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The cerebral designer and filmmaker will represent his native Turkey this year at the 51st Venice Biennial with a short film and sculpture exhibition that examines identity, geography, environment and the questionable reliability of DNA testing.
Before shooting “The Absent Presence,” which stars Tilda Swinton, Chalayan took clothing from anonymous donors and extracted DNA from the skin cells found in the garments. With help from a biologist, he tried to determine as accurately as possible the ethnic and geographical origins of each one.
In the film, he questions the donors and tests the accuracy of his findings. “We only got a small percentage correct,” says Chalayan, sitting at his sketch-littered desk one recent summer afternoon in his east London studio.
“Science defines our world, but it’s based on approximation — and it can’t reflect reality. And DNA doesn’t necessarily define who the person is,” he says. “This is a contemporary issue — look at all of the cultural stereotyping that takes place through science.”
The subject matter stems from his fascination with people’s ethnic identity, says Chalayan, a Turkish Cypriot living in London. “I think there’s a new, contemporary anthropology that revolves around the study of people who are four or five times displaced — like someone who’s half Korean, half American and living in London.”
The film will be projected onto five screens with different scenes taking place at different times. It starts with a scientist, played by Swinton, who’s washing clothes by hand and is lost in a reverie about identity. Chalayan wanted the water to symbolize an attempt to see into the future, and also the vast melting pot of genetic material.
The film also addresses the environment’s influence on people. In another part of the film, Chalayan passes different sound frequencies, meant to represent different environments, through the donated pieces of clothing, and watches the shape that each piece takes.
The distorted pieces of clothing also have been cast in resin, and will be displayed in trays of water as part of the installation at Pavilion of Turkey, Fondazione Levi, Academia. The Biennial opens to the public on June 12 and runs until Nov. 6.