Nicola Costantino is known throughout South America for her extraordinary garments for women, subtly decorated with elements moulded from parts of the human body. Her fascination with fashion, flesh and fetish has led to a body of work that is both beautiful and controversial.
These dresses arouse varying degrees of curiosity and bemusement depending on the environment in which they are displayed. Shown in both fashion and art contexts, their function shifts according to the systems and conventions inherent in these different worlds. When they appeared on the cover of Esquire and in the window of Lewis' Department Store in Liverpool, they were often mistaken for the work of a fashion designer. When shown at the Ruth Benzacar Galeria de Arte, Buenos Aires, or the XXIV São Paulo Biennial, the perception of their aesthetic altered drastically. Viewers were uncertain whether they were looking at haute couture or artworks.
Costantino's beautifully crafted costumes are made of beige
silicon which imitates human or animal skin.
Worn by elegant mannequins, their softness and fleshy colour evoke feminine sexuality. This illusion of real skin arouses the desire to caress and touch. But like gazing at sensuous supermodels on catwalks, it must remain a visual seduction.
On closer inspection, we are astonished to find that the flesh, which appears so real, is fake. Moulded on the delicate surface are a series of nipples, navels and anuses, along with human hair.
This fleshy outer skin, decorated with casts of human erogenous zones, covers the real body of the wearers, touching a nerve that triggers all kinds of associations relating to fetish, fear and infatuation. The women who wear these garments can be seen as seductive bait, waiting to be consumed. But they can also be interpreted as predators, ready to devour. The small squares of `skin', neatly sewn to display breasts and sphincters, bring to mind the obsessive acts of serial killers who collect human bits and pieces as trophies. One might even say that Costantino's dresses are metaphors for fashion as a form of cannibalism.
Camouflage and disguise - and by implication, clothes, make-up and jewellery - have the power to transform our perception of reality. While Costantino's skin-toned fabrics signify attraction, seduction and the politics of pleasure, they also make us aware of the innate human instinct to dominate, manipulate and control. Apinan Poshyananda First published in Fresh Cream, Phaidon, 2000