bart hess' work pushes the boundaries of art and body modification

i-D talked to the designer of Lady Gaga's slime dress ahead of his performance 'Sleeping Beauty Dreams' at Art Basel

by Kristen Bateman
05 December 2018, 9:19pm

What do princes, princesses and a corpse all have in common? Under Dutch artist Bart Hess’ direction, they became surreal, light reflective costumes for his latest piece of performance work: Sleeping Beauty Dreams which is being shown at Art Basel Miami Beach this week, and in New York City during December 14th and 15th. The artist is already known for creating Lady Gaga's beautifully grotesque slime dress for her Born This Way album cover. But he also has a history of creating mildly disturbing, intriguing works that push the boundaries between art, body modification and technology, such as his project Digital Artifacts (2014) which looked at the future of cyborg couture by creating digital pieces that had glitches playing across skin, or Caged (2013) which featured an immersive installation of demon-like creatures.

In Sleeping Beauty Dreams, ballerina Diana Vishneva experiences wildly imaginative dreams during 100 years of slumber, and the Hess-designed costumes she and other characters wear interact with projections. Hess, who often uses materials that are not considered traditional for fashion, costumes, or even special FX (such as molten wax, silicon, metals, slime), worked with futuristic textiles to create a kind of semi-permanent body modification. “The costumes play with reflecting material, so I use material that you could normally see in street signage,” explains Hess. “I also worked with pure white colors that reflect everything. In general what I like to do, is use materials that are very difficult to use in costume design.”

In anticipation of his Miami performance, we caught up with the artist to talk about technology, the digital world and art on the human body.

What’s your process like when creating something so experimental?
First, I started thinking about how do you transform clothing. I like to start very simple, low-tech, from simple ideas. Opening a jacket is already revealing something, or putting your dress over your head—these things that we did as kids. We did that research and thought about how can you make things more exciting and how can you do different silhouettes. Researching that transforming part brought a lot of inspiration to the whole cycle and I’m also inspired to create different new material, which inspires me to create different, new silhouettes or shapes, or ways to connect it all.


Was it difficult to put yourself in the position of being a costume designer?
It’s getting easier. I did two modern dance pieces. Before that, this whole world was completely new. A lot of times in my work, you couldn’t even walk or breathe. You would faint if you tried to wear it. So that was a challenge. With dance, it’s the opposite.

What about technology and the intersection of the human body interests you as an artist?
What I like is: we’re looking at digital screens so often but you can also quickly feel these materials, landscapes, even though it’s fake you still get a sensation and I really like that competition. I like to play with the in-between. I like to make my work so you don’t understand if the work is analog or digital anymore.

Do you consider your work a form of body modification?
The funny thing is that my work gets connected to that as well. I’ve been to some exhibitions that are like that and crazy festivals where you see a lot of needles and stuff like that, connected with my work. It doesn’t feel that strange to be a part of that. Would I consider my work to be the same? Maybe, yeah, but I like to be more conceptual. If I start drawing or using the material, what I always find inspiring is how it shapes the body, that’s always there. But I’m not literally shaping the body.


You’ve said that when you create a new design you always place it on your own skin. Why is that?
For me, I like to have it on my hands, arms and like to try to wear it. It’s such a strong story, in combination with the work. I just like how a material can stretch around your elbow or what kind of crazy stuff you can create with it on your face. The body gets enhanced by that, but the material even more.

What are some of the strangest materials you’ve worked with?
The slime is a good example of that. Wax, grass, but then lately I was thinking, why am I always using these materials. But they are the materials I think every human likes to play with. If you are having a party, at least someone is putting their finger in the candle wax, you have that instinct to do that. If you’re in grass, everyone wants to take their feet out and touch it. I’m using these instincts and materials on a professional level.


Where did the idea for Lady Gaga’s slime dress come from?
I’m always exploring materials. If I don’t have clients I’m working with or jobs, I just like to dive into a material. I have a very big weird archive of these tests at my studio that I don’t really know what to do with them. I have a quite nice chewing gum, where I could blow up the skin really big. I didn’t really know what to do with it. When Gaga’s team asked me to create something for her Born This Way album, they had some references to Alien the film. It made sense for using the chewing gum, but the chewing gum became slime because it was even nicer. The process was like becoming the expert of slime. For a few weeks, I tried everything.

What’s your biggest goal as an artist?
One goal is that I like to work in a lot of disciplines. A lot of disciplines I just kind of get there, I don’t really make the choice. The material leads me to it.

What’s next for you?
My next project will be a new installation for the Museum of Sex in New York. I’m making a 4D rollercoaster in a landscape of sexual bodies. I’m also focused on some new music videos for an underground artist. I’m doing some museum shows and I’m doing a collaboration with Aesop skincare—an extension of my video work with them.

lady gaga
body modification
Bart Hess