For the love of Iris – GOMA’s latest blockbuster

Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen’s creations are works of art and Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art has just opened an Australian exclusive survey exhibition of her work.

Jul 02, 2024, updated Jul 02, 2024
Iris van Herpen's Seijaku dress, made with glass spheres, silicone, Pet G (thermoplastic polyester), from the Seijaku collection 2016. Collection: Iris van Herpen / Photograph © Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

Iris van Herpen's Seijaku dress, made with glass spheres, silicone, Pet G (thermoplastic polyester), from the Seijaku collection 2016. Collection: Iris van Herpen / Photograph © Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

Fashionistas will love it but the latest exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art may have some people scratching their heads. The GOMA blockbuster Iris Van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses opened on the weekend (it runs until October 7) and some visitors to GOMA may be asking themselves the question I did when I first heard about the show.

“Who is Iris van Herpen?” I don’t mean to be rude. I think that’s a fair question and just to make sure I’m not completely ignorant I checked with a couple of other people in the arts who also weren’t aware of her.

Maybe I should make more of an effort to keep up with international fashion and popular culture. Anyhow, after touring the exhibition I’m up to speed now and … I get it!

Those of you who know what’s going on in international fashion and the world of celebrities will no doubt be aware that van Herpen, a Dutch fashion designer, has made garments for the likes of Lady Gaga, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Bjork, Rihanna and more recently, Beyonce, for whom van Herpen created the custom Heliosphere dress for the singer’s Renaissance world tour.

Developed by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris the exhibition is a sensory exploration of the Dutch designer’s multidisciplinary practice that merges fashion, contemporary art, design, technology and science. It comes to us from Paris and then will tour internationally and GOMA is the only place in Australia you will be able to see this show.

QAGOMA director Chris Saines points out that van Herpen is much more than just a fashion designer.

“This extensive survey highlights van Herpen’s unique approach to transgressing conventional clothing norms while embracing both traditional couture craftsmanship and innovative techniques,” Saines says.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Cloé Pitiot and Louise Curtis from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in collaboration with Nina Miall and Dr Jacinta Giles from QAGOMA. Iris van Herpen : Sculpting the Senses features van Herpen’s Haute Couture garments in dialogue with objects from natural history and works by artists including Philip Beesley and the Living Architecture Systems Group, Megan Cope, Cai Guo-Qiang, Yayoi Kusama, Kohei Nawa (his amazing PixCell-Double Deer from 2010 is a favourite from the QAGOMA collection), Anne Noble, Japanese art collective Mé, Damien Jalet, Casey Curran, Rogan Brown, Ren Ri, and Courtney Mattison.

QAGOMA Curator of International Art Nina Miall points out that the exhibition is presented across nine chapters: Water and Dreams, Sensory Sea Life, Forces Behind the Forms, Skeletal Embodiment, Growth Systems, Synaesthesia, Mythology of Fear, New Nature and Cosmic Bloom.

“It includes an evocation of van Herpen’s Amsterdam studio, a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, and a space dedicated to the designer’s fashion shows,” Miall says.

“It is also accompanied by an immersive soundscape by van Herpen’s partner and collaborator, the Dutch sound artist Salvador Breed, which weaves the various works together and enriches the sensory experience of the exhibition.”

Her connection to Alexander McQueen, the late great British designer  was mentioned at the media preview and anyone who saw the exhibition featuring his creations at the National Gallery of Victoria last year will understand the artistic connection between the two. I happened to see that show, which was amazing and this GOMA exhibition is very much in that vein. The QAGOMA design team has created an immersive, if at times a little too dark (for me), installation of the exhibition across both galleries on GOMA’s ground floor. It’s a world class presentation and GOMA has an international reputation for doing these things very well indeed.

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And as I wandered, I began to understand that van Herpen’s work is so much more than just fashion. Take for example her Water dress which is the equivalent of wearing a splash. The design process for this piece involved filming water (in slow motion) as it was thrown at a live model, then translating the suspended splashes into material form. Crazy, inventive stuff. That piece is presented in the section entitled Water and Dreams which features other garments also influenced by van Herpen’s interest in water.

Born in 1984 (she’s just 40 which surprised me), Iris van Herpen grew up in the village of Wamel, The Netherlands, in harmony with nature and the living world. Nature, along with classical dance which she practiced intensively from an early age, are among the creative wellsprings from which she draws inspiration in her work.

After a formative period working with Alexander McQueen and Claudy Jongstra, van Herpen founded the Maison Iris van Herpen in Amsterdam in 2007. She has built an international reputation for combining the subtleties of craftsmanship with the pioneering spirit of innovation and technology, opening up her practice to a host of other disciplines in sensorial designs that capture the intricacy and diversity of the natural world.

In 2010, van Herpen joined the Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture in Paris and that same year she presented her first 3D-printed garment, the Crystallization top. Only one year later, van Herpen created the Escapism dress, which was named by Time magazine as one of the fifty most exciting inventions of the year.

You may already know a bit about her. I have a lot to learn but I’m willing to give it a go because what she does is extraordinary. The woman herself has been a bit tied up with Paris Fashion Week so couldn’t be here for the first weekend of the exhibition but she is coming this week and from 10.30am to 11.30am Saturday 6 July 6 you can hear her in  conversation with exhibition curator Cloé Pitiot in Cinema A, GOMA. That’s a free event and no bookings required but seating is limited and available on a first-in, first-seated basis. This will be the perfect opportunity for hear van Herpen explain herself and will be the best introduction to the exhibition you could possibly get.

There are other events on the weekend and the exhibition will open late Fridays (with a bar and DJs) from 5.30 to 8.30pm between July 12 and October 4.

Iris van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses, until October 7, Gallery of Modern Art, $30/$26

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