other than that, Finisterre is simply a vehicle for our passions, surfing and outdoor pursuits.
When did you start stocking your own sheep herd? And who looks after it?
There is a lady based in Devon, called Leslie, who managed to find the last remaining Bowmont sheep in the UK. Our design director, a fiber fanatic, met Leslie and they started talking about her small flock and sheep. Realizing the potential of the small herd, Tom kept in touch, and the relationship has gone from there as we have got more involved in the work on the farm in Devon. We visit the farm a lot – it’s a small drive away, to see the lambing and sheering. It’s a great farm tucked away in a stunning part of Devon and Leslie makes us feel so welcome. The animals have a great life – and are sheared with utter care by a chap called Raymond.
The Finisterre Bowmont Herd by Bex Glover.
The Bowmont sheep is apparently on the edge of extinction – where does this sheep come from and what makes it’s wool so good for use in your clothing?
These sheep are a cross breed of Saxon Merino and Shetland. Starting in early 80s, it took the Macaulay Institute of Scotland 20 odd years to stabilise the breed. The ambition was to capture the brilliant fibre of the Saxon Merino with the hardy wild instincts of the Shetland. The finished Bowmont sheep is roughly 75% of the former and 25% the latter. It was intended to give the Scottish hill farmers another type of sheep with increased value coming from the very fine wool. Unfortunately there was not enough demand within the market place and the project was eventually given up. The Bowmont flocks that had been bred were sold on with flocks still existing in Scotland, Wales and Devon. Unfortunately many of the flocks that were sold have been either slaughtered or crossbred with Shetlands, thereby thus losing their pure Bowmont fibre quality. It turns out that Lesley – the North Devon fibre fanatic, has now collected all the remaining pure Bowmonts and is the only one to be breeding pure Bowmont. Currently we use Merino wool in many of our garments – our technical base layers (for running, cycling etc), and hoodys and jumpers. Merino wool is great and it’s one of the finest wools out there, however we just can’t source it in the U.K, we have to go abroad like everyone else to Australia and NZ – and that is something that we can work on with the Bowmonts for the future.
A Bowmont Sheep by Bex Glover.
How many sheep do you have in your flock? Where do they live? Can you describe a bit more about the environment for both sheep and workers at Finisterre?
We started with around 30 Bowmonts found from the length and breadth of the UK. With Lesley’s work the flock is now up to around 65. Super exciting for us, and we get very nervous around lambing times. We are often crossing our fingers that everything will be ok! The sheep live in the beautiful green pastures of Devon – it might sound a cliché – but for me Devon just has the most stunning rolling fields of anywhere I have been. The sheep seem happy with that living on the small farm. Leslie also keeps some other rare breeds.
I was a bit disappointed to find out that Mildred the surfing sheep was the product of an advertising agency plot to promote your wool. Surely there was more to it than that? Why was this particular sheep chosen to shove in the waves?
The agency in London saw what we were doing with the Bowmont flock and our wool garments and were really fired up by the story and the sheep initiative. We spoke with them and were keen to shoot a short video. They got in touch with Dom and Nick – both talented directors, to feature one of our sheep surfing – they had the skills on video and sound – it was super fun and great to work with them and the rest of the team who came down. Mildred was chosen due to her character, being hand reared as a lamb she’s very friendly and always stoked to be involved.
Can you give us any inside info from the day that you shot the video?
It was a fairly sunny day in Cornwall – we met up with Dom and Nick, who helped us shoot the video on some handheld waterproof cameras. They have the knowhow and have worked on the likes of the Chemical Brothers videos before so we were stoked to have them down. We generally just let Mildred walk down the beach and get used to the surroundings – there was no one about so she was really relaxed and had a good bleat. All in all, it went really well. She didn’t have to do anything crazy that she didn’t wasn’t to, had some lunch then went back to the workshop and Mildred went back to the fields.
How does Mildred respond to getting wet? She almost looks as if she is smiling when she climbs out of the surf. Do you think she genuinely enjoys this?
She enjoyed it. We have about four or five dogs in the office at any one time and we’re always taking them for walks – they have a good life – and it was no different making the video with the sheep. Working with Mildred on the beach meant that we had to have special permission from local authorities, we also brought our local vet along to make sure everything was ok by him. Everyone was happy, we also brought the lady that hand reared Mildred – she was stoked to see Mildred become so famous! Mildred’s even on Facebook now – I’d take a guess that she is the world’s second famous sheep after Dolly.
Where did her name come from? Was that also the result of a meeting or was it more spontaneous? Do all the flock have names?
She was already called Mildred and from the moment we met her she was super friendly and inquisitive. A fair few of the flock have names – HMS Finisterre is the name of one of our young rams…
Mildred by Sandra Dieckmann.
Have any of the workers at Finisterre stopped eating lamb since getting acquainted with Mildred?
Definitely been a talking point for some! Personally I’m not a vegetarian – but in my opinion there’s definitely some issues around the way some animals are treated for breeding and then transported all over the place.
What are your plans for the future? Will you ever consider doing a more fashion orientated range or collaboration with a designer that might interest my readers?
We’re still super small – there are usually only six of us here in the workshop now, so we’re often stretching to do a lot of things at once. Having said that we love pushing things forward, and we’re always thinking about future initiatives and new products and fabrics. We are working on expanding our range slowly – and continuing our work with our team of athletes and product testers. We’ve got some new t-shirts out this month – collaboration between us and Surfers Against Sewage across the road. Their a small grass roots charity who do some good stuff pressing for better protection of our coastlines. The tees will reflect their campaigns and we will be donating money back. For us it’s essential that as we grown we continue on without compromising the outstanding customer service and the trust we have built with our customers alongside the quality of our gear. In general we will stay within the outdoor market – it’s what we do best, and it’s where our expertise lies. We work with a range of designers, and athletes – collaborating with them on various garments – so it’s always an ongoing process and the doors our always open for a chat!
- An interview with Anna Felton of Monkstone Knitwear, created with wool from sheep who live on Trevayne Farm in Wales
- An Interview with Ethical Fashion Designers Makepiece
- It’s National Wool Week!
- Feeling Sheepish? Try Izzy Lane
- Izzy Lane: an interview with ethical knitwear designer Isobel Davies