Kristofer Paetau and Ondrej Brody’s Transratfashion first appeared in our Tidbits section, but we figured only a fairly unique pair of minds would want to spend their time creating fake Chanel bikinis from rat bodies and have them modeled by Brazilian transvestites who then masturbate on them. Another one of their works is called Licking Curators Ass which consists of exactly that. We interviewed the pair to find out how such a worldview works and what that worldview’s take on fashion and art is.
VICE: Hi. So tell us – how old are you, what’s your background, and what other work have you done?
Kristofer Paetau: I’m 39, I was born in Finland but moved to Paris when I was 13, and I studied art in France, Germany, and Belgium. By 2004 I had started to make art with my friend Ondrej Brody in Berlin and have worked together since, even though we don’t live in the same country.
Most of our work is considered shocking, disgusting, or otherwise provocative, and generally people don’t consider our work as art, I’m afraid. Sophisticated art types don’t like it because we criticize the art establishment in a direct and unsophisticated way and traditionalists probably find our work lacks traditional aesthetic values like beauty and contemplative aesthetic speculation.
We try to make the best out of the criticism we get. We published a Critical Essay compiled from what our critics had written and our exhibition Degenerate Art included a selection of hand-painted ‘worst of’ critiques of our works. Even our paintings are not considered fine art since we commission Chinese painting companies to do the hard work. We like to think of them as ‘our cheap Chinese assistants‘.
What on Earth inspired Transratfashion?
Just before we started Transratfashion we were working in La Paz on a project called DOG CARPETS. Our idea was to produce rugs out of the dogs the local municipality of La Paz killed every week in order to “clean up” the city. We managed to have them produced but they got destroyed by the police since the local media and animal activists started to pressure the mayor of La Paz about our work. The mayor also fired the museum director who had invited us to La Paz, but curiously he did not fire the director of Zoonosis, the municipal service responsible for chasing and killing the street dogs. With this failure in mind I started to think about trans-rat fashion.
What was the Brazilian link?
My next stop was a residency in Rio de Janeiro. When I arrived in Rio I was struck by all the transvestites working the streets as prostitutes. I decided to use taxidermied rats, so I started to hunt down the rats: There are lots of them on the streets in Lapa, the same neighborhood where the transvestites work. Then I found a shop selling rats as food for bigger animals and for laboratory tests, so I bought 12 rats and handed them over to a taxidermist to kill them and prepare them for me. Then I hired a local fashion designer to create the pieces. The fashion designer I worked with is actually quite well-known in Rio, but it’s not exactly great publicity for her. She also told me that most people she tried to subcontract had refused to take the job, so I was lucky anything happened at all. I had to finance the whole project myself and it cost me a lot of money.
Why rats, why transvestites, and why Chanel ?
The idea behind Transratfashion was to combine something that most people are attracted by—fashion—with something that most people find repulsive—rats. Likewise, instead of using beautiful girls as models, I thought I’d use trashy transvestite streetwalkers, combined with the Chanel brand. So I needed rats, transvestites, and Chanel in order to provoke the attraction vs repulsion, luxury vs trash crash that I wanted to achieve.
What is your interest in the fashion world? Do you hate it or love certain elements?
To be honest, I’m not very interested in fashion. I really hated the attitude of fellow artists and art students in France who were more interested in leafing through Vogue than in reading books about art and artists. But then again, maybe most contemporary art is so boring that fashion is more interesting? My aim is to make contemporary art more interesting than fashion, so I suppose I’m also a little envious and jealous of fashion. Maybe Transratfashion is my symbolic revenge on fashion as an artist. Even though I am not well-informed about fashion, I do respect some creators who seem to push the fashion boundaries – like the late Alexander McQueen or Walter Van Beirendonck, for example. But as I said, I am not an expert, so there’s probably younger people I’m missing.
Why the masturbation?
The masturbation idea was inspired by the profession of my models and I also thought it might add some fetish value to the fashion. It was also a clin d’oeil to the well-known visual artist Terence Koh, who likes to dress up as a fashion diva and sells underwear with cum stains, or shit stains, to enthusiastic art collectors. I have my little perverse joy in presenting the Ratfashion items to people first and let them watch the video afterwards in order to discover that the stuff they were holding in their hands had been soaked with transvestite cum previously. They usually ask me, in a hopeful way, if I washed the pieces afterwards, but of course, I didn’t.
What are your thoughts on Chanel?
When I had to choose a brand, I immediately thought of Chanel, as they probably rightfully list their brand as: “the ultimate luxury brand for fashion accessories, eyewear, ready-to-wear and haute couture collections” on their website description. This isn’t about the brand’s history, but who cares? What matters about Chanel today is the enormous business the Chanel brand has turned into and the figure of Chanel’s creative director Karl Lagerfeld, who, in my opinion, designs extremely conservative clothes. I do agree with his “In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and even clothes, the discussion of fur is childish” statement.
Fashion vs art?
It is of course stupid to make that sort of opposition, but sometimes art can comment on fashion as fashion can on art. For Transratfashion I worked with an ex-fashion photographer Yann Gamblin, a Frenchman who then-lived in Rio de Janeiro. He told me he’d actually shot for Chanel in the past. We shot the photographs in the hotel where the transvestites take their clients. Asking the models to masturbate while filming them proved difficult, some models didn’t manage to cum.
A lot of art seems to think it’s significant when it really isn’t, right?
Sure. I guess all artists like to think their work is significant, myself included, but since my career is such a failure I don’t anymore. I guess it is good to feel insignificant because you don’t need to worry about keeping up a reputation and you can fail in total freedom, without economic pressure or career expectations. No gallery is urging me to produce more rat fashion, same as no collectors are eager to buy more Chinese torture paintings to decorate their cozy homes. But I guess only time can tell what is significant and what is not.
Fashion is at its best when it’s fun and anarchic, but a lot of fashion is incredibly conservative. What do you think?
Yes, it is the same in the art world. I think this is partly due to the fact that most people who are artists or fashion creators are not very creative and lack courage. They chose art or fashion because it’s nice to study art or fashion and their parents can pay for the studies. Then some people turn out very professional and ambitious: they go to the right places, get to know the right people, and with a little luck they get their share of money and fame. I think an artist or a fashion creator shouldn’t try to do the right thing, but rather the opposite.
What are you angry about?
I’m angry about the lack of courage and most artists lack of self-criticism. I’m angry about myself because I’m such a loser that I need to have a money job in order to merely survive and that I put the little extra money I earned into some stupid art projects that nobody ever buys. Most of all I’m angry about people who don’t have a sense of humor and I hope I’m not losing my own sense of humor while being so angry.
What or who has inspired your work?
My main inspiration is my best friend and partner in crime, Ondrej Brody. Our discussions about art and our fights about the work we make are the most inspiring thing. Of course, there are many fantastic artists and others throughout history, but really, what matters most is who is close to me in my daily life and with whom I have an ongoing dialog.
Why is your work beautiful?
I don’t think it’s beautiful now, but that doesn’t matter. If it’s good, then it will be considered beautiful one day.
WORDS: DARYOUSH HAJ-NAJAFI & KRISTOFER PAETAU