Having influenced the likes of Martin Margiela, Final Home, C.P. Company, & Vexed Generation...
Lucy Orta’s sustainable activism practice as a sculptor and visual artist shows the next generation what art should be in an ecological crisis.
Lucy Orta is a visual artist whose career began in the early 1990s. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fashion Knitwear Design from Nottingham Trent University, Lucy worked for couture houses in Paris.
This changed when she met her husband Jorge, which triggered her “gradual transition away from fashion design into contemporary art,” coinciding with the eruption of the Gulf War (46). To Lucy, it was “the first time you switched on your television… that journalists were right there on the front line… it was horrific… [and] it promoted us to think ‘what can we do’”. She felt that in the global outpour for food, water, and shelter to be sent to refugees escaping the conflict, her skills could be better used as an artist than in the couture houses. Closer to home, the need for shelter was especially present with a large rise in homelessness in Paris at the time.
In response to these “fundamental needs,” one of her first sketches designs was ‘The Habitent,’ a domed tent that converts in a matter of seconds into a waterproof cape, designed to offer at least the ‘minimum comfort’ necessary for ‘nomadic populations’ either escaping conflict or unable to pay for shelter (46).
To Orta: Habitent implies a garment for meditation and spiritual refuge, the inhabitant suggesting a human presence as an occupant for the dwelling. The aluminum-coated one-person tent with telescopic armatures transforms in a matter of seconds into a wind-waterproof poncho (46).
Other pieces like Mobile Cocoon were produced with similar purposes, using polyester laminated GoreTex and PU-coated polyamide to create a full-body suit and sleeping device, providing the “basic survival strategies such as mobility, warmth, protection from harsh elements, [creating] refuge from an increasingly alien and hostile society” (34). These various ‘mobile’ habitats were often rendered ‘not only reflective but also vibrant in color,’ using materials to ‘increase the wearer’s visibility against the spatial landscape’ (100).
This idea later fed into Jorge and Lucy’s ‘Refuge Wear Interventions,’ a subsequent project of Refuge Wear focused on emphasizing one of the central ideas of the overall project: ‘to challenge the act of social disappearance and to render the invisible visible once more’; recorded for French and British television, Orta’s creations were captured in ‘urban spaces, such as squats, railway stations, housing projects, bridges and subways’ to highlight those who might otherwise fade into these urban backgrounds.
In addition to their functionality, Refuge Wear pieces utilized ‘pockets, pouches, and other connected appendages that act as variable design elements, to be determined differently by each wearer and capable of storing and protecting personally meaningful photos and objects ’ (111).
During the 1990s, Lucy’s ideas had a trickle-down effect on other designers. Kosuke Tsumura, who founded Final Home in 1993, is noted for counting ‘Lucy Orta as an inspiration,’ creating pieces with the concept of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world (111-2).
In her own words:
Along with a group of similarly disheartened designers, I began searching for alternative means of expressing the deep changes that were taking place in society. Our focus for redefining the role of clothing was directed towards basic needs, such as protection, survival shelter, and cocooning: some examples that come to mind are the Final Home by Kosuke Tsumura for Issey Miyake, which are parkas stuffed with newspaper for heat conservation, Vexed Generation’s muffled jackets and C.P. Company’s transformable shelters (33).
Lucy and her contemporaries also took on deconstructive and reconstructive methods for creating garments.
Instead of focusing on deconstruction as the emphasis, fashion journalist Bradley Quinn prefers to think of reconstruction’s focus on pieces that “appear to be in mid-manufacture… like deconstruction, the process of construction is highlighted, but the emphasis is on the completing the process rather than destroying it (Quinn, Techno 67-120). This, Johung notes, means that ‘transformable clothing thus mediates between these deconstructive and reconstructive tendencies, according to a system of partial and incomplete replacement’ (100).
This ethos of reconstruction leads to her work with the Salvation Army in Paris, leading workshops for people in circumstances of loss or deprivation. Yet, what started as a “simple customization project – whereby we altered and arranged the second-hand garments distributed to each of the residents arriving in the shelter – evolved into a truly visionary couture project. Using basic transformation techniques, the residents designed and created an innovative collection of womenswear, which developed their creative skills, built confidence, and reconstructed psychology through the therapy of creating” (35).
These pieces were then developed into and presented with a runway show in a Salvation Army, following in Martin Margiela’s footsteps of using “non-traditional catwalk venues in Paris” at Le Cité de Refuge in 1995, where had shown three years earlier in 1992, using similar unorthodox methods for people to experiencing the runway (33).
In 1994 Orta’s focus moved on a tangent from Refuge Wear, shifting ‘away from the microcosm of the individual to the macrocosm of the community and communal modular habitations’ (Studio Orta). In bringing people together, as her artist creations continually focused on as her career progressed, Body Architecture thinks about the isolation of the individual alone and how best it can be protected in numbers. In the words of critic Paul Virilio in the work: “The precarious nature of society is no longer that of the unemployed or the abandoned, but that of individuals socially alone. In the proximate vicinity, our families are falling apart. One’s individual life depends on the warmth of the other. The warmth of one gives warmth to the other. The physical link weaves the social link” (Studio Orta).
In 1994, Orta began to consider how clothing can be used to create group actions and how uniforms that tie people together create something greater than the sum of its parts. In Nexus Architecture (1994-2002), ‘clothing [became] the medium through which social links and bonds are made manifest, literally and metaphorically. The links of zippers and channels, while enhancing the uniformity of the workers’ overalls, create androgynous shapes that defy classification by the usual social markers and attempt to give form to the social, not the individual body’ (52-3).
Nexus Architecture, at its heart, is a protest-based visual art project based on community action and collaboration to achieve a common goal. As described by Jennifer Johung, the collaboration of the act enhances the message they are trying to distribute:
A woman steps into a silver-gray nylon jumpsuit, zips it up, and pulls the hood over her head. Extending from the front, back, and sides of the garment are long nylon tubes that hang like umbilical cords in either silver or bright red. There are forty-nine others like her, stepping into their suits, in a public square in Valencia, Spain as a part of the 2002 Micro Utopias exhibition at the Biennale de Valencia. The garments are imprinted in black with words like nexus, heart, fraternity, and life line along with a grid of interconnected black silhouettes of faces and heads. Once clothed, everyone is connected via the tubes, front to back, and side to side. Then together the group moves across the city, pausing in lines and twisting under and over each other in various formations in front of churches and other public buildings, along sidewalks, and in squares (97).
Nexus Architecture’s blueprint of protest is adaptable as the exterior fabric of each suit can be changed ‘to the context of each public intervention and is silk-screen printed with inscriptions relating to current affairs’ (53). For example, ‘a segment of sixteen suits created for the Venice Biennale (1995) were inscribed with newspaper headlines reporting the genocide in Rwanda and worn by architecture students throughout the biennale opening’ (53).
Following on from Orta’s project with teenagers from an orphanage who promoted the UN Declaration for Children’s Right in the ‘Global March Against Child Labour,’ in 2002 Nexus Architecture X 110 celebrated the UN Declaration of Rights of Child (53). The project concluded in one hundred and ten children from Cholet standing in unison in their town square, having spent several months engaged in workshops learning and understanding the Declaration.
Notably, each piece from Nexus Architecture was handmade and handprinted by Orta and her team. Fundamentally, all of Orta’s early works are a product of her craft and degree.
When reflecting on her creative journey, Orta commented on how artists must value the ‘baggage of skills you learn’ early on in your career and understand that art is a research process [of] learning how one project leads onto another’ — that is how your career plays out (Orta). Her work is a testament to the truth of this reflection, with her work in fashion and clothing being the jumping-off for her visual art. Furthermore, each project has developed from the last, always focusing on helping people in varying ways and creating a better living environment, the only thing changing each time being the scope of the project.
With the variety of mediums that Orta uses for her work, she is conscious that ‘the vast array of resulting artifacts’ that she creates ‘cannot just represent our complex and changing epoch,’ but should ‘be active within people’s lives reactive to and act as trigger catalysts for solutions for society at large’ (46).
In scope, Orta’s project Antarctic Village widens out into continuing themes of Human Rights preservation and development but also into larger ideas of global sustainability.
Commissioned by the End of the World Biennale in Ushuaia, Jorge and Lucy Orta traveled to the arctic tundra to set up the Antarctic Village. Central to the project was the celebration of Antarctica: a celebration of what Antarctica resembles through the Antarctic Treaty, the “first Arms Control agreement established during the cold war” which declared “this sixth continent a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, environmental protection, and banned all military activity.”
In Antarctica Lucy’s project envisions an apolitical world on a unified front, determined to further humanity and better the planet.
The Village is populated with Dome Dwellings, components of which were created in Orta’s studio and ‘hand-stitched together by tradition tentmaker[s], with sections of flags from countries around the world together with extensions of clothes and gloves symbolising the multiplicity and diversity of people’ (61). Onto the domes is printed a proposal for a ‘new article’ for the UN Declaration for Human Rights, ‘Article 13.3 — No Borders’ (61). Central to many of her works since Refuge Wear, Orta champions the freedom of any living person to move how they wish.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 13, currently states that the inherent dignity of every member of the human race and their equal and inalienable rights constitute the fundamentals of liberty, justice and peace in the world. However, it does not mention the freedom to move, or to cross borders. If we were to amend this article we could take into consideration the rights of the hundreds of millions of men and women hunted from their native lands by economic ruin, war and political intimidation. The passport serves as a testament to this reflection and here we find a new article to perhaps be adopted one day: Article 13.3: Everyone has the right to move freely and circulate beyond the state borders to a territory of their choice. No individual should have an inferior status to that of capital, merchandise, communication or pollution that traverse all borders.
Inspired by the motto of the End of the World Biennale, ‘Here, at the end of the world, is another world possible?’, Antarctica is a driving force in this dream (62)
Orta then created the Antarctica World Passport, a metaphor for the global village which she envisions and hopes for, whilst also unifying people around a central goal of sustainability.
As Orta speaks in ‘Operational Aesthetics,’ she describes her and Jorge’s first artistic goal and question as:
“How can art practice pave a new critical role, faced with the growing problems in this world?”
Along with the passports physically themselves, Orta imparts her social charter to future generations to this day. Lucy Orta is now a professor at the London College of Fashion and is Chair of the ‘Art for the Environment’ Program run by UAL, a program inviting the university’s “postgraduate community to explore concerns that define the twenty-first century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, human rights – and through creative practice, envision a world of tomorrow.”
With UAL, she also founded the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a project “conceived to question and challenge reactionary fashion cultures, which reflect and re-enforce patterns of excessive consumption and disconnection, to expand fashion’s ability to connect, delight and identify individual and collective values.”