Adventures in the Skin Trade

Are clothes made out of synthetic human skin and embellished with artificial nipples revolutionary art ?

The Herzliya Museum of Art has opened a boutique. Through the display window, one sees a spectacular collection of well-tailored clothing complemented by a series of accessories: high-heeled shoes and boots with straps around the ankles, bowling and traveling bags, evening purses, belts and a coat with a shiny fur collar. "Go ahead and touch," says Tami Katz-Freiman, the curator of the exhibition entitled "Boutique." "Feel that really pleasant skin," she urges.

A few months ago, when the exhibition was on display at a gallery in Manhattan's SoHo quarter, a group of camera-carrying Japanese tourists went in to see it. "They simply wanted to buy the whole collection in order to wear the items," explains the Argentine artist Nicola Constantino, who made the clothes. "The prices of my creations are very much the same as the prices of the clothes of other designers."

Constantino explained to the visitors that the clothes are not actually meant to be worn. They are made out of synthetic human skin. The decorative protrusions that stud the garments are artificial male nipples. The indentations are artificial navels of infants, the circles that decorate the bags and look from a distance like asymmetric flowers are simply rectums, and the furs are so soft and smooth because they are in fact real human hair.

"The Japanese tried to argue with me, but I explained to them that they were in an art gallery, not a clothing store. Afterward, I thought that those were exactly the feelings I wanted to generate: awareness of the blurred boundaries between art and fashion, between art as a consumer product and art as a tool for expressing ideas, and also the dual feeling of the attraction to and repulsion from fashion."

Constantino, who is 36, finds it difficult to understand why her clothes, which are so lovely to look at, give me the creeps. No, she never heard of Ilse Koch or of other Nazis who used materials taken from the human body to produce consumer items.

"That is something I never heard of," she says, "but I have heard that there are a great many terrorist attacks in Israel now and that a great many Palestinians are also being killed, and I thought it would be interesting to come here and show these works, which refer directly to violence, in a place where there is such great violence."

Argentina, she says, is a skin industry "kingdom" - a center of the meat industry and a major exporter of meat. "My other works, such as embalmed fetuses and animals, allude to and are influenced by these things, which reflect the tremendous violence in which we live and the fact this is a world where everyone slaughters everyone else.

"Of course," she continues, "in the specific collection exhibited in `Boutique,' I also allude to certain erotic messages, the blurring between the sexes and also sexual perversion, which is why I preferred male rectums and nipples. The sight of a woman in a corset with two protruding nipples arouses men very much, and when it turns out that they are male nipples, it causes all kinds of very acute feelings having to do with sex changes, and conflicting, and perhaps slightly deviant, types of attraction."

Constantino herself does not hesitate to wear her works, she says. "Sometimes, when I feel like being really sexy, I put on the small boots with the high heels, which are absolutely fetishistic, and also the corset - and there is no woman who doesn't look very erotic and sexy in it - and I attend all kinds of events and get very interesting reactions."

The border between art and fashion in Constantino's work is not universally obvious. Her work has been exhibited in fashion shows, photographed for Esquire magazine, and installed in display windows of genuine boutiques in England.

"These works, of course, allude to our strong bondage to fashion, which makes us kill animals without giving the matter a second thought," the designer explains. "That idea is magnified and enhanced when the clothes seem to be made out of human skin: In effect, you kill a person in order to wear something in which you will be totally not dressed. In other words, there is a game here involving the role of clothing as something that is ostensibly meant to cover things, but ends up exposing everything."

Constantino relates that she herself was brought up to be part of the fashion world, but rebelled. In this sense, she says, she is a victim of fashion. Her mother owns a successful textile factory and her father is a surgeon. She began to design clothes for the factory from a very early age. Her brother studied production engineering and she was supposed to study fashion design: It was obvious to the family that the factory was her future. However, she wanted to be an artist. Her bourgeois parents, she says, did not understand why she would want to throw away such a sure-fire economic future for the sake of a dubious profession.

"Now that I am succeeding, they are very proud of me and the only thing that worries them is that I am not getting married and that I don't have a partner and that they have no grandchildren from me."

In 1990, Constantino moved with her family to Chile, where she attended an art school, and two years later, when she received a scholarship to study sculpting in Buenos Aires, she returned to Argentina by herself.

"I started to take an interest in all the different aspects of the meat industry - its capitalist side, its commercial side, and in the aspects having to do with the relations between man and animal and between man and man. I then decided to specialize in stuffing animals at the nature museum. I noticed that people can eat meat only when they do not remember where it comes from. I know all kinds of bleeding hearts who say, `If you saw the chicken wandering around the garden, you wouldn't be able to eat it.'

"So, in one of my installations, I took a whole piglet and baked it in the oven with the head and everything, and then I placed it on a tray and people were invited to eat. There was no cutlery, so they had to tear off a piece of leg or ear and eat it. People attacked the pig and finished it off, and the installation consisted of what was left of the animal afterward."

After sending a portfolio of her work to a scholarship fund in the United States, Constantino received an invitation to study at the University of Houston in Texas. There she polished her technique of design and replication with silicon to achieve the guise of human skin, and began to design items of apparel. She developed the technique for making artificial human skin when she was a college student; it's a combination of silicon, polyester resin and flexible polyurethane. At the time, she designed a coat with the navel patterns and human-hair fur.

"The reactions were very strong, just what I had hoped for - of attraction and disgust and fear. People from the art world started to take a great interest," she says.

In 1998 Constantino represented Argentina in the Sao Paulo biennale. It was there that she exhibited her clothes for the first time, drawing a tremendous response that led to invitations to show her work all over the world, including at the Liverpool Biennale. In Liverpool, she exhibited the clothes in the show window of a Levi's store where, for the first time, people came in and asked to try on the items. Others were shocked. Some time afterward, through the mediation of Amalia Dayan, an Israeli woman who is the director of the Deitch Projects gallery in New York, she had an exhibition there.

"Apart from the display window and the clothes exhibition, we also built a fitting room and people took the items there and tried them on. Quite a few people tried them on, so there was an extra dimension to the artistic experience. And, of course, I wore the clothes in the gallery. You could say that that was the most important breakthrough in my career, and that's how I got to Herzliya."

Constantino is not afraid of visiting Israel at this time: "I was very happy to leave Argentina. Our situation there is a lot worse, at least at the personal level. People rob you in the street to get money for food, they take the few pesos that parents give children for lunch at school, you can be killed for your watch. Here in Israel there may be a danger of bombs and suicide terrorists, but I have been walking around Tel Aviv for a few days now and I see people going to the beach and sitting in cafes and enjoying life - they may all be afraid of terrorists, but at least they don't have to be afraid of one another."