As a visual artist, Yolanda Domínguez’ creative practice routinely subverts the numbing effects of fashion’s charms as a means to agitate social change. With a penchant for performance work, Yolanda often uses public space to create scenarios that enable viewers (and consumers) to question the fashion world’s complicity with oppressive gender norms, exploitation, and conspicuous consumption. Address contributor Emily McGuire caught up with Yolanda to discuss her thoughts on the inner-workings of the fashion system and why we need to take action against its power over our identities and our wardrobes.
Emily McGuire: As a visual artist, a lot of your work seems to explore issues that relate to the fashion world and how it operates in relation to gender, consumerism, and sustainability. How and when did your interest in fashion media come about?
Yolanda Domínguez: Fashion is an industry that has huge influence on our society; we build our identity and determine our place in the social hierarchy through fashion. Women are raised on the importance of our appearance as a way to succeed in life. In this process fashion plays a major role and I am interested in analysing what are the feminine models proposed from this sector and how they influence the development of women. Generally speaking, I think that fashion is an industry that does not care about people but about numbers, and this is reflected in their female stereotypes that do not benefit at all to women and in their production policies that are unethical to workers and the environment.
Emily McGuire: Your work intimately engages the body – often the female body – in performative actions. You’re also a female visual artist from Madrid. Can you tell me about how this subjectivity influences your creative practice?
Yolanda Domínguez: I think my work talks as much about myself and my concerns as a woman as it does about the concerns of many other women and even many men. With my projects I try to claim back the collective and playful dimension of art, inviting people to take an active part in the process and transforming themselves. Thanks to tools like the Internet people are more connected than ever and it is wonderful to use that energy to create something.
Emily McGuire: Your work often holds up a critical lens to issues with fashion media, subverting its tropes and mechanisms to call attention to its manipulative, unsustainable, oppressive structures. Unlike the art world, fashion still lacks an intellectual framework that encourages us to engage with it in a critical and thoughtful way. What are your thoughts on this lack of criticality in and toward fashion media?
Yolanda Domínguez: The fashion industry must change urgently. Customers have more information and we must think that the quality of a product is not limited only to the object but extends beyond, towards all that is involved the manufacturing of the object and how it comes to you. Through our purchasing decision, we have the power to demand brands to change their business philosophies, to tell them that people matter more than numbers and that they cannot generate benefit at the expense of causing any more harm. It is insulting that they treat us like animals that are not capable of thinking, just consuming. We all know how the fashion industry works, if we do nothing we are the brands accomplices.
Emily McGuire: You seem to prefer to make work that is situated in everyday life rather than in the confines of ‘the white cube’. What are some of the challenges you’ve found with showing in galleries compared to on the street?
Yolanda Domínguez: For me, life and art are intimately linked. I find the experience in the ‘white cube’ too cold and artificial, a space in which only one person speaks and the rest just listen. It is also a place where the commercial relationship prevails. I prefer to work in urban spaces because I can reach more people, make art accessible and offer people the chance to be part of it. Not to generate a closed but an open dialogue where everyone can have a voice. One of the most exciting things that have happened to me in some of my works is that people have replicated them in other countries and have even made their own versions. It’s wonderful because it means that those projects are alive beyond me.
Emily McGuire: One of your most recent works, Kids vs. Fashion (2015) is so simple yet its impact is very confronting and creates a strong sense of anxiety; it feels both amusing and unsettling at the same time. How did your interest – and perhaps frustration – with fashion photography develop to come up with this work?
Yolanda Domínguez: I have been working many years on the representation of women in the media because I think it is one of the issues that fosters inequality. Some years ago I worked on a project taking on the poses of female models in fashion editorials and in Kids vs. Fashion I wanted to analyse not only the pose but also the context and the underlying message beneath the image. Photographs are never just about aesthetics; there is also contain the ethical responsibility of the brand. It seems that in recent years fashion editorials have become increasingly more violent and humiliating towards women. They tend to normalise violence and associate negative values to femininity. I wanted to contrast these images to the clean gaze of children to remind us adults how to read these images and realize their true message.
Emily McGuire: Something else I found very interesting about this work is that it was covered by a lot of fashion media like Elle, Cosmopolitan, and GQ! What do you make of this irony? Why do you think that fashion media creates this kind of imagery?
Yolanda Domínguez: I find it very interesting that this piece has been published in a lot of fashion magazines. I asked some of the magazines why they published my work, and they have responded that they are indeed very aware of what they do wrong but they cannot tell about it because they are funded by advertising and brands. But if it is an artist who does it, then they can publish it. For them it is also a way to say what they think indirectly, without compromise. No one dares to denounce what actually everyone knows already because they are afraid of losing money. I think the commitment of the media should not be with brands but with customers and people.
Emily McGuire: Your projects seem to frequently use devices of irony and humor to communicate your ideas. Why is this important to your practice?
Yolanda Domínguez: I like humor because it brings people together; it is a social link that manifests positivity and complicity. Many people are opened to my projects because I don’t confront them but invite them with something positive. Laughter is liberating and you can be very scathing through the use of humor.
Emily McGuire: You worked directly with garments and textiles in Slaves (2012). The dressed body seems to be a reoccurring element in many of your works. What importance does clothing have to your work and your aim to agitate social change?
Yolanda Domínguez: Clothing is a way of expression and communication. Through clothing we can say if we are obedient, we follow the patterns or if instead we rebel against them. In Slaves I wanted to make an analogy between the subjugation to the male view on the eastern and the western worlds, the same conflict is expressed in two ways: one is forced to hide the female body and another to exhibit it.
Emily McGuire: In Fashion Victims (2013) you called attention to the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,137 workers. Your work confronts the idea that the real ‘fashion victims’ in the fashion industry are the exploited workers. What I found most interesting about this work is the audience’s reaction to and participating in the performance. A lot of people seem to walk past unsure of what they’ve seen; others take photos without showing concern for the dead-looking women under the rubble. Most people don’t really seem to care. What are your thoughts about how people reacted to this work?
Yolanda Domínguez: This action was very close to the events of Bangladesh and I think most people associated the scene of a protest against these events. The girls were buried just in front of stores. The viewers apathy is a reflection of our passivity towards this reality: we are aware of it but we continue to buy 5€ t-shirts everyday, as if there were no consequences.
Emily McGuire: What’s next for you in terms of creative work, study or research?
Yolanda Domínguez: I’m editing a book about my work and I’m starting a new photographic project that also involves fashion and stereotypes. My mind does not rest and I very lucky to receive daily messages from anonymous people with proposals and issues that people want to denounce. There is still much work to do.
Emily McGuire is a sessional academic in undergraduate fashion theory subjects at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. She recently completed practice-led postgraduate work that explored the complex relationship between Tumblr blogging, fashion, and female identity.