Adam McAlavey takes the concept of wearable art a step further than simply designing a garment to fit a body. Not only do his works incorporate the presence and absence of his own breath, but they’re also part of his journey to reclaim his body from asthma.
The London-based artist has a degree in fine art, and spent the first part of his career working with film, animation and photography. In 2011 he began making costumes and headpieces as his artistic alter ego Adam Electric. Working with latex and air, he creates inhabitable second skins by breathing deeply through a tube, either inflating them or creating a vacuum by sealing himself inside.
“I slowly suck all the air out and you get vac-packed into your piece. You start to look less like a normal human and more like some kind of living sculpture,” he says. It can be a slightly disturbing spectacle for the audience, watching a man turn into a shrink-wrapped piece of meat, like something you’d find in the supermarket chiller.
“It perhaps looks more traumatic and dangerous than it actually is,” McAlavey says. “As long as you can keep your lungs going for long enough, it’s a really simple technique.”
“Essentially, I just breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, and if you do that for long enough you’ll bring all the air out of the piece,” he says. “As soon as it’s completely tight, you can breathe normally through your tube, just like snorkeling.”
McAlavey says his asthma, which he’s had since he was a child, has developed into a significant aspect of his work.
“I’ve spent quite a lot of time struggling to breathe, and needing apparatus like inhalers to breathe properly,” he says. “Of all the times that I found this to be difficult and a struggle and something I wished wasn’t there, since I started making these pieces I realised it was a lifetime of training to be able to work my lungs really hard.”
Now, he says, what he thought was a problem has turned into something positive.
“There’s something quite empowering about making an airtight environment with your breathing. When you have an asthma attack you feel like it’s something that’s being done to you and your breath is being taken away, but when I’m in my performance, I’m controlling that.”
McAlavey started making his unusual creations as latex outfits for fetish nights. “A lot of fetish nights are very creative, and there’s a huge connection with performance and the performance art world and costume, and I just couldn’t stop making more and more elaborate things,” he says. “They’ve developed into costumes, to wearable art, and now to installations that have five people inside. “
But he says that until he found WOW® via social media, he never knew quite where he fit artistically. “I’ve always felt like a slightly odd person out in whatever I’ve been doing. Before WOW® I had never heard the term wearable art, and I was like ‘Oh, so that’s what I’ve been making – I can’t not enter this!’ It seemed absolutely perfect, what I didn’t know what I’d been looking for.”
“When I originally heard about it, I thought it was the garments that were the stars, and then I realised that the performers’ and choreographers’ creativity is just as much on display and just as amazing as any of the pieces,” he says. “It was so inspiring to go to it, and it felt like such an amazing, supportive collaboration. It felt like everybody was onside and had this event they wanted to make as amazing as possible. It was a million times more than the sum of its parts.”
This year at WOW®, McAlavey’s garment Queen Angel won first place in the MJF Lighting Performance Art Section. A red latex inflatable dress with a rigid headpiece, also covered in latex, it grew out of McAlavey’s desire to make a dress that was powerful, imposing and fun.
But he nearly gave up on it. He’d originally decided to make it over a wooden frame, but the latex wouldn’t hang right, and after wrestling with it for ages, he’d just about given up.
“As a last resort I thought ‘I’ll fill it with air and see what happens’. I did and it transformed – I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it’s supposed to do’.”
Queen Angel was never designed to walk in – it was for a still performance with a vacuumed top – but McAlavey adapted it for the show, creating a jaunty, swinging lower half that drew gasps and claps from the audience when it debuted at the World of WearableArt™ Awards on September 22.
“I still couldn’t imagine how it would work, but when I saw the preview show it was just amazing to see something that I’d never imagined for the piece coming alive,” he says. “All my pieces are made for myself, but this took on a new personality that wasn’t me.” You could say it took his breath away.