I’ve never liked dresses. As a five year old tom boy, a dress was the ultimate hindrance, especially on the football pitch. I never understood why anyone would choose to wear high heels and a long, elaborate dress, let alone spend their free time making dresses for children who don’t want to wear them. To save money, my mother made all of our school summer dresses, and still to me, they were wretched flowery affairs that itched at the neck and flared up at the slightest gust of wind.
And yet, curiously I found myself looking forward to seeing in person, a dress, I’d heard much about. A dress that is unlikely to ever be worn, a dress that captured my imagination in ways I am scared to write about, a dress that would be on display for one day and one night only at The Manchester Art Gallery, a dress that is made of glass and houses a live flame.
The Dress of Glass and Flame, first exhibited at The Venice Biennale May – November 2013, is Artist and Designer, Professor Helen Storey’s magical exploration into the alchemy of glass and flame. The Dress is a collaboration between Helen, Chemist Dr Tony Ryan, The Berenga Studio in Venice, The Royal Society of Chemistry and the London College of Fashion.
On arriving at the Manchester Art Gallery, I came across Helen and her producer, Caroline Coates drinking tea in the cafe with Natalie Ireland, Head of Public Programmes and Learning at The Museum of Science and Industry and former director of the Manchester Science Festival, which has oft showcased Helen’s work in everyday settings, including a launderette and the Arndale shopping centre, to reach beyond traditional science festival goers. Seeing this trio together again was heartening, art-science collaborations need champions because they span discipline boundaries that rarely fit into neat funding boxes. And, art-science collaborations have an alchemic quality to them – initially asking questions of both disciplines – yet transcending their differences and similarities to stand alone as a piece of work to be interrogated in its own right.
On spotting me, Helen jumped up to offer a hot drink but the cafe was closing. Natalie kindly shared her tea with me and I took a moment to warm up before seeking out the dress. On this occasion the Dress’s showcase was made possible as a result of a collaboration between Design Manchester and the Manchester Science Festival 2014.
Leaving them to their conversation, I wandered through the bookshop and spotted through the open door a small boy crouching down on his knees, eyes unblinking, mesmerised. Across from him, a couple sat on the gallery stairs, again, with the same mesmerised look, cast in the same direction as the boy’s gaze. And, I knew I’d found it.
At first glance I was taken aback, at the size of the Dress, it’s tiny, yet brilliant ‘presence’ was captivating. The outline of the Dress appeared to be only millimetres thick. Indeed the Dress took my breath away with its quiet fragility. Inside, the Dress housed a live, flickering flame, in the space that would occupy the womb, if the figure were made flesh.
A quick look at the visitors’ book and a chat with one of the Science Festival volunteers informed me that people are curious about the dress in a number of ways – how was it made, who is it for and what does it mean?
Later that evening, with an audience gathered in front of the Dress, Helen answered some of these questions and elsewhere, in a film about the making of the Dress, she talks about the challenges of making ‘the live and predictable component – the flame’ work within the piece and of collaboration in handing over control to the glassmakers, and them ‘becoming her hands’, in effect, to work the glass. She talked about her love for materials and how they ‘speak to people, just as the human voice does’ and that glass, like humans, is responsive.
Indeed, weeks later, in a museum board meeting, there was a discussion about a newly designed logo. The font was shouting at us in hard, black capital letters about SCIENCE! I didn’t quite have the words to explain why this new logo might exclude some people – and suddenly the Dress of Glass and Flame sprung to mind – here was an exquisite exhibit about chemistry, the wonder of materials, in the making and in the flesh that also encapsulates a very different way of exploring science, indeed it is embodied in female form. The Dress of Glass and Flame is living proof that there can be delicacy, fragility, humanity occupying the same breath as science.
When I was a kid, I only wanted to play football, that was my dream. Although I made the school team, and was the only girl to make the team, other schools refused to allow me to play. Worse still, I remember being at my secondary school, where girls could only watch boys play football at breaktime. It was the beginning of the end of the relationship I had with my team mates and worse, with my body and keeping it in shape through team sport. Science, and in particular, a love for chemistry, quickly replaced football.
Today the Dress of Glass and Flame reignites in me a passion to express my gender identity and science in my own way, and gives me a new appreciation of the time and effort my mum put to making clothes for me, albeit within the strict (and ridiculous constraints) of the school’s rules. A challenge in life, is handing over control of your identity to others, school is a time when that can happen, but it’s what you do with that fiery sense of self, to ensure that identity loss doesn’t consume you. Whilst back then I put my energies into achieving at science, today, the Flame, serves as a reminder of hope, of passion and possibility for change and perhaps recognition that science can also serve society in ways not always imagined by scientists. This cross-over of art and science is a fuel for me – sure, most things can probably be explained by science – but art allows science to cross over into our imaginary and social worlds – together they are a potent mix.
Professor Helen Storey MBE was recently announced as RSA’s new Royal Designer for Industry, the highest honour a designer can achieve in the UK and recognition of a rare, pioneering and inspirational talent that will excite generations to come.