Created in collaboration with photographer Sølve Sundsbø, the artist and couturier’s latest project explores the discomfort – and agony – we endure to make our bodies seem desirable
In Michaela Stark’s collections, beauty is distorted. Her sculpted lingerie blurs the boundaries of the sensual and the grotesque, creating extreme shapes and eye-watering contortions. Fat bulges, flesh is compressed, and limbs are strung up like joints of meat. On the skin itself, pain can be seen everywhere: through welts, scars, and in purpling, blood-starved complexions. But for the artist and couturier, these images are about much more than provocation. In fact, they are a vivid, mocking exploration of the lengths we go to in the name of conventional beauty norms, and the discomfort – sometimes agony – we endure to make our bodies seem desirable.
Australia-born Stark began her career as a seamstress. Despite finding success – and working with Beyoncé repeatedly, on music videos and her Black Is King tour – she began focusing on her own more conceptual lingerie projects in 2018. Using herself as model, Stark would squeeze herself into increasingly constrictive corsetry, creating bulbous, sensuous shapes with her own body. Part performance, part “fashion experiment”, these designs were part of a lifelong fascination with the way we perceive our own bodies.
Stark’s latest project, Stark Naked, is a continuation of this work. Currently on show at Dover Street Market’s 3537 in Paris, the exhibition sees the artist collaborate with photographer Sølve Sundsbø for a series of lavish, if unsettling, imagery. “This collection was very much about me creating couture lingerie for different bodies, not just myself,” Stark tells AnOther. Instead, she worked with models Jade ‘O’ Belle and Dodo Potato for six months, creating couture lingerie that was tailored to their curves, and inspired by their personal relationships with their bodies.
The resulting pieces – made from invisible tulle, silk chiffon and grosgrain ribbon – are hand-dyed to look like skin, giving an effect of engorged flesh and mysterious bodily growths. “We treated the [fabrics] to look like skin, and then added pleats and embroidery on top to reference the way that the skin wrinkles under the corset, like saggy, wrinkly skin,” Stark explains. The aim, she adds, was to create a veil of uncanny ambiguity. “It’s all very non-descript, so I think I could see something in it but then someone else looks at it and see something different.”
For such an intimate project, it was vital to find the right photographer. “I’ve had a hard time working with photographers in the past, because I feel like my work is so much about having control over your body and the image you’re projecting,” Stark says. “That’s why my work is so powerful, I think – because it’s not just putting models in underwear. It’s allowing them to have control over what their body looks like.” After meeting Norwegian photographer Sundsbø on a shoot, the pair instantly connected: Stark felt comfortable being vulnerable around him, and found him to be sensitive, diligent and considerate when it came to her overall vision.
Sundsbø is equally positive about his experience with Stark. “Michaela is very focused and knows exactly what she wants to say. That’s very special,” he tells AnOther. “Even in 2021 there are taboos and norms to be questioned and broken. She does that in such a brave, interesting and beautiful way ... What makes her work unique for me is how much she offers of herself in such a fearless way. She makes these ephemeral beautiful pieces of clothing and brings in a hyper-real world of flesh and brutal honesty. Her own flesh and her own truth about her body.”
For Stark, these experiments with couture lingerie have helped her rebuild a more loving, accepting relationship with herself. After experiencing body dysmorphia as a teenager, she became obsessive about the flaws of her body. It was only after she decided to embrace them – even boldly accentuate them – for her art, that she began to change her view. “I’ve come to appreciate different parts of my body,” she says, “not just the fat, but the hair, the pimples, the stretch marks, and any sort of imperfection. [My work] has helped me see them in a completely different way: I’ve stopped obsessing over the surface things, and started thinking about my body more deeply, and getting inspired by it more deeply.”
Stark Naked is running at DSM’s 3537 in Paris until December 19.