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William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

As our thumbs swiped the infinite scroll of Instagram during a seemingly lost moment of an endless lockdown, a clay-based performance from William Cobbing paused our reality. For a minute, (2020) transported us inside the artist’s Hackney Wick-based studio and shook our senses as the wire cut through a clay head to reveal a paint-dripped face mask. If we were startled by the sight of the performance alone, the ASMR sound heightened the trip. Shortly after the post was shared on the LN-CC group chat, the idea to commission William to film a Maison Margiela-focused short was quickly shaped.

Beyond the shared explorations into identity, sensuality, tactility, ephemerality and a sense of metamorphosis that links William Cobbing and Maison Margiela, we had only recently listened to John Galliano explaining the making of his Maison Margiela Artisanal Fall 21 collection, which he scripted into the epic film, A Folk Horror Tale. “The idea of how we all felt through this pandemic, and being brought to our knees by the power of mother nature.” William Cobbing’s work, made in lockdown, questions confinement and freedoms so explores the same idea. When we discovered, after falling down a clay-lined rabbit hole, that was one of 21 performances the British artist recorded over 18 months of isolation, it was clear that we would have to collaborate. After a Zoom-meeting with the artist, while he was creating in residency at The Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics in Leeuwarden, THINGS IN THINGS became a thing.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

As the recently selected London Open 2022 artist familiarised himself with the the past, present and future of Maison Margiela, enthused Dutch colleagues encouraged the collaboration. Once he returned to his London-base and unboxed our selection of items from autumn/winter 21, he then began to integrate the designs into his performative clay practice. During this process, the exciting possibility of a capsule collection of one-of-one products that had been touched by the performance revealed itself. Of course, we couldn’t be certain how the pieces would be affected by the work as this was a first for the artist too, but the results are beautifully Margiela. From Tabi Mary Jane heels covered in dried clay to paint drop Replica Sneakers, a clay and paint encrusted Credit Card Keyring to Paint Coated Jeans with a splash of colour on the crotch, these are Maison Margiela items infused with the memory of William Cobbing.

Since its inception in 1987, Maison Margiela has not played the standard fashion game (and so, of course, changed the game and continues to change the game 34 years later). From the opening walk of its radical debut show in 1989, the Maison established codes of intellectual sensualism and technical trickery. From the deconstruction of garment-making and the disruption of classical ideals in photography, to such phenomena as street casting, unconventional beauty, subversive communication and a Dadaist approach to designing, Margiela reimagined fashion. In the porcelain waistcoat from the autumn/winter 89 collection, we saw Margiela’s desire for destruction – “la mode Destroy” as the French first deemed it. In the tabi-painted runway that he later re-used for his next show, turning it into a waistcoat held together by brown scotch tape, we saw Margiela’s desire to repurpose. Both of the concepts are explored in the practice of William Cobbing too.

Just before one of fashion’s most controversial and most creative of talents joined Maison Margiela in 2014, its elusive founder left John Galliano a simple instruction: “Take what you will from the DNA of the house, protect yourself, and make it your own.” From the moment he stepped into the maison that Martin built, Galliano has followed those words of encouragement. In THINGS IN THINGS, William Cobbing has done the same. Here, as we excitedly share the collaboration with the world , the artist talks us through his work and invites us deeper inside his world of clay.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

Firstly, how familiar were you to the work of Maison Margiela before we approached you about this project?
I wasn’t an expert but I was aware of Maison Margiela, the Replica sneakers, the Tabi footwear and the coloured ice cube earrings.

There's a transient nature to Margiela's work that we knew you'd love, a conversation of time and a sense of metamorphosis.
Exactly. During my residency, the ceramic centre was right in the south of Holland near Tilburg, and that's right on the border with Belgium, so extremely close to Antwerp. I was taken aback by the enthusiasm of the Dutch artists when I mentioned this project. Even its director always wore suits with the four stitches, so he was extremely supportive.

When we reached out to you about this project, we had no idea how you'd react.
From our first Zoom call, I knew this project was going to work. It was important for me to see that you were creatively engaged, you trusted what I was going to with it. It was a good fit. You really supported me creatively, also, in the sense of giving me a bit of freedom to interpret the material and i think that's worked out well. Essentially, it was just like a normal video shoot for me.

The clothes are important, but they're totally integrated into the action. I like the fact that Martin Margiela didn't call him the fashion company, Martin Margiela, but Maison. There's no ego.

It's a collective. It was always "we".
Then also a lot of his earlier works with scarves and face coverings. That's obviously something about my work, the effacement of identity. I think that's something to do with the appeal of my work. Without the specifics of the identity, it's about the idea of a kind of emerged sense of person, the idea of a community and how clay links people.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

Now, the series of self-shot films made in lockdown caught our eye and were the catalyst for our Maison Margiela-focussed collaboration. When did you begin filming yourself interacting with the clay?
In about 2003/2004, I was studying for my masters at De Ateliers in Amsterdam and became influenced by a number of Dutch artists who were working with video and performance. I took a photo of a single clay head, which became a lo-fi grainy video that was exhibited at a Secret History of Clay at Tate Liverpool. It was a breakthrough moment. It has evolved slowly since, but I'd say that I've afforded it more attention over the last 5 to 6 years. It then became even more urgent for me during the pandemic.

How so?
Weirdly, the studio became a haven to me. We weren't allowed to go out or socialise, everything was closed. I'm a tutor at the University of Arts London and everything went online, so I spent even more time at my studio. I invested in a camera, set up a tripod with the viewing window flipped and it was a process of trial and error. There's potentially a whole show of comedy outtakes. When they worked, it was obvious to me how much they resonated. It was also a time in which Instagram became an important medium; galleries were closed and as several of my exhibitions were postponed so Instagram became the main method to display work. Then it just developed over 18 months and I made 21. Conceptually to the pandemic, I didn't think too literally.

As if lockdown wasn't uncomfortable enough, you put your head in clay for extra confinement. Then of course there's ideas of peeling away layers, of wearing masks, of isolation, of communicating through screens.
Exactly. It felt like this was my own Zoom to the world.

Before the pandemic changed how we interacted, many of us experienced an awkwardness in communicating through screens. Now, it feels normal!
I totally agree. Coming into this new term, while students want to come back to the studio, they're much more comfortable to chat online.

Has the lockdown-filmed series got a wider title?
There is actually a formula for this video series. It's all a play on words around Will, I am. My name is William, I'm a Will I am. So it's me putting into Google different translations of 'I am.' So there's Will.JeSuis, Will.IchBin and then there are ones in Chinese, Danish, Afrikaans. Mauri. There's a very strict structure and it also saves me thinking of brand new titles, until this series with LN-CC.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

Did this period of focussed-filming throughout the pandemic encourage experimentation?
Prior to the pandemic, I had not used paint before. As I started to see Instagram as the forum, I looked at the format and played with its strict parameters. I wanted the work to be as impactful as possible, so to cut through the natural clay hues, I began experimenting with paint. It was a real breakthrough. I developed several other elements that I will continue too, like using fired and glazed ceramic and using rock, but I think the use of colour became somehow super important.

We've seen a similar influence from social media documentation on fashion shows, whereby dark monochromatic looks struggle to pop, so we've seen an evolution of colour and prints and everything else. In some ways social media has had a similar influence on your own practice. Obviously, the colour the paint really does does pop in your work.
Exactly. I mean, I think you're totally right in the sense of HD and 4k video captures it really well. Beyond the paint, there were other ones, from the spinning heads and the addition of text. As they were sequential, and I suppose I made them like a diary in a way, so faced with each new one, I would have several ideas and then I would choose the best one at that particular moment. Some of them were really quick to make, others took ages. That first paint one was literally the first time and it was just golden.

Wow, that was literally the first attempt? However much you rehearse, there's an unpredictability to the performance. Although you're a master in clay, you still can't know exactly how it's going to react in that moment at that time.
Well exactly. Also for the shoots I did for you, having Yohan perform that and then Raphaela use the Margiela Credit Card Keyring, it was slightly unusual for me because for the first time in a year and a half that I was suddenly directing again. It was a step into the dark in the sense of, well, how are they going to interpret the work? Basically, I was asking them to be an extension of me. I was even quite surprised by my reaction as the card cut through the clay because I did a little fist pump. I was very excited because it just looked really good.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

While on set, I saw elements evolve and was able to see how you incorporated the clothes and accessories into your practice. For example, when did the idea to use the Maison Margiela credit card keyring as the cutter come to you?
The Credit Card Keyring was a surprise when we unpackaged everything. I have to say that I really enjoyed the collaboration, how receptive you were to my ideas and how supportive you were throughout. Say, for example, securing the lab coats, which were brilliant and we actually made the video around the idea of a lab coat and that was a super fortuitous.

We were super fortunate to have the lab coats because they are Maison Margiela staff uniform and so iconic.
When I received them, they were looser and even more minimal than I imagined but they worked so well wit the clay. Thanks to their opening, I took advantage because when I work with performers, I have to think how the clay will fit around the head or body. T the camera operator immediately identified the windows in the studio as being a really nice diffused light source behind that performance and we arranged Rafaella and Johan with the lab coats and this sort of connecting tissue of the clay. It just really resonated. Throughout, we wanted to use the studio in a creative way, so you wouldn't necessarily think 'oh, all of these are shot in the same studio.

Wow, that was literally the first attempt? However much you rehearse, there's an unpredictability to the performance. Although you're a master in clay, you still can't know exactly how it's going to react in that moment at that time.
Well exactly. Also for the shoots I did for you, having Yohan perform that and then Raphaela use the Margiela Credit Card Keyring, it was slightly unusual for me because for the first time in a year and a half that I was suddenly directing again. It was a step into the dark in the sense of, well, how are they going to interpret the work? Basically, I was asking them to be an extension of me. I was even quite surprised by my reaction as the card cut through the clay because I did a little fist pump. I was very excited because it just looked really good.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

I have to say the unboxing moment was special because I could explore the physicality of the clothing, the cotton, the wool, the leather and jewellery and then they entered the vocabulary of the objects I have. My videos convey an unashamed, quite lo-fi, crude physicality. I could never make them too smooth. I like how they grate the digital format because I want you to be looking at your phone and really feeling; feeling the clay, fabric or skin. It's the paradox of the digital screen, using 1080 pixels wide or whatever to bring us back to the physicality of the world and objects around us.

Throughout your work, there's a dialogue with the medium. Your work has evolved in light of the pandemic to suit the medium, but challenge it too. Digital doesn't have to eclipse the physical.
One of the ideas that excited me most was Rafaella wearing the Tabi shoes, just walking onto the clay in one performance. It's effectively amazing ASMR; the texture of, and interaction between the leather and clay was special.

Your performances are ASMR, a heightened treat for the senses. Once you unmute Instagram and hear the sounds, you're transported deeper into the work.
Totally. Since TikTok has taken off, so many videos have grating soundtracks but this is about taking it back to the sound of clay hitting the body, clothing or tool.

William Cobbing x Maison Margiela

How do you view the THINGS IN THINGS series?
I see the work as individual, but there is a non-specific narrative between them. it’s the same clay and the same performers wearing Maison Margiela, there's a real link that explores my practice throughout. Ultimately, it's a triptych. In a gallery, they would be placed side-by-side. And our Instagram feed too.

Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from watching this series?
It's about a sensorial experience, a visceral experience. I hope they enjoy the series as a break in their usual viewing. I often receive comments like, 'oh, what the hell is going on here' and I like that it might provide a spanner in the works somehow. I want it to provide an uncanny break in your feed. We also wanted to create a sumptuous experience. It's nice to have the models wearing luxurious, minimal clothes, seeing and listening to how they interact with the clay and skin.

Finally, what’s next? What excites you most about tomorrow?
The work, all the ceramics I made while in residency, is going to be exhibited from October 4th in a digital exhibition, while some work will be shown at Battersea-based Cooke Latham Gallery. There are of course the 21 videos that I made in lockdown and part of the idea is to show one video per day for 21 days, which will coincide with Frieze week. Beyond that, the curators from the Whitechapel Gallery are coming over in the next few weeks, so we will discuss what goes into the London Open 2022. Beyond that, it's very early days, but I'm potentially working on an opera with a very good musician called Roland Orsay, and working on filling a stage with clay performers, accompanied by classical music.

Director and editor William Cobbing, @william.cobbing
Camera, lighting and editor Thomas Wootton
Performers Yohan Le Peuch and Rafaella Lazarou
Assistant Bruna Fernandes
Studio location: SPACE

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