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  • After Lives:Considering Disembodied Costume via Medieval Copes and Nick Cave's Soundsuits
  • Janet Lee (bio) and Jo Merrey* (bio)

Costuming a body for performance both defines and erases boundaries between performer and audience. Historically distinct and creatively oppositional, medieval copes and the soundsuits of contemporary artist Nick Cave work to transcend the everyday and reimagine the self. As the garment subsumes the wearer, the performer's 'translated' presence engages the audience/viewer. But what of costume divested of performer? What is embodied in performance shifts in a costume's museum afterlives. Post-performance costumes signal vacancy; an uncanny absence. Displacing the performer allows for the renegotiation between object and viewer. Trace-memories of performance linger, reconfigured via the costume's framing and circumstances of viewing.

I. Diverse Materialities

The vestments known as copes, often worn by the medieval church elite,1 and the soundsuits American artist Nick Cave fashions from reclaimed materials appear historically and functionally disparate. Yet it was the tensions arising from such dissonances that initiated our exploration of the ways these worn objects might share connections, and led to the question: what are the emotional/affective responses that arise from encounters with costumes in performance and then on display? The garments share an attention to the discourses of authority (albeit in contrary ways), they are the products of artisanal endeavour, fulfil performative functions, speak to heritage, and are marked by affective elements in their production, wearing, display, and viewing.

We suggest that the impact of the disembodied costume, as object, on an observer calls for an acknowledgement of its affective potential as a displayed artefact that focuses emotional impact through its materiality. Further, an [End Page 39] emotional response or experience can manifest due to the residual 'memories' of other engagements or witnesses the object carries.2 As Jennifer Roberts explains, things 'have properties and affordances that powerfully shape human subjectivity and activity'.3 It is well established that, as things, clothes and costumes are intimately associated with both wearer and maker. Alice Dolan and Sally Holloway observe that

Textiles remain emotionally charged for a myriad of reasons, including their association with women's history, admiration of skill, and the sensation of physical comfort created by the touch of soft textiles on the skin. Furthermore, the ability of clothing to retain the shape of previous owners can evoke the physical presence of long dead bodies.4

The histories of costumes as worn objects are, therefore, personal and social—even when the identities of those who made, owned, or wore the garments are hidden, lost, or have always been unknown.5

Common to copes and soundsuits is their role in shaping individuals through the investiture of the wearer in the garment; they function as diachronic and synchronic cultural signifiers. Copes and soundsuits alike rely on the conscious arrangement of apparel on the body for the initial purpose of performance and later, divested of performing—animating—bodies, may survive as affective objects in museums. The costumes exist in relation to the creator and wearer, but also exist (and function) separately – with affective power. Katie Barclay observes the imperative that New Materialism calls for acknowledging

material impacts in accounting for how physical bodies, buildings, fashion become implicated in producing meaning as objects, not simply as referents or symbols.6

The bodies themselves held within costumes are marked by their materiality. In turn the costumes inform perceptions of the wearer, from within and without.

Staging and arrangement in display is a translation from mobility in performance. The locus of performance shifts from the mobilized costume in space and time on the wearer to a static, disembodied piece before the gaze of the museum visitor. Copes and soundsuits, created with distinct performative functions, hold and transmit heritage value through their materiality and [End Page 40] signification. Manipulation of costumes into poses, or supported positions on non-humanoid frames, focuses attention on an absence through directed viewing.7 The arrangement of the costume as object is purposeful and determines what is seen, made available, to the viewer. In addition, the performed materiality of artisanal labour is thrust into the spotlight through display. The performative functions of the costumes connote heritage value not...


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pp. 39-61
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