Fashion needs advertising to promote and sell, and to do so it uses the human body as the ultimate tool that can showcase consumerism through a certain, appealing image —an image in turn defined by standards imposed by the fashion industry itself, and which are in fact only possible through make-up and retouching. Based on the notion of this vicious circle, the Berlin-based artist Vermibus attempts to focus on these false beauty standards through his project Unveiling Beauty. Through September 2015, he travelled to New York, London, Milan and Paris, following each city’s fashion week where, via a series of public interventions, he used the rules of advertising to analyse, decode and reveal what he considers the true beauty hidden behind the ad campaigns imposing their messages in public spaces. “It was a symbolic opposition,” he says. “The idea of installing my work in those cities during Fashion Week was to place my critique right when there is more attention to the topic.”
It is not uncommon for street art to appropriate the language and tools of advertising and turn them against it, or in other words, to mirror all that carefully constructed marketing back to those who profit from it. However, ad-busting, as it is called, usually intervenes through “pollution”, namely by using graffiti to hide or cancel out the initial message of the ads. Vermibus, on the other hand, takes the advertising posters back to his studio and works on them in order to bring out the inner beauty he sees behind the image that sells the product. He sometimes eliminates words, logos, and even entire faces by dissolving the ink on the posters with a solvent. The gesture of erasing the images with solvent is similar to the act of painting, but turned on its head as he basically liquefies the ink on the poster and repaints the original image with it. Thus, the actual material is in a way turned against itself. “I cannot really explain how I work, if the subject guides my strokes or not. I try to go with the flow, without thinking too much about the final result”, he says.
Video by Xar Lee. cargocollective.com/xar_lee
Directed and produced by Vermibus.
Image assistance by Peter Grünheim.
Philip Glass - Protest from Satyagraha performed by Polina Osetinskaya and Anton Batagov.
Philip Glass - Protest (Jóhann Jóhannsson Remix).
After the painting in the studio is done, Vermibus carries the posters to a different city and puts them up in spaces or frames reserved for actual advertising posters, for everyone to see. He does this however illegally, which is why his face must be covered and his identity remain unknown. “We live in a society where the messages we receive are unidirectional, so the action of installing a piece criticising or transforming the original message creates a debate. In my case, the principal debate is focused on beauty, on what it is, how we perceive it and how the advertising and fashion industry affect our personal view of it. That’s the main reason behind my interventions: to generate a debate that offers the viewer an opportunity to reflect.”
In Vermibus’ interventions, the bodies are no longer objectified for the purpose of sales but become the message itself: they are dehumanised in the same way they were already depersonalised, unveiling the aura of the individual, or the personality that was lost in the ad. Sometimes disturbing, usually unearthly, with twisted and altered features, Vermibus’ models have mutated into something new. They now have a unique, ghastly aesthetic that recalls horror films, mummies and the perspective of the likes of Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud. Even though he started doing graffiti at the age of 10, the artist’s stimulation did not come from painting but rather from a childhood obsession with advertising itself: “When I was a kid I was really focused on ads, I bought magazines just to rip out the advertisements and save them by categories. Now I do more or less the same but with public space advertising. The main difference is that when I was a kid I wanted to be an advertiser, I was only saving them to analyse them and learn. Now, apart from analysing I also work on them”.
Vermibus doesn’t consider his work to be vandalism but rather civil disobedience. He perceives himself as an “artivist”, i.e. both artist and public space activist. An ad-buster who, ironically, has gained the attention of advertisers, photographers, models and even big names in the fashion world: “A lot of times the people from the advertising and fashion industry feel reflected by the conceptual part of my work and attracted by the pictorial aspect of it. I have lots of collectors from these worlds which can seem contradictory but maybe it’s because they understand, better than anyone, what I’m actually criticising”.