Photography Michelle Janssen

Take a trip to uncanny valley with sci-fi artist Esmay Wagemans

The Dutch creative -- whose work includes ultra-realistic body mouldings and a transparent top worn by Solange -- talks plastic surgery, cyborgs and the human desire for divinity.

by Lianne Kersten
17 March 2020, 1:00pm

Photography Michelle Janssen

Silicone ears, pouting lips, belly buttons and tens of pastel-hued palms of hands are pinned to the wall of Esmay’s Wagemans studio. In the bright white space on the outskirts of Amsterdam, two stainless steel work tables are scattered with tubes of paint, false lashes, face moulds, masks, and a lost Barbie with her hair cut short. All leftovers from previous experiments, Esmay explains, apologising for the mess, dressed in her daily uniform of black overalls and paint-splattered Docs. The whole scene would have felt a bit uncanny, were it not for the sunny presence of Esmay herself and the old school hip-hop and soul blasting through the speakers. The backroom of her studio is what she calls her “human laboratory“ -- the place where she spends her days working on projects and experimenting with new materials, or, as she puts it, “mostly failing and trying again and again.”

Esmay first gained international acclaim in 2015 with her art school project Second Skin, which consisted of latex breastplates intended as a direct comment against Instagram’s censoring of nipples. In the years that followed, she continued to make waves with the hyper-realistic torso of her own upper body called New Humanity and her mesmerising breathing sculpture. And of course, there’s the iconic photograph of Solange wearing one of her pieces.

Given the outspokenly political nature of Second Skin, Esmay was labeled a feminist artist from the get-go -- something she says she is more than comfortable with. In some ways, her early body moulding is reminiscent of that of Sinéad O’Dwyer -- the London-based designer making waves with her lifecast silicone pieces. Both use the body to critically question issues of representation. Sinéad challenges the fact that clothing is not designed with most women’s bodies in mind; for Esmay, the critique might be less direct and not focussed on fashion, but it is always embedded in her work -- for example, in the people whose figures she moulds: “I often choose my models by a certain theme,“ she explains. “For a recent collaboration, for example, I picked people that, each in their own way, are working with their bodies -- an ex-model, a dancer, a feminist activist... Their stories are always leading.”

Though Esmay may not be a fashion designer, she is no stranger to the world of fashion, collaborating with brands that are pushing the boundaries of their craft. Last year, her work was part of exhibitions from London-based jewellery brand Alan Crocetti and New York bag label Kara. When we visit, Esmay is busy finishing a piece for cult Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster. In each case, her work helps designers further explore the interaction between their items and the body of the person wearing them.

While more of Esmay’s time may now be taken up by commissioned projects these days, the underlying themes of her works haven’t changed. A glance at the bookshelves in her office, and you’ll get a pretty good picture of what she’s into -- Star Wars, Next Nature and Homo Deus feature prominently. She also spends a sizeable chunk of her day reading scientific journals and nerdy gadget blogs. “New technologies actually give me goosebumps, no joke. I’d say there are, on average, about 35 tabs about technology and science open in my browser at any given time – and that’s pretty much what it looks like inside my head as well.” I, Cyborg, written by Dutch professor Anneke Smelik, is a favourite title of hers -- so much so that it’s almost required reading in her studio. “I always urge my interns to read it as well,” she says. “People think they are still a phenomenon belonging to the future, but we are already cyborgs. Everything that is an improvement to our bodies -- hearing aids, smart phones, glasses, prosthetics -- makes us cyborgs. We are constantly expanding the limitations of our human senses. The question is, what will come next?”

It is, to say the least, an interesting time for anyone researching the boundaries between the human body and technology -- a time in which the line between real and fake is increasingly fading. On the one hand, augmented reality (AR) is looking more and more human -- google 'deep fakes' and you’ll get the gist. On the other, people are trying to look more like AR apparitions, undergoing cosmetic surgery to resemble their Facetuned-selfies and distorted Instagram story filters. “Hiding behind your avatar might have been enough in the nineties, but now, people want to look like their avatars in real life,” says Esmay. “But as a society, at the same time, we are also extremely wary of this phenomenon.” It is the space that emerges between these two worlds that fascinates her. “I’m always looking for the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ -- that feeling you get when you look at robots that almost look human, but not quite. It’s a vague feeling of fear, without knowing what exactly that fear is grounded in.”

That’s not, however, to say that the future fascinates Esmay more than the present. According to her and certain theorists in the field, sci-fi predictions actually tell us more about current times, than what is to come. “In sci-fi art we can read a lot about our current state of mind -- what we as a society are afraid of, what we are longing for.” It is this collective striving to develop ad infinitum, while simultaneously being scared of what that development may bring, that intrigues Esmay. “Humanity always seems to strive for some sort of divinity, to rise above mortality. But why? Why is it never enough, why can we not sit still?”

For Esmay, questions about our existence never get boring, simply because they can never be answered. “I actually consider all the different projects I create as one big body of research into the same topic. It’s an investigation without a conclusion,” she says. “But hopefully it’s one that asks all the right questions, and makes you ask some yourself.”

Esmay Wagemans
sinead o'dwyer