Clothes—a social norm yet a form of rebellion, ancient protector and futuristic foreteller—there’s hardly a thing which has undergone as many re-conceptualizaitons through time while maintaining its essential role to human life. Presently, garments are on everyone’s mind; be it environmetal concerns as a response to fast fashion or dressing up as identity politics in action, clothes demand our attention regardless whether we’re talking materials or symbolism.
An artist who’s taken these matters to heart is Marilyn Sonneveld—an Amserdam-based visual artist whose mission is to engage people in a conversation about the pressing issues around us that we often sweep under the rug. Fascinated by the power of art to (quite literally) breathe new life to clothes deemed trash-worthy, Marilyn utilizes her visual practice through her Second Life risoprint series. The project, while having the reuse of clothes’ materiality at its core, shifts our focus to novel ways of offering used garments a second chance: through art and discussion. Eager to converse on all things fashion, future and sustainability, we sat down with Marilyn for a chat about Second Life and aesthetics as activism.
How did your interest in the visual world come about?
My father was an artist and I went to a high school that focused on students’ creative side. In a way, I always knew I’d end up going to art school, regardless of the specific direction I’d follow.
And illustration came about later on?
Yes, I spent my first two years of art school doing tons of different things simply trying to figure out what it was that I liked. In my third year, I moved to Denmark and studied there for half a year. That’s where I had an ‘A-ha moment’ about being able to utilize my identity as an artist to tell my stories through illustration.
You’ve mentioned that you wish your work could bring attention to things that many people ignore. Can you elaborate?
It started when I was in art school. In my first year, I watched a documentary by Sunny Bergman on issues around plastic surgery and labia corrections. In the third year, I saw a Dutch TV programme on labia corrections once again, yet this time it wasn’t an art house documentary but a commercial show on a popular channel. What these experiences made me notice was the normalization of a procedure such as labia correction. I couldn’t figure out why we’d rather normalize the instant prevention of a deeper concern than talk about it. That’s how my interest in telling stories of larger impact than my own self started. I wanted to create art that presented a different approach to common issues.
Second Life deals with environmental issues, what interests you about them?
Quite similarly—just topics in my life that, I notice, need a different point of view. We normalize fast fashion yet it’s an abnormal phenomenon for both Earth and the garment makers themselves. Although I almost always buy second hand clothes, I do find myself going to the big stores we’re all drawn to. But I‘ve noticed that if people want to voice their opinion about something they don’t agree with, such as buying unethically made clothes, they can get really aggressive about it. I wish to offer a different approach to awareness, a more conversation-enthusing way of showing the problem through images and then motivating a discussion that’s unlike the typical one-way scream: “Buying fast fashion is bad so just stop.”
How did Second Life come to life?
I collected clothes from people at Almost Not Done—a second hand store in Amsterdam. Then, I took photos of the clothes, put them in a copy machine and made drawings of those copies. Through this process, I quite literally gave the clothes a second life via illustration. I wanted to show people they can reuse clothes in a vast variety of ways, and not simply through buying from second hand stores. It can be through art, or you can re-make your own clothes too. Most importantly, you must comprehend the value of a piece of cloth.
Would you say Second Life is a socio-political project?
It definitely has a political side to it, but it’s the aesthetics that transmit the political message to people. Especially in Amsterdam, where we’re so used to aesthetics, it’s extremely effective to spread a socio-political message through illustration.
What are your thoughts on art as aesthetics and art as politics? How does this project deal with that tension?
As for my projects being either aesthetics or politics, I never just make the prints and put them on my website or Instagram. I do exhibitions, I invite tons of people, I collaborate with shops too. It becomes a much wider project than simply the art itself. It opens up conversations beyond just a contrast between aesthetics and politics. As for the tension between art as aesthetics and art as politics, I do think that if one sees a beautiful thing on the street, they immediately ask themselves about its essence. Hence, aesthetics bring attention to issues beyond art or beauty, with conversation as a potential follow-up of that. We’re also taught that the news or media are the source of political discourse, yet illustration can be that too. And also, the people I want to reach, they won’t start a conversation about politics just out of the blue; they need something appealing such as visual art to move them to discuss politics.