“My fascination for masks started from the beginning of my career,” Walter van Beirendonck tells us. “I use them in my collections when I think they fit the collection and make the idea and look stronger.”
For van Beirendonck, masks add character and drama to his pieces. More than simply clothes, his collections act as performance works spanning mixed mediums and narratives. From his SS15 animal masks to his FW18PVC, pig gimp masks through his FW12 Freddy Krueger-esque killer face coverings, the Antwerp Six designer’s back catalogue uncovers a wide variety of masks with a common use: to extend, contextualise and emphasise his dramatic vision.
Now the designer has taken his fascination to the next level, having presented an exhibition dedicated to masks at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, the designer has turned this show into an epic 240-page tome. Creating a dialogue across multiple disciplines, the publication draws together work by Paul McCarthy, Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois, Leigh Bower, Man Ray and Pablo Picasso, in order to provide a comprehensive insight into the history and uses of masks.
Here, van Beirendonck talks us through his interest in masks and how they add an extra layer to his dramatic creations.
Alex Baker: Can you talk us through the masks in your latest collection? Walter van Beirendonck: In my show, Worlds of Sun & Moon, the veil covered the head completely held together by black duct-tape around the neck and finished off with the glasses covering the eyes completely, this could be interpreted as a kind of mask which is changing his appearance, identity and look. When I was working on my research, it became more and more clear that African masks and their aesthetics had a big influence on a series of artists. These masks (and the black artists making them) really changed the evolution of modern European and American art.
Alex Baker: Is the imagery a personal collection of references you have collected over the years? Walter: I worked more than two years on the research, preparation, sketching and installation of Powermask, it was an intense process. I had such enthusiastic support from the Wereldmuseum, the most difficult part was to convince all these creative people and artists to participate and loan their work for the exhibition. We were all very proud that we were able to create and make a very unique exhibition for this rather ‘old fashioned’ museum, and even more proud that it became a huge success. Making the book, together with Paul Boudens, was another adventure. I really wanted a ‘clashing content’ book, which was exactly how I put together Powermask, with spontaneously selected and placed images from completely different worlds which came together. Everything was sourced and brought together especially for Powermask. Over the years I already knew a lot of the topics and subjects I showed, but it became all more clear by making and putting together the exhibition; the synergy in Powermask is very strong.
Alex: If you were stuck wearing one mask for the rest of your life what would it look like? Walter: Probably a mask looking like my Walter-icon-face (you know this red nude Walter-man?).
Alex: Building a narrative is a big part of your work, what journey would you hope the reader of the book takes throughout the chapters? Walter: I hope that the Powermask book can surprise, entertain and give joy to the reader. I think that it is a nice souvenir for the visitors, and a nice document for the people that could not visit the exhibition.
Phoebe English collaborated with puppet maker, Judith Hope, to bring back the traditional process Parisian couturiers used, producing their working toiles in quarter scale before creating the full scale final pieces. To present the intricate process of these pieces; marks, patinas and traces of making were kept on the marionette form fabric that hung next to their life size twins.
But alongside precision came chaos, in the form of netting frantically stitched on top of garments. Offset by knitwear created as part of a long standing collaboration with the British heritage brand, John Smedley, English’s delicate craftsmanship and construction took centre stage – an apt celebration a few weeks before the brand’s sixth anniversary.
Having originally trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Josh O’Connor has since proved his diversity, from playing writer James in Peaky Blinders to roles in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (2015) and Florence Foster Jenkins (2016).
The Cheltenham-born actor’s latest project sees him land the lead role in Francis Lee’s British drama, God’s Own Country, playing young farmer Johnny Saxby. Stuck in a isolated farmland repeating his daily routine of work, drink, casual sex, repeat, O’Connor’s character suddenly has his world flipped when Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) turns up to help on the farm. The appearance of Gheorghe becomes a catalyst, opening Johnny’s world into the possibilities of hope, romance and excitement.
This 27 year-old actor is spreading his talents across multiple genres and it seems even more exciting projects are underway.
Alex Baker: It’s under two weeks until the film is in cinemas how are you feeling on the final days before the release? Josh O’Connor: Yeah good, ever since we went to Sundance Festival in January we’ve been excited to show new audiences. Now to actually show it to the general public is brilliant and to bring it home is exciting. I can’t wait.
Alex: What are your plans for opening night? Josh: I’m going to a screening at the Curzon in Soho and then doing a Q&A after that. Unfortunately I’m filming the next day so I won’t be able to enjoy it as much as I might like, but I’m looking forward to the Q&A and I’ll head straight home and wait for people to tell me if they hated it or liked it.
Alex: Have you had much time to relax between the festivals? Josh: I’ve been doing other projects and trying to go to as many festivals as I can. It’s the best thing, going to answer questions and being there when audiences see it for the first time. It’s an incredible experience. We have been doing the press and the lead up but I think we’re ready for everyone to see it and the reception’s been so good, I think the public is going to like it.
Alex: How long ago did you wrap the film? Josh: It was back in 2016 in March or April, so already it was a long time ago.
Alex: And it’s still so cold in Yorkshire at that time Josh: Freezing yeah, but in terms of turnaround it’s been really quick. Francis started editing it straight away then a few months later we were accepted into Sundance.
Alex: With it being Francis’s first feature, did the process go well? Josh: It’s his first feature, but he’s such a pro and he was an actor before so he has an understanding of how actors like to work. From day one our process was very clear. We sat down and had a chat about how I wanted to work and how he likes to work and they aligned. From the beginning it was a case of deep character research and then staying in character once we started filming to then working on the farm, so it felt like second nature. It’s all about authenticity for me and Francis. He’s going to do amazing things and I’m certainly very proud to be there from the beginning.
Alex: Being from Cheltenham, was being back in the countryside quite nostalgic for you? Josh: I grew up in the countryside but I didn’t have that isolation that Johnny has. His lifestyle is very remote, he has a local pub and he works crazy hours so he doesn’t get to see a lot. At the beginning of the film it’s getting up, working, finishing work, getting pissed, having casual sex, going to bed and repeating, then Gheorghe comes along and opens a new world. My upbringing was totally different, that’s why this project was so exciting. It required a transformation. I empathise with Johnny but we are such different people.
Alex: With the film’s remote location not often being a setting for LGBTQIA films, do you think this film is helpful for people in the same position? Josh: In many ways that part of the world isn’t necessarily represented on film, regardless of it being an LGBTQIA film. We don’t see that side of things, and that’s certainly a big aspect of it. All the people that I met over there, they’re excited to see the film. How many films do you see looking at sheep farmers? I think all the locals will be pleased to see it.
Alex: It’s good to have someone giving a spotlight to different lifestyles. Josh: The lifestyle that they lead there is so intense and there’s so much to it. The whole point for me is that the character has such a dense life of continual repetition, the farm totally relies on him. For a young man to have so much responsibility on his shoulders, to take that world and make something hopeful and romantic is credit to Francis and I hope people feel the same way.
Alex: Do you have anything special you bring with you when you’re away filming? Josh: I tend to leave everything behind when I go away. I find it exciting going away from London, especially with that job. If you’re entering a character like that it’s good to start fresh and I worked very closely with the costume department, deciding exactly how Johnny would dress and be. I like the idea of stripping your own identity.
Alex: Did the costume department have to alter a load of the outfits since you lost so much weight whilst filming? Josh: I always planned to lose a fair amount of weight, Francis and I had a clear image of how we wanted Johnny to look. Part of that was we wanted him initially lean but we wanted to show how unhealthy his lifestyle was as his diet was more for necessity. I think altogether I lost three stone in weight, but we liked how the costume ended up being too big for him and a bit rough and ready, that concept of showing of the lack of care worked out quite well.
Alex: How was the experience working with Alec Secareanu? Josh: Once I was cast, Alec was brought in with three of four other Romanian actors. They all screen tested with me and it was obvious from the beginning that Alec was perfect for the role. He’s been brilliant and gave a phenomenal performance in a second language. We are still friends and all these festivals are good to link up with him.