Berlin, Jun. 2013: Elle Muliarchyk understands the aphorism that “nothing changes if nothing changes.” For all of us, the process of productively parsing the superficial and profound demarcations between age and maturity can be difficult, or even impossible, without a change of scene. Elle needed to turn her car into a cocoon and drive across America.
Elle’s first transformative pilgrimage took place after she was named a finalist for Miss Czech Republic at age fourteen. The Belarus-born daughter of a diplomat and a linguist was “discovered” by famed fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier. She moved to New York and posed for Terry Richardson and Oliviero Toscani.
In an inversion of the trajectory for most Eastern European butterflies in the unregulated modeling industry, Elle’s career really started when she turned twenty-one. That is when the New York Times profiled her for an article titled “Pretty Larceny,” about her series of guerilla self-portraits illicitly taken in the dressing rooms of high-end boutiques. Her form of girly graffiti was a rare moment in which a model puckishly played at the privileges, pitfalls and stereotypes associated with striking beauty. The project transitioned her from another beautiful girl in Manhattan waiting to see her face published into a potential successor to Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke, Janine Antoni and Francesca Woodman. She has since fulfilled her promise with eye-catching and thought-provoking projects about and within fashion. At twenty-eight, she has collaborated with Bella Freud, Dasha Zhukova, Nowness and the New York Times.
Last year, however, Elle made the bold decision to step away from her track and recalibrate her attitudes toward her career and personal evolution. In an elegant version of the classic American rite of passage, Elle took a road-trip...with her camera and designer Chadwick Bell's spring 2013 collection. "Escapes from Paradise," the resulting interactive website series of black-and-white, diary-style self-photographs (accompanied by a fictional journal written by Anne B. Kelly), are an extraordinary mixture of Francesca Woodman's precocious self-portraits and Georgia O'Keefe's emblematically mature paintings. Bell's lady-like, timeless clothes contribute cinematic excitement and wry sophistication to Elle's otherworldly images. But, as my "old" and very dear friend Elle describes, the real drama during the shootings occurred within her.
Ana Finel Honigman: How did the garments guide your creation of your characters?
Elle Muliarchyk: As I was observing Chadwick creating his "woman," I realized that this woman was really ME. I saw her as a 2013 version of Georgia O'Keeffe, escaping into the desert to find clarity and reinvent herself. The textures, fabrics, silhouettes of garments were illustrating the idea of that woman and time.
AFH: Why do you obscure your face in these self-portraits?
EM: I wanted to be unidentifiable and distance myself from the ME, the one whom I know so well. We always wear masks for the benefit of others and even more so for ourselves. The latter mask is the most intricate and toughest to penetrate. I wanted to take off both masks and be a blank slate while creating these images. I didn't want to see myself in them. This gave me a feeling of freedom I had never experienced before.
AFH: How did this "journey of self-discovery" manifest itself for you? What did you learn?
EM: I was in a creative/career crisis before taking this trip, exhausted and frustrated by the naysayers which I fought every day. I think the older we get the more our life becomes about "improving the formula" and less about a discovery. I fell in love with fashion in 2005-6 while secretly trying on dresses in the changing rooms. I discovered its magic on my own terms. The following year I dove into the deep end of the fashion industry never looking back. I was learning to work "better and faster", getting disillusioned with my industry in the meantime. But when I took Chadwick Bell's clothes out of context of the everyday fashion reality (for example getting snapped or snubbed by the street style photographers) and put these garments on in the middle of the Arizona desert, with not a soul in sight for miles, the magic of fashion returned! I am now back in the mode of wanting and daring to make things I had not seen before. It takes a lot of courage to get off of (what is "supposed" to be) a bullet-train to success, and do something everyone tells you is wrong.
AFH: Had you traveled deep into America before this road-trip?
EM: I had been to most of these places before, but as a focused "tourist" working hard at making the vacation count – sightseeing and "quality time" with family/lover etc. This time it was different because there was no pressure at arriving anywhere in particular. I was focused on seeing and capturing the beauty. I love going to the old places and seeing them with different eyes.
AFH: How did your experiences of America, beyond Manhattan, differ from what you expected when you learned of America as a child?
EM: Remarkably, America turned out just the way I learned about her from the books. Arizona is like Grapes of Wrath, NYC Upper East Side is like in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Beautiful and The Damned. The mood and spirit of the country in the other states is just like in Kerouac's On the Road. And Upper West Side is just like Seinfeld and the rest of NYC like Sex in The City.
AFH: How do Chadwick Bell's garments relate to your usual style of dress?
EM: I like "understated statements". Timeless tailoring and silhouettes. I like a touch of bizarre – but not the kind of bizarre some smart stylists create when they smartly clash looks that reference opposing trends. My touch of bizarre comes from being a naive neophyte in fashion.
AFH: How much do you use fashion to express yourself and your identity?
EM: I have two sets of clothes and personalities. The first one (the true me) is simple monastic fabrics but with romantic silhouettes (like Old Hollywood). The second look is for going out with my boyfriend. I try to dress like an "escort". It is fun sometimes. It's like I take a vacation from my fashion sense.
AFH: Please tell me about the relationship between your nudity, the landscape and the clothes in these images.
EM: Even though this project was inspired by fashion, it's also about what the clothing "brought out" of me. As I traveled I kept a diary which turned out very physical and intimate. Every few days I'd send my new entry to Anne, the writer of the story that accompanies the series. She would then write her own version of it, interlacing it with her own story. She would then send it back to me and her words would inspire my next images. It was a very organic and intimate collaboration. As the story evolved, at some point it became painfully physical, and the clothing became superfluous. For some artists nudity in the nature environment is associated with the feeling of freedom and pleasure. My nude images however are about vulnerability. They are discomforting and awkward. I was definitely not feeling "one with the nature" in those images. My relationship with nature is based in dark mysticism. For example, whenever I look at a tree I see a "character" from Dante's Inferno. There is a circle of sinners there, with trees that shed tears because they host the souls of people who committed suicide... So this whole journey, and especially being nude in nature, was pushing my personal boundaries.
AFH: Why did you decide to shoot black and white for this series?
EM: Firstly, I see nature in black and white; all I see is textures like Gustave Dore's drawings. Secondly, this was a conscious escape from my fashion work. Fashion photography needs to be in Instagram/Kodachrome hyper-color to have a commercial appeal. And thirdly, the designer and I were inspired by Goya's drawings and the photographs from 1920's (Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Weston).
AFH: How did locals respond to you in Chadwick Bell's opulent clothes when you were on the road?
EM: I got some looks in Navajo reservations, but in general no crazy stories.
Escapes From Paradise is:
Elle Muliarchyk: http://ellesblog.com
art director, Jacob Wildschiødtz: http://nr2154.com
story, Anne B Kelly: http://www.annebkelly.com
Music, Superflux: http://www.lesuperflux.com
Website design: http://Plume.net
—Ana Finel Honigman
ArtSlant would like to thank Elle Muliarchyk for her assistance in making this interview possible.
(All images: Courtesy Elle Muliarchyk)