Long Read: A Conversation with East London Artists Fantich & Young

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

East London artists Mariana Fantich and Dominic Young want you to feel something when you walk into projects+gallery, where they’ve made their US debut with their retail-mimicking installation, “Apex Predator | Darwinian Voodoo.” You can hate their work, featuring teeth-soled shoes and mannequins clothed with coats of hair. Or you can love their work, a collection including a handbag formed from a ribcage and a codpiece with a soaring, tusk-like … appendage. Check the collection out from a surface level or read into it to pick up woven-in commentary on ceremonial ritual, natural selection and social hierarchy.

It’s a lot to absorb (should you choose to), and peeling apart its layers of meaning (should you wish to) is a fascinating exercise. Or just look at it.

In any case, Fantich and Young just want you to think something.

Mariana Fantich and Dominic Young | photo by Brandon Halley

Mariana Fantich and Dominic Young | photo by Brandon Halley

I sat down with them last week as they were installing this collection, “Apex Predator,” to mimic a posh retail store. “Apex Predator” is the first collection from their line, “Darwinian Voodoo,” and takes inspiration from the following sources:

  • Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”
  • Mary Oppenheim (creator of the surrealist fur-covered teacup and saucer)
  • Dadaist Marcel Duchamp
  • ’60s conceptual artist (and re-discoverer of Duchamp) Richard Hamilton
  • Orson Welles’ 1973 documentary “F for Fake”
  • Tobe Hooper, director of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”
  • 1973 British horror flick “The Wicker Man”

So we’ve taken it from very eclectic source material and influences, and we’ve jumbled it up in a postmodern manner,” says Young. “Obviously we were dealing with Darwin—Charles Darwin—evolution and natural selection, and we paired that with the contradiction of the supernatural. So what we’re really dealing with is nature and supernature, which is a contradiction, and contradictions create tension and tension gives us ideas to rub against things. It creates a friction.”

I ask, “Was there a lightbulb moment in coming up with this concept?”

“Our practice is going for eight years now, so, you know, the work is not a lightbulb; it’s more of a process because this work—you can see the roots in the previous work … so it’s more like our research—” says Fantich.

“—a continuation of Fantich and Young’s concept from 2008,” chimes in Young. They often finish each others’ sentences (Young gets particularly excited).

So it’s had an evolution of its own?

“It’s had an evolution of its own, right,” says Young.

Fantich adds that research, influences, reading and discussions—more information- and inspiration-gathering—have continued to fill the concept out. Now, with this collection of work, they hit a breakthrough in their rise toward an artistic apex.

“It’s a continuation of the concept we originally formed in 2008, but this work is what went viral and caught the imagination of the public,” says Young. “So we’re very grateful for that, because before we were showing in small niche markets, but this work took it sort of global because of the internet.”

Photo by Brandon Halley

Photo by Brandon Halley

It was really the shoes that got things going, says Fantich. A dialogue with the viewer began from this relatable point. “I think it comes from the dialogue with the viewer, which supported our practice to develop as a bigger piece of work.”

The concept of an apex predator—a predator with no other predators of its own, like tigers or great white sharks or us—is built in to each piece of clothing. Being an apex predator is a privilege and a pedigree of sorts, which is what permeates the central theme of their show.

“We’re beating the competition and hierarchy, but in a very gentle way” says Young. “But we don’t actually want to impose the concept on the viewer. We allow the viewer to interpret it in their own way. We’re discussing it now because you’re asking, but we … don’t want to come across as preachy; we want the viewer to view it in their own terms.”

Maybe that’s what’s really resonated with people, I say. Are there any other factors or influences that have made this go viral, in your words?

“I think a lot of people impose their own personal idea of who would wear such a pair of shoes,” says Young. “So obviously it could go to the supernatural, or it could go to nature, or it could be a businessman—or it could be a serial killer.”

But then there is also the universality of their collection, which makes it relatable. People have coats; people have shoes …

“So everyone can relate to shoes; everyone can relate to clothing; everyone can relate to accessories because of their own participation in the commercial endeavor of fashion or design,” says Young. “With our other work, maybe people found it hard to relate, which we can understand.

Then there’s the very English sense of humor woven through it: Dry (there if you look for it) and a bit dark. “[It’s] made with a sense of humor … ” says Fantich. “But at the same time it can be looked at as a very serious subject.”

“We’re sort of being playful with a quite serious subject,” continues Young. “And within that there’s quite a lot of contradictions, but we don’t mind the contradictions because they create the tension.”

For me, like other viewers, it also comes down to the shoes. Especially the black heels with teeth on the soles, shoes that would pair excellently with a mid-length pencil skirt—tough and all business, but with a dark sexiness to them. They remind me of editor at a high-powered fashion magazine stomping on their poor intern with her teeth-soled shoes, I venture to Dominic and Young, kind of like “Devil Wears Prada.”

“Exactly! You’ve got it. That’s very, very well put!” Young exclaims (I didn’t include the “Devil Wears Prada” reference in person). “It has a lot to do with social hierarchy! We’re commenting a lot on social hierarchy, because in the animal kingdom there’s a hierarchy and as we are animals, there is a hierarchy within society and what you pinpointed as well—like the intern and the editor—it’s like a class system. We’re doing it very gently, but it’s all there. The work can be seen as shallow-leaning or deeper-leaning, and that’s how we designed this concept so we were all-inclusive and everything was as valid as everything else.

“We didn’t want to be hierarchical and judge people judging our work, so we allow people to come in, and if they want to come in and look at it—not on a superficial level but on a straight level—everything is valid, and we’re very happy that anyone from any social class is giving us attention and we appreciate that very much.”

So you’re carefully getting a bit political, I say.

“When you see it in the context of the work, we are quite political, but we don’t want to come across as preachy or angst-ridden so we’ve dialed it down a little bit—but it’s still in the work,” says Young. “It’s still very much within the work. In England, it’s a little bit different from in the States: We’re very class-structured. It’s instilled within us. There’s the underclass, working class, upper-working class, middle class, upper-middle class—”

Even the grocery stores have hierarchies, I add, remembering the tutorial on British life a friend gave me on my first visit to the UK.

“Yes. And then you would have upper class, and then aristocracy and then we have royalty, you see? So we are embedded,” says Young. “So even if we were to see a gentleman who looked down and out—what we’d call a tramp or something—but he spoke in an aristocratic dialect, we would not call him [a tramp]. We’d call him still upper-class. And even in England, if someone was—[adopts cockney accent] talking like this, you know what I mean, like?—and he was a billionaire, we would still think he was working class. That’s sort of the great thing—or not a great thing, depending on opinion—in America. It’s all about money, so if you’re wealthy, you’ve made it, and you don’t carry the baggage … I think America’s very inclusive. If you make it, you’re there. When in England, we still judge you on your linguistic dialect. So it’s in the work.”

photo by Brandon Halley

photo by Brandon Halley

Another theme through their work is the concept of sport: It shows up in cricket gloves and hockey masks that are all a part of this grand lifestyle, this well-bred world where war is sport and sport is war. It ties into the apex concept, because, as Young says, “A great sportsman said, you know, ‘There’s no such thing as second place; that’s called a loser’… so we’re playing up that as well without banging on about it, you know?”

Again, it’s left to the viewers to ponder (or not). They enjoy an elevated stance in the “Apex Predator” world (consumer discretion, perhaps), trusted to form their own opinions. But this places responsibility on the work to stand up on its own, independent of the artists behind it. It’s all Marcel Duchamp’s doing. “He did a lecture when he said, in the future, when the artists who made the work are dead and gone, it will be the viewer who can really judge whether the work is any good,” says Young.

I’m extremely curious about where they source their material—the hair, the dentures, the medical models that are the spines and ribcages that bend into consumer products.

photo by Brandon Halley

photo by Brandon Halley

“When you’re an artist and you’re making this work by yourself, you’re trying to find materials as cheap as possible because they’re quite expensive: The dentures are expensive, hair is expensive,” says Fantich. “Mostly we find them on the internet through suppliers.”

They’re picky about where they come from, researching and tracking down just the right piece. The mannequins were shipped from Holland but were once used in Harrods, adding to the focus on hierarchy that permeates the collection (I point out the regal posture of one and Young laughs, saying “She’s the queen.”) This collection, two years in the making, has come along relatively slowly not only because of the extremely specific sourcing but because, as the two point out, Fantich works at a university and Young is self-employed with a day job—plus all of it is handmade.

“It’s not like we’ve got hundreds of people making work for us,” says Young. “And we like that because it puts the voodoo into it.”

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