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Taken from Issue 03 of WIP Magazine, available now at Carhartt WIP stores.

Squat from the outside and luminous inside, legend has it that the San Pancrazio church in Florence was founded by Charlemagne, the former Holy Roman Emperor, at the beginning of the Middle Ages. For centuries, it was a church and monastery, until it was deconsecrated in 1808 after an edict by the Napoleonic government which ruled the city. The space would house the city’s tribunals, lotteries, and even a tobacco factory in the years that followed.

Converted by Brutalist architects Bruno Sacchi and Lorenzo Papi into a gallery in 1976, it is now dedicated to the works of Marino Marini, the Italian artist whose equestrian sculptures document the traumas and transformations of the 20th century. Today, it represents more than over a millennium of labour: thirteen centuries of faith, art, and industry under one roof.

Earlier this year, as part of the 95th edition of Pitti Uomo – the menswear trade show in Florence – Italian streetwear distributor and retailer Slam Jam was invited to present a decidedly modern reading on what streetwear means in 2019. The three floors of the San Pancrazio, known today as the Museo Marino Marini, were given over to Slam Jam’s regular collaborators: Stussy, Nike, and Carhartt WIP.

In collaboration with Milan-based art magazine Kaleidoscope, Carhartt WIP presented the secretive artist-designer pairing OrtaMiklos. Taking saws and claw-hammers to monumental blocks of expanded polystyrene, the Danish-French duo filled the hall with the smell of spray-paint and epoxy resin as they created a series of objects called Icebergs. The works brought to mind that of Donald Judd’s furniture, if it were somehow placed in the context of a post-nuclear fallout, or glaciers, if they had been designed by architect Louis Kahn. These functional art-slash-conceptual furniture pieces were lent a sense of motion. Throughout the evening, each stage in the objects’ making was enacted by masked performers, clothed in pieces of Carhartt WIP, similar to those customized by OrtaMiklos to accompany the exhibition. It was work in progress in its most rabid, structured, and iridescent sense. A forceful reminder that our work and our world is in a process of coming to be, in all its violent, strange beauty.

In late March, we spoke to Leo Orta from his workspace just west of Paris – a vast former paper mill turned atelier. The other half of this artistic duo, Victor Miklos, was sick. Once he had recovered from a cold two weeks later, we spoke to Miklos over Skype, while he was in Beirut. Here, Orta and Miklos open up to us in a two-part discussion about their Icebergs creations, “double-identity workwear,” and taking cues from Danish post-war modernism.

What was the thinking behind Icebergs?

Leo Orta: It all started in Eindhoven, when we got our first studio that was our own. It’s in an old Philips factory that has been renovated into this new kind of American start-up vibe, featuring wonderful facilities to work in: wood-working, ceramics, all this. Our studio was in a part of the factory that was used for laser-chip making. Now, the owners rent out space to companies and makers. They are great for creativity, but at the same time, you never leave the space. I barely cook, and I barely go home, because I feel comfortable over there. But at some point I’m like: “OK, is it actually healthy to be here constantly? Am I working too much?”

One day, they were emptying out other spaces and we found an enormous polystyrene block. We wanted to work with the material. Typically, you’d use this as the first aspect of the sculpture before casting it again, but we wanted to cover it with epoxy resin, to make it solid enough to last a long time. You know, you can freeze anything in epoxy. Museums will freeze animals in epoxy. It’s like freezing time in a way – like actual icebergs. But instead of being frozen by time, it’s frozen by chemicals.

Your work draws parallels with that of the artist Sterling Ruby. However, if he is concerned with destruction and decay, you seem concerned with construction and transformation.

Leo Orta: When I was researching his work and practice, way before we even got onto this project, I found out that he worked on construction sites when he was younger, before becoming an artist. We both have large, ex-industrial ateliers, since we work from a large former factory here in France. Being raised in an industrial area, with industrial shops, and working with industrial materials, merges our practices. But he has more knowledge in the sense that he has been working in that field, not just being a spectator.

Another crossover with Ruby is textile. As well as designing a fashion line, he had an exhibition called “WORK WEAR,” where he showed overalls and other customized clothing. What does workwear mean to you?

Leo Orta: Before I started working as an artist, I was doing graffiti and would just wear my casual clothes at night. You’d get the paint all over them and have to wear the same clothes again the next day. But at one point, I realized that if you turn your jacket inside out, you created double-identity workwear. You don’t stain it, because the paint is on the lining, and when you turn it back around after, you can’t be recognized by the cops or anyone else in the city. The same thing happens now in the studio. I can’t even remember the number of jackets I’ve ruined with paint.

So, when it came to customizing pieces for Carhartt WIP to accompany Icebergs for the exhibition, we wanted to use one side for working and one side for casual-wear. In the workshop, you wear one side, the strong part, for working. Then, when you leave work, you flip over your jacket, and take the tube to go home. You appear like a person who hasn’t been in the workspace. This way, your appearance isn't defined by your profession.

I’ve seen images of you spray-painting directly onto a jacket or a pair of trousers.

Leo Orta: We spray-painted all the Icebergs pieces in a spray booth, and we covered the walls and the floor with protective canvas. But when we started spraying, we realized we wanted to incorporate this fabric and have the marks of the icebergs themselves on the pieces. We decided to use those as elements to highlight the process of making the jacket. We also wanted to put pattern-making marks onto the clothes themselves, like spray-painting the pockets of the pieces to pinpoint the fact that you have a pocket. It’s like an archive, but also a signature. It’s a trace of the performance itself.

The project uses plastic very purposefully. How did this inform your choice to name the work Icebergs?

Victor Miklos: For Leo and I, the work we develop comes through constant conversation, and the project is a materialization of that. It's very tempting to see the contradiction between making an “iceberg” in frozen styrofoam, in plastic. You can easily find reasons to criticize it, just because of the material. But this is the point: the aggression of the material, and the aggression of the performance itself. I don't think that anybody expected us to bring it to the stage of Pitti. It was really interesting to bring that aggressiveness to the stage there. Right now, global warming is our biggest problem. Somehow, without planning it, this work becomes a symbol of that situation. The act of chipping away at the material is aggressive sculpting, and I see that relating to global warming.

Expanded polystyrene is an almost universal material, used for thousands of things. In previous works, you’ve used concrete for seating, electric cables woven to a fabric, and you’re planning a show that employs sand as a medium. What’s the appeal of working with these utilitarian materials?

Victor Miklos: It’s a red thread through all that OrtaMiklos does: It’s our identity. We always choose very present materials, which are either hidden or very utilitarian in their use. We try to abstract them or change their character, because they are everywhere. Everybody has a relationship with the materials we choose. This makes them so powerful and interesting. I feel that if we can reshape people's views of the materials, then we can change the way people see everyday things, and how they interact with them. A lot of our inspiration comes from urban environments, or directly from trash. Working with expensive materials is just not as interesting.

This brings us to the question of functional art: objects which are usable and even domesticated, but can be spoken about as experimental and conceptual pieces in and of themselves.

Victor Miklos: My parents are artists, and although we never had much money, they would take me around to art fairs and exhibitions. I wasn’t able to see myself in the things we saw. Instead, I spent most of my childhood being as normal as possible, which I didn't really succeed at. I always had a fascination with the classic Danish design. Somehow, the elegance of it interested me and attracted me far more than the art that my parents would take me to see. I began to study it very vigorously when I was young, and read about how after World War II, with the deterioration of the steel and rubber industry, Danish Modernism was pioneered by Kaare Klint, who emphasized the simplicity of the nature and [believed] the pure lines of the Danish countryside could put a kind of calmness into the people after the war.

So, I began to study wood-crafting and wood furniture, and I slowly found out that this pure functionalism was not relevant anymore. I slowly started to shift my interest to more abstract and absurd things, surrealistic functionalities, almost. I wanted to see if I could work more abstract aesthetics into the object, to trigger functions other than purely a physical one. It gives you something to think about, especially if we talk about “domesticated” objects. [My work] is more like a reaction to these domesticated spaces that we build, where we domesticate and sterilize ourselves through curating the self.

Words: Charlie Robin Jones | Images: Léonard Méchineau
A project curated by Kaleidoscope Magazine in collaboration with Carhartt WIP.
Special thanks to Functional Art Gallery, Berlin.