Michael Drummond Considers Humanity’s Next Move in ‘Being Played’
Walking into St. Louis designer and Project Runway alum Michael Drummond’s new exhibit, “Being Played,” the eye is drawn to a collection of iconographic, dramatically dressed figures in the center of the room. But off in the perimeter, almost in shadow, is a powerfully prescient blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment: a necklace inspired by Victorian hairwork, containing not a lost love’s lock of hair, but instead a strand from a woolly mammoth, frozen in resin. Drummond explains that mammoth hair, surprisingly, isn’t difficult to source—in 2019 it’s more accessible than ever due to the melting of the permafrost revealing creatures that have long been kept hidden away from us.
In a way, it’s the perfect encapsulation of Drummond’s collection, created for the World Chess Hall of Fame—a show that ambitiously but successfully weaves together themes of chess, fashion, climate change and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Each piece in the exhibit, whether a wearable look or an art object, is readily recognizable as the sort of high-octane fashion armor one might expect from a studious admirer of Alexander McQueen.
But less apparent is where—and when—these pieces might exist. Are we in the future, as Drummond’s references to Kubrick might suggest? Or in the past? Meandering through the exhibit, Drummond jumps from discussing The Big Bang to an apocalyptic, post-global-climate-crisis landscape. (The images, when removed of context, are not dissimilar.) At first glance, mammoth hair suspended in resin suggests being frozen once again. But the mere fact of its presence here, in this room in St. Louis, is evidence of the extent that climate change has already demolished that dream. (Drummond says he purchased his mammoth hair on eBay.)
This tension permeates the exhibit—a sort of push and pull that will be recognizable to chess players. Cause invariably leads to effect, even if one can’t see the whole board at the moment. A symbol of an earlier climate change event itself, the mammoth hair only becomes available to us once our current climate change has reached crisis levels. One move sets up future moves. Musing about fossils used in another jewelry piece in the exhibit, Drummond mentions that he enjoys imagining them fossilized a second time, in their necklace form, long after human life has disappeared from the planet. As usual, Drummond is several steps ahead.
Time may be linear in an elementary school textbook about extinction events and geological eras, but Drummond’s mind works like that of a chess player, simultaneously projecting each potential sequence of events over the other as he stares at the board. In one imagined reality, climate change devastates the planet and a new race of woman-warriors (in bra-elastic bandage dresses, of course) wander the barren earth. In another, humans futilely attempt to abscond to space, armed with a computer’s illogical conception of clothing: unwearable, “hyper-gendered” space suits resembling the molted skin of a 1950s housewife—more Jane Jetson than David Bowie. In still another, all is lost for mankind, with future forms of life one day discovering the fossilized remains of a necklace, a strange strand of hair yet again uncovered from the earth.
And then, there’s Drummond’s current reality—the one we’re lucky enough to inhabit right now. One where the wastefulness of an insatiable fashion industry (often cited as the second most environmentally detrimental industry in the world) meets its match in creative repurposing of discarded materials. Drummond estimates that upwards of 80 percent of the show’s pieces are made from deadstock materials, many of which were donated or “upcycled” from previous collections. A mod mini-dress is covered in a chainmaille of silver-toned underwire manufactured for bras—a Hokusai wave of what would otherwise be trash. Elsewhere, the waters continue to rise, with a saltwater bath creating complex crystalline patterns on a pleated canvas skirt. A pair of platform shoes gets its lift from a cedar tree trunk that has been charred and carbonized—a traditional Japanese practice dating back to the 16th century that preserves the wood even as it appears to destroy it. The resulting wood looks downright primordial but can last upwards of 80 years—especially precious in a future where trees are but a distant memory.
Ancient, futuristic; modern, prehistoric—the long-past and the far-off future seem to contract and become one and the same under Drummond’s skilled hand.
But for all the darkness in the exhibit, Drummond’s viewpoint remains optimistic. Like the chess game in “2001” between supercomputer HAL 9000 and Frank Poole that inspired the collection, Drummond can’t resist an underdog story. He still believes in the power of small personal shifts to course correct the waste of the fashion industry. He accepts fallibility as part of the process, identifying the fast-fashion pieces in his own everyday wardrobe. “I still hold foolish optimism that maybe the climate crisis could be the great unifier,” he says. Put another way? Planet Earth still has a few moves left.
Michael Drummond: “Being Played” is on view at the World Chess Hall of Fame now through March 22, 2020.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.