Photo credit: Katla Einars
As I stepped out of the elevator on the fifth floor of Harpa Concert Hall, I was greeted by a 193 cm tall figure, draped in luxurious, floor-length fabrics, elaborately decorated by jewels and other accessories. This is one of the 38 sculptures found in the Daniel Lismore exhibition, titled 'Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Already Taken'.
I wanted to make it to the three o’clock guided tour of the exhibition, which is held every day by the artist himself. I feared I was late so I rushed past this life-like figure but was met by another one. This one, however, was moving and spoke to me: “Hi, welcome. I’ll do the guided tour in a minute.”
Daniel’s exhibition is on three floors and is comprised of 38 sculptures which have been created in his likeness, the faces looking out from the mannequins are a cast of Daniel’s own visage, each hand-painted with his over-the-top red lipstick and dark eyeshadow.
Each figure is dressed in a sumptuous outfit created out of designer fabrics, vintage clothes, found objects, ethnic jewellery, historical artefacts and more. Every outfit has been worn by the artist at one time, reflecting his eccentric, multidimensional identity, but more than that, each of the 6,000 pieces that decorate the figures are a part of the tapestry that makes up Daniel’s life.
“It is like literally my whole life, my story,” Daniel tells me in an interview after the tour. “People see them as the sculptures and the beauty in the sculpture, and they see all these things combined in a look, but everything has a story from somewhere, whether it is related to my work in the past with princesses to Mariah Carey, Azealia Banks, Adam Ant to Wikileaks, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. All these pieces have built up my life and were a part of my career at Vogue, so they all relate to my whole journey as living as sculpture."
Daniel was quite daunting as he stood there, dressed head to toe in black clothing, with a tall purple hat and a thick checkered coat. His voice and demeanour were, however, both friendly and down to earth and so you become immediately fascinated by this strange and interesting looking person.
The guided tour begins with a short introduction to Daniel’s background. He says that he has always been a little different and growing up in a small village in the UK, he started questioning the ideas of how things should be from an early age. Inspired in his teenage years by the works of people like photographer David LaChapelle, Daniel started dressing more elaborately, even to pop out to the shop.
Later, he moved to London to work as a model, where he met an array of interesting people and started collecting some of the fascinating pieces found in the exhibition. His outfits grew more and more, and that is how he began living as he himself had visioned; as art. "My body is my canvas, and it is how I've worn everything and lived as a person. Not as an identity but as a person."
Daniel leads the group through his exhibition, stopping at each sculpture to tell a little anecdote about a single piece or where he wore the outfit, pulling you into his world with stories about royalty, Maasai people, fashion designers, pop artists and so much more. “There are over 6000 pieces, and I remember every single thing, where I got it how I wore it, where it is from, how they were made. I don’t know how but I do.” The tour is not only fascinated but also funny as he imitates various celebrities, changing his accent to mimic Boy George or goes an octave higher to capture Vivienne Westwood’s voice.
As you walk through the rooms, you hear pleasant tinkling noises, similar to that of wind chimes. The sound comes from an audio recording made by musician Einar Örn Benediktsson (best known as a former member of the Sugarcubes and a current member of Ghostigital) of the little chiming noises that Daniel’s outfits make when he moves.
The tour goes from floor to floor of Harpa Concert Hall. The building’s massive windows provide you with a stunning view of Faxaflói Bay and Esja mountain, creating a fantastic juxtaposition of art and nature. This combined with the sound effect give the whole exhibition a surreal and beautiful feel.
Daniel said that he had had some amazing reactions to the show, mostly from kids; “One kid said ‘Mommy, how did one of them come to life?’. That was so funny. Another little boy said ‘Daddy, is this real? Because this is what it feels like in a dream’”.
However, Daniel is no stranger to criticism, and during his life, he has come across some negativity regarding both his show and his appearance. But Daniel’s response is level-headed and positive: “That’s how I always see things. If someone responds really negatively to [the exhibition], I go ‘well I’ve opened their eyes for a minute’. And they realise that there are others out there, all sorts of people and I think that’s what we lack a lot. It's a part of humanity to kind of be aggressive, but another part is to try and understand others.”
During the tour he talks about how we are still bound by ancient traditions, addressing how limited the world allows us to be truly individual. “I think that we are all being blinded by politics and religion and ideals of others and century-old ideas that don’t fit into the modern world anymore, medieval prehistoric mentalities, and it's not progressive for anybody.” He continues “And hopefully people will learn something [at the exhibition], that people do live differently around the world. I live my as art, as a sculpture, a walking sculpture.”
Daniel´s politics are also dominant throughout the exhibition. One of the first pieces you see is a sculpture wearing an armour, equipped with a 'roundhead' helmet which he wore to the House of Lords, making him the first person to wear an armour there since the mid-17th Century when Oliver Cromwell served as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Daniel said this was done as a sort of protest because he himself would probably have been killed by Cromwell had he been around at that time.
Keeping with that out-of-the-box theme, one of the ticket people working at the exhibition is the drag queen, Gógó Starr, who recently honoured Icelanders by appearing as 'The Lady of the Mountain', a symbol of what Icelanders considered to be genuine and purely Icelandic. “I love the fact that Gógó Starr was the Lady of the Mountain” Daniel states, “I think that’s so progressive, and that there was a trans woman last year and a black lady before that and I think it's so important, so important. I know they’ve all had a lot of hate over it, but I think that people need to wake up and realise that Iceland has become an international [place].”
The exhibition, Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken, was co-curated and first shown at Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of fashion and film in Atlanta in 2016, and was brought to Iceland for the Reykjavík Arts Festival. It will stand until June 30th, and there are guided tours available every day at 15:00.
It is certainly an exhibition worth seeing as you’ll be taken through a technicolour world comprised of an exotic assemblage of global, cultural, and historical pieces. You’ll be able to explore the connection between dress and identity and immerse yourself in Daniel’s unique point of view.