Interview - Simon Costin

by Christabel Stewart .

Christabel Stewart: Where do you think your interest in image-making came from?

Simon Costin: As a child I used it as a more immediate way of communicating things that I was unable to describe. Dreams fed into projects, which I then tried to realise. I made and drew things from a very early age and have consequently never stopped.

Christabel Stewart: You are part of a new generation of 'multi-taskers' whose roles span art direction and set design. How did you get involved in this aspect of fashion image-making?

Simon Costin: I trained in Theatre Design at Wimbledon School of Art having done a 2-year Foundation course. At the time, the Wimbledon course was very broadly structured as they realised that other disciplines were equally important. I made over 50 Super-8 films while there, encouraged at the time by our part-time tutor, Derek Jarman. To be honest the multi-taskers have been around for a very long time. Derek trained in painting, went on to design sets for film and theatre and then made films himself, as well as being in contact with many people in the fashion industry. He was a huge inspiration to other people of my generation who were around at the time. Of course many other artists throughout history have worked in more than one discipline, but that's another discussion. As for my involvement in fashion, once I had left college, I began making jewellery and body sculptures, usually being in control of how these were photographed.

Having gained a certain notoriety and press, some warranted and some not, a student at Central St Martin's wrote to me asking if he could borrow several pieces for his degree show. I contributed about 10 pieces, many of which were especially created. The student was Alexander McQueen. At this time I had also been asked by a friend to design a set for her first pop promo. Over the next few years I went on to work with Lindy Heyman on over 40 videos. It was a steep learning curve and much of it was learnt as I went along. At the same time, Lee asked me to help put some sets together for his shows. These became increasingly elaborate over the years. Eventually we parted company and I was able to work for a range of other designers as I am still doing. Also, alongside the fashion show work, I kept making my own work, which became far more installation based over the years. I am often being invited to make site specific work and gallery based installations.

Christabel Stewart: How do you incorporate your own ideas into those given to you in the form of a brief?

Simon Costin: This is quite hard to answer, as so often the briefs are wildly different depending on the work. In the commercial sector, clients can either have a specific idea of what they need and it becomes more a series of aesthetic choices which I dictate, or the brief can be hugely vague allowing me far more freedom to incorporate my own ideas. A vague brief can sometimes be a nightmare though, as it means that the client doesn't really know what they want and much time is wasted trying to find out. Often though, if a client has asked for me specifically, they are usually aware of my work and so will not ask me to do something that would not sit within my visual world as it were. As to what that is, I'm still trying to find out.

Christabel Stewart: How do you reconcile the performative elements of your approach with the resultant still image? Is the process evident in the finished image?

Simon Costin: A tricky one. I am usually aware at the beginning of a project how the various elements should sit together, however, during the making of a piece of work changes often occur. The general framework for an idea always has to allow for a degree of flexibility, which is healthy anyway and can often lead to things which were not originally in ones mind to play themselves out to a better effect than was thought of at first.

Christabel Stewart: You have collaborated on 'Faith' with Sharon Dowsett and Nick Knight. The work addresses who or what people turn to in difficult times and suggests how that combination of human desperation, hope and ultimately, faith might look. How did you approach this collaboration and formulate the aesthetic ideas to carry this abstract idea through?

Simon Costin: The idea for the project came about almost 5 years ago, when I was in Athens. I was walking around the National Museum and came across the most beautiful death mask, lying on a cushion. It was partly made from wax and completely covered in jewels. It almost looked like a sleeping woman wearing elaborate make-up. I didn't have a camera with me but I made a little sketch. It stayed on my pinboard at home for a year or so and then one day while working on a fashion shoot with Sharon I told her about how it had haunted me. As we talked about it we discussed how various cultures have used the mask to express internal states of being, often in a religious context or as a rite of passage. Sharon had recently been experimenting with a form of body jewellery - wafer thin pieces of double-sided sticky plastic which could be covered in something and applied to the face. We decided that it would be an interesting idea to develop the technique and to explore the idea of the 'living mask' further.

It was some time before we could get together again, due to our workloads, but finally we met at my studio and my assistant at the time kindly let Sharon get to work. The final result was incredibly beautiful and I took some pictures to record it. The more that Sharon and I thought about it, the more it was obvious that the faces could not just be purely decorative, as for both of us it was a far bigger idea. Sharon had found the technique and we now needed to wed it to something meaningful to both of us. I have long been fascinated by folklore, mythology and magical practice and so put together a series of visual references while Sharon set about researching various world religions. Over the next year, Sharon amassed a huge amount of material and in a way the project became something of a personal odyssey for both of us, bringing up many questions of how we both viewed organised religions and our own personal beliefs systems, if any. Sharon found various contacts within the Christian Church and I had several within the Pagan community which all helped to feed the creation of the images.

Around this time Sharon mentioned a friend who was a film-maker called Gary Tarn. Gary was interested asking people why they prayed and to who. Nick felt that the prayers should come from ordinary people and not necessarily religious leaders as such. Gary set about collecting prayers from people on the street with a dictaphone. The majority of people had come to pray due to some kind of personal misfortune within their lives rather than being inherently 'religious'.

As the project developed Sharon and I decided that there should be 7 faces and rather than being specifically aligned to a given religious system, they should use universal symbols such as the elements, Fire, Air, Water and Earth with the 5th being Spirit. We added Flesh and Death. Sharon and I worked incredibly well and we fed off each other in a very creative way, as Sharon would stop me from getting too dark and I was able to understand how make-up can be used to show the shadow side as well as the purely beautiful. Sharon's assistant Andrew Gallimore was instrumental in making up the main pieces and would liase between Sharon and I whenever we were in the country. Next came the problem of finding a model who would also be able to recite the prayers as Nick was keen to have film footage to use on SHOWstudio as well as the still images. Sharon had recently worked with an actress called Nina Young, a very beautiful and accomplished actress who agreed to become involved with the project. By the time we came to start, the faces drew reference from Anatomy, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Pagan symbolical philosophy, the Fish and Bird as a symbol for Christ, Talismanic jewels, Voodoo and Candomble practice, and the Faith of Islam.

Christabel Stewart: Considering your substantial experience with catwalk presentation as live, theatrical setting what was your approach to creating a piece with a motion-image outcome?

Simon Costin: The final live footage was very still and close-up and all the more intense because of that. Nick and Gary worked to direct Nina, and because of Sharon's well developed technique the make-up still allowed for a large degree of expression from Nina. The combination of these incredible faces moving and also delivering some, often very moving words, sets up a very disconcerting feeling in the viewer.