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ERIK BERGRIN: THE 8 DISSOLUTIONS EXHIBITION
Dissolution 8 – Emptiness – One starts to become conscious again, the clear light of death manifests. This appears as a clear vacuum-like empty sky. “I visualize the vastness of traveling through space. An open vacuum of blackness with shining stars and colorful nebulae, harnessing the energy of the sun in order to be reborn.”
Morris Museum Announces Fiber Sculpture Installation by Artist Erik Bergrin Exhibition on View January 28 – July 10, 2022
The 8 Dissolutions is a fiber-sculpture installation by New York City-based artist and costume maker Erik Bergrin. A student of Buddhist philosophy, Bergrin explores the transience of the human body and the eternity of the mind in this new collection of work. The exhibition takes its name from the eight dissolutions, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that visualizes one’s mortality in the recurring cycle of death and rebirth on the path to enlightenment. The costumes are entirely handsewn, made from fabrics created by Bergrin using traditional techniques such as weaving and felting, as well as grown from unusual materials such as seaweed, fermented tea, and crystallizations. Some include integrated drums and rattles. A video monitor documents a performance with the costumes making musical sounds with each movement, revealing the multidisciplinary nature of Bergrin’s artistic approach.
“The 8 Dissolutions,” is a Buddhist death process in which the senses and elements shut down in 8 stages. There is a visualization meditation that guides you through the 8 stages. Dissolution 1 starts with the earth element dissolving, as well as your sight. Dissolution 2, is water and sound, etc. I practiced this visualization repeatedly to imagine the pieces. To create the visceral textures that I was seeing, I experimented with developing new kinds of textiles. I developed fabric made of sodium alginate seaweed, spent a year growing leather like materials from kombucha scobies, growing crystals on fabrics, embedded handmade drums in pieces, making bioplastics from seaweed, and melting bismuth to make colorful crystals, along with weaving, coiling, and felting. During the visualization, my hands always wanted to move a certain way, which is why each piece is associated with a mudra, or hand gesture. Each of these mudras is photographed and printed on fabric that was sewn into dresses which will hang behind each piece to act as a shadow. The show has a video component of people wearing the pieces, along with a teacher showing the mudras to each model. Each piece is also associated with a sound that will build up one by one and will play throughout the gallery to accompany the video.
Dissolution 1: Earth and Sight – The element of earth dissolves. The eye sense power deteriorates. The person ceases to see clearly, unable to open or close their eyes. As the earth element dissolves it evokes the experience of the dying person being buried beneath the earth. The visualization of this dissolution brought forth imagery of straps crossing and binding over my body as my arms hung lifeless at my sides sinking back.
In Tibetan Buddhism, meditating on the eight dissolutions, or eight stages of death, allows the practitioner to prepare their consciousness to move into the cycle of rebirth without fear. Erik Bergrin first experienced this visualization meditation at a monastery in Nepal, where he was struck by imagery of colors and textures. Through repeated practice, clear visualizations of each dissolution emerged with a corresponding symbolic hand gesture known as a mudra. Each of the pieces in this exhibition is a representation of Bergrin’s visualizations realized. “Meditating on your own death is a way to realize how precious your life is.” -Erik Bergrin
Dissolution 2: Water and Sound – The element of water dissolves. The ear sense power deteriorates. The person can no longer hear sounds. The body can no longer feel the three types of feeling: pleasure, pain, and neutral. The fluids from the body dry up: urine, saliva, blood, and sweat. The burning heat of red pain creeps up one arm and the uplifting icy blue creeps up the other, meeting at neutral at my neck. My body starts to shrivel and dry up, like a vacuum sucking away all the fluid leaving the fossilized bones remaining. What hangs in the center is the reminder of the sound of where water once was.
Kombucha Leather developed similarly to kombucha tea. Scobys (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), water, sugar, and tea are brewed in a large container and fed once a week. The scobys produce a layer on top of the liquid as a way to protect themselves, which after a month is removed. This thick flat sheet of slime dries into a translucent piece of leather after a week. The leather is colored using different types of tea and food coloring during the growing process. It took almost a year to grow enough leather for the pieces in the exhibition.
Seaweed Textile developed from sodium alginate, glycerin, and water mixture then laid over wool roving and sprayed with calcium chloride to harden.
Grown Crystal Textile Pipe cleaners with rubber mat backing are soaked in a bath of borax and water to crystallize. The mixture is then sprayed with translucent tint spray.
Armature Wire and Wax Armature wire is hammered down and wrapped with wax thread to create strands that sound like water when a hand is run over them.
Drums Rawhide is soaked and stretched over a wooden frame and laced together in the back.
Bismuth Silver charms are dipped into melted down bismuth to create colorful bismuth crystals.
The exhibition is curated by the Morris Museum’s Ronald T. Labaco, Director of Exhibitions and Collections/Chief Curator, and Michelle Graves, Curatorial Assistant.
Founded in 1913, the Morris Museum is an award-winning, multifaceted arts and cultural institution serving the public through its exhibitions and performances, which strive to interpret the past and discover the future through art, sound, and motion. The Museum is home to the historic and internationally-significant Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata. The Museum’s Bickford Theatre is a 312-seat performing-arts facility, offering unique programming in film, jazz, and live performance through its innovative series, Live Arts. As New Jersey’s only Smithsonian Affiliate, it launched Spark!Lab, a dynamic, Smithsonian-created learning space which will inspire young visitors to create, collaborate, and innovate.
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John Cameron Mitchell rose in the world of cult-entertainment after directing, writing, and starring in the award-winning film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). His Broadway production of Hedwig garnered him a 2014 Tony Award for Best Revival of Musical and a Special Tony Award for his return to the role in 2015. His seriously impressive depth of work includes the improv-based film Shortbus (2006), and 2010’s Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman which scored an Academy Award nomination for her role. He executive produced Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2004) and has played recurring roles in HBO’s Girls, Martin Scorsese’s HBO series Vinyl, The Good Fight and current season of Mozart in the Jungle. Mitchell has also been busy behind the camera directing and co-writing the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s punk-era How to Talk to Girls at Parties starring Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman.
“At last! My journey to Oz, long-deferred by silly obstacles like unemployment and air fare, is a reality! I shall strap on a Cubist corsette and chromium wig, regale you with haphazard stories from 55 years of fake rock stardom and wail your favorite Hedwig songs like some kind of wonder woman within. Please prepare for my eminent arrival”, Mitchell said.
Producer David M Hawkins said, “John Cameron Mitchell is one of the great artists of our generation – a multi-award winning writer, actor and director. I first saw him on Broadway as Dickon in ‘The Secret Garden’ in the early 90’s and next in his Tony winning rock star turn in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’. Since producing Hedwig in Australia in 2006 I have become good friends with John, our connection means the world to me. We have talked since 2008 about a concert tour to Australia and at last the stars have aligned. We intend to bring a decent hit of the Greenwich Village vibe to Oz. I am so very excited to share this incredible artist with my country. You are in the best hands for one hell of a ride meeting the original Hedwig, and the man behind her!”
We had the chance to interview the artist behind the transformational costumes, Erik Bergrin, and discuss Hedwig, lucid dreaming, and finding inspiration as a bored teen at Blockbuster.
Photo by Eva Mueller at the artist’s studio
What was your inspiration behind the costumes for the tour?
John came to me and said he was thinking about a costume that had this cubist, geometric, Trompe-l’œil, black and white thing happening that wasn’t Hedwig but Meta-Hedwig. As in, it has some reference to Hedwig in the costume and there should be panels that are removed during the show to become more boy in the end. He mentioned there was not going to be a built set, but that the costume should act somehow like a set–which was the sentence that made me convulse with excitement. I love doing huge wearable things, which I think is one of the reasons he came to me.
Initially I made tons of drawings of huge pieces on wheels that would drag behind him. All of these outfits packed with tricks such as a gigantic overcoat that would slowly come apart and piece by piece be thrown onto a giant magnet board behind him to reveal a story on the inside. Or this huge mirrored contraption that would come out backstage and be placed around John, and he would spin in a circle and the drawings on the costume would come to life in an animation reflected through the mirrors of the contraption. But I had to edit it down after every meeting and not let my imagination get carried away. I knew he was going to the Sydney Opera House, so I thought it would be fun to play with multiple overlapping triangle shapes. Basically my inspiration was working in these parameters, but still making it my own.
How did you get involved with the project?
I met John years ago as an extra on one of his films, “Shortbus.” We stayed in touch and I guess he thought of me after seeing the pictures from my latest art exhibition, Shadowwork. It is a series of 9 large figurative fiber sculptures, each about 7 feet tall. I have a background in costuming and I work as a costume tailor for Broadway shows, so I think it was the combination of my large costume work and the fact that I know how to create for the stage. I was working on the costumes at the same time as preparing for Shaddowwork. At a meeting with John, I met Mike Potter who did the wigs, hair, and makeup for Hedwig since the very beginning and we became very close. He was helping me with both shows and I was helping him with sewing the wigs. We worked closely, bouncing ideas off each other, so the wig and costume were from the same world. It made the whole process such a blast!
How did the idea of the gender binary and Hedwig’s transformation from female fantasy to undressed man come about?
I always felt that the film is more about finding yourself and less about gender or another person that can define you.
And speaking of Mike Potter who has been with the show since the beginning, the film and original show, I will quote him as a more qualified source…, “It’s like she gradually sheds her armor. Her costume and hair are almost a defense mechanism. But she comes to realize she doesn’t need any of the things that she think she needs. i.e. all her artifice, in order to be whole. She’s only whole when she’s stripped bare. It’s like being reborn.”
How does the idea of Hedwig’s iconic character come into the costume construction?
Hedwig was always famous for her brilliant handmade-style clothes and is now busting out on an international stage. Enjoying the spoils of her riches, she is debuting a next-level, more mature, steel-hued Meta-Hedwig look. Shining like the brightest star. The tour is called The Origin of Love, and when the show opens John comes out singing the titular song. The sleeves open up to reveal the faces from the origin of love animation, and when closed the front of the sleeves form Hedwig’s tattoo. Mike Potter’s wig and makeup are classic Hedwig, but aged to show her impending mortality, as he says in the show.
When you began your artistic career making costumes for the clubs in NYC while in school, did you ever think it would become a career in fine art/ performance?
I don’t think so? But I’m not sure because I never really had any goals. Which I know is unusual to say, but I never really did anything with a goal in the end. I started sewing when I started making costumes. Eventually, I put a book together of the things I made and got hired at a costume shop my friend was working in. Then I hopped to other shops and spent a long time working with really brilliant tailors. Every day I used to leave feeling terrible because I was working with super talented and experienced people and I wasn’t able to do anything properly. That kind of experience really humbles you when trying to learn. It taught me to put severe focus into everything, because I never wanted to have that feeling of a broken spirit when I left the shop. I soon realized that the fear of not wanting to feel like that caused a snowball effect that grew until it was impossible to do anything right. As soon as the tiny seed of fear was planted, I kept at it and at some point something shifted, and I can’t at all tell you when, but things seem to work like that with me.
Some of Erik’s early sketches of Hedwig’s transforming costume
Can you elaborate on how your background/education in psychology influenced your work on Hedwig?
I would say everything in my life up until I made this costume are causes and conditions for the way I designed it. All of the experiences in my past have subtle effects on how I design, so its difficult to distinguish how each particular experience directly influences me. I can, however, tell you that my psychology education brought me to my study of eastern philosophy and meditation, and lucid dreaming. One instance where lucid dreaming directly influenced the costume happened a couple of weeks into the project..
I was hitting a block when I was sketching. When I get stuck sometimes I’ll turn to my dream practice for advice. I do several exercises during the day that help me become aware of the fact I am dreaming when I am asleep. When you’re in a dream you’re in a subtle part of your subconscious, so there are all of these practices you can do to explore the darkness or shadows you have lurking in there. I was in the middle of a dream that had my best friend in it, who I have a deep and long history with, and I became lucid and turned to him to ask for help.
I turned to my friend and said, ”What should I do with my project?,” In a quick and desperate manner, because I wanted the answer before I woke up. Every time I leaned in close to ask him this question, his face morphed into wolf features. He wasn’t answering so I asked again, “WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY PROJECT?” The wolf morph happened again, and again he didn’t answer, so I asked a third time and this time we fell together off of a balcony to the ground floor. We were looking at each other and he said to me,”This is all I ever wanted. For you to be nice to me…” I completely froze and remained still for a minute, just staring, and it generated this incredibly raw feeling of tenderness. I immediately had my heart broken open. I woke up after a minute or so and even when recalling this now I get choked-up. It left me in a sensitive and vulnerable state. I woke up a minute later and the strong feeling was still there. I knew what I had to do was stop working from a mass of thoughts and references and just hold this feeling to guide my mind to make the decisions. I made some drawings from this place of vulnerability and it all came together that day. I trust any design that comes from that place. I had so many moments like that when I was making, “Shaddowwork.” These experiences have taught me my creativity is best accessed from a place of vulnerability and tenderness.
What was it like working with John Cameron Mitchell?
Magical. He’s the perfect mixture of professionalism and fun. He is super sharp, always coming up with new puns. Working with someone who can bring a costume to life so magically is so valuable. I had my idea of what the costume would look like on him, and then he would try it on and animate it in a whole new way. You just have to surrender to the magic because it’s so much greater than anything you could have come up with in your head. It forces you to detach yourself from your original ideas. Something like that can only come from someone who has the magic.
When did you first watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch (the movie or the Broadway adaptation) and what did you feel from that experience?
I think I was 18 on a really boring vacation in Florida with family, and I rented it from Blockbuster video. VHS. My sister fell asleep and I watched it alone, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it the next day. I don’t think I fully understood all of it, but was so mesmerized by the way it looked and sounded, that I watched it a couple of times in the 2 days. The songs stayed with me. I got the soundtrack and the more I listened to the soundtrack the more I wanted to watch the film, and the more I watched the film the more I wanted to listen to it.
What was it like working with the legendary rock ‘n’ roll photographer Mick Rock?
It feels like you’re working with a legend. Reading about his background and everyone he’s been on tour with and the iconic shots he has photographed, it’s all in him as soon as he walks in the room. He had amazing stories; I could listen to them all day.
What was the inspiration behind the photoshoot and video?
The goal was to really capture this next interpretation of Hedwig in an amazing way. This is a whole new direction for the character, which was truly born for The stage. Mick Rock, who already shot one of the penultimate Hedwig photos as well as so many other iconic rock photographs, was the perfect photographer to capture it.
As an artist and costume designer, what is your goal with each piece? What do you want the viewer to take away from your work’s message?
I definitely made Shadowwork as a way to get something out of me. I know there are ways to merge the dream state and the conscious state. I’ve read a lot of about it and have experienced glimpses where the lines were almost blurred. It’s like lucid dreaming. When you become lucid in the dream state you can call out to different shadows in your subconscious. Shadowwork was one of my ways of doing this in the waking state. Building this series of my own mental hell in order to get it out and confront it. So one of the larger goals is to merge the dream state and the waking state.
For this costume, I think I just wanted to live up to the legacy of Hedwig and make the fans excited and proud.
What can we expect next from you? Are you going to collaborate further with John Cameron Mitchell on any other projects? Or Mick Rock?
I am currently doing a book called WORDS AND PICTURES about my Shaddowwork series consisting of stories, drawings, and photos… and about John and Mick: I HOPE SO!!!!!!!!