David Siepert is a German artist living in Switzerland, whose works deal with human behavior within environments marked by processes of change and tension. The concept for his latest work originates from the artist’s time spent in the Middle East, performing research in places such as Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, and Dubai. It was here that he first encountered the censorship of advertisements in women’s fashion magazines. These are not cases of straightforward censorship, where the magazines themselves are prevented from being published because of their content. The magazines appear for public purchase via translational processes between cultural conventions of dress — painstakingly applied to individual images. With magazines that are produced in these Middle Eastern countries, or specifically for them, these adjustments are created pre-press. However, in the case of imported Western magazines, which are available uncensored, it is usually the shop owner who takes responsibility for the images. Often whole pages will be removed from magazines, because too much of woman’s skin is shown. But some shopkeepers take it upon themselves to cover these exposed areas by hand, using felt-tip pens or markers. These cases of self-censorship, as the images themselves are not prohibited, can be seen as acts of translating cultural conventions. By covering areas that are shown unclothed, fashion is adjusted and transformed into the image of something that does not exist in reality. Chosen from a collection put together over several years, several of these aesthetically and culturally sensitive alterations formed the starting point for the ‟Censored Dresses” project. Working with the concept of fashion producing fashion, Siepert took the hand-censored fashion advertisements to professional dressmakers in Cairo’s Islamic quarter and asked them to recreate the clothing as depicted. Adding another dimension to the translational process, these instructions left the practical parameters of the design open to the women’s interpretation. The finished dresses are a product of a complex relationship between different cultural conventions, which are simultaneously mediated through individual interpretations. The final phase of the project consisted of a performance in the form of a fashion show with the dresses at Zurich’s historic Cabaret Voltaire in May of 2012, followed by exhibitions both in Zurich and Beirut. Photographs of models wearing the dresses, referencing the conventions of fashion photography, were part of the exhibits. Translating the work back into the arena of publishing, an editorial fashion shoot with the dresses was done, thus treading on the mixed territory between fashion, advertising, copyrights, and art.
Tell us about the concept behind your project “Censored Dresses”. Where did the idea come from?
In some Middle Eastern countries imported western magazines go through a process of censorship. A couple of years ago I was working on a project in Dubai when I stumbled across some censored magazines. First I thought about doing a project using censored material. Over the course of three years I collected these altered magazines, refining my huge collection to a few especially interesting advertisements that now form the basis of my project “Censored Dresses.” The one thing the adverts I selected have in common is that they were all censored by hand with felt-tip markers. Covering areas that are shown unclothed, fashion is transformed into the image of something that does not exist in reality but now exists within specific cultural conventions. Working with the concept of fashion producing fashion, I took the hand-censored advertisements to professional dressmakers in Cairo’s Islamic quarter and asked them to recreate the clothing as depicted. As not all parts of the dresses are visible in the adverts I left the practical parameters of the design open to the women’s interpretation. The outcome of this is the materialization of a reality that exists only in the translation between public and private, between East and West. The result of the fashion shoot by I Love You is an interpretation within the process of the piece and adds another vital layer to the artwork.
In which countries does this censorship appear?
How do you feel about the censorship?
In what aspect are you most interested as an artist?
Can you tell us more about dress regulations?
Dress regulations vary in the Middle East and often are applied differently to locals, foreigners, and tourists. Something that might be acceptable for a tourist to wear could be socially unacceptable for a local. In some of the stricter Islamic countries, like Iran, it is compulsory for women to wear a headscarf and to cover their bodies; likewise, arms should not be bare. There is a whole fashion industry developing because of these dress regulations. There are lots of women designing their own contemporary fashion within the respective restrictions of dress codes. Besides that, it is important to be aware that just because somebody is wearing an abaya (black cloak) does not mean that the woman is not wearing high fashion underneath.
Can you tell us a particular story of your experiences?
When I was showing the hand-censored advertisement to one of the dressmakers in Cairo and explaining what I wanted her to do, she just smiled and took out her mobile phone. She had taken pictures of billboards around the city advertising a new TV series. The billboards were showing the very same picture, but it was photoshopped differently for each neighborhood. In the expat area the lady in the poster was wearing a strapless dress, in the next neighborhood the lady was wearing a spaghetti strap dress, and in the most conservative part of Cairo the dress had supplementary sleeves. In my eyes this shows
that censorship is also about respect for the beliefs of others. All the dresses were tailored in the Islamic part of Cairo but the reactions of the dressmakers were very diverse. Some found the project very interesting, others were indifferent, and some found it
a bit offensive.
Did you achieve your goals within this project?
Sometimes projects develop a life of their own. I see “Censored Dresses” as an ongoing process, and I am sure that some layers of translation will be added in the near future. A special quality of the project might be that it enables a discussion without necessarily having to talk about politics and religion. I feel privileged that besides showcasing
the piece in Zurich, I also have the opportunity to show the dresses in the Middle East. The project is building a bridge between East and West and will hopefully trigger many more interesting conversations and discussions.
Can you tell us something about your upcoming projects?
Well, first of all there will be some more events related to “Censored Dresses,” such as a fashion show at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and then, just to give you a hint, I will be smoking like a German, hanging out in a bathtub made of Swiss Ricola cough drops, and making people bump into each other while the sound of contemporary art is playing in
Find out more about David Siepert on his website and our interpretation trough a photo series in THE EGO ISSUE, available online and in selected stores worldwide.