Everything he touches turns to phantasmagoria. James Merry proves much more than “Björk’s mask-maker”.
“The custom gown took 550 hours to fashion, 320 of which were spent embroidering.”
Everything James Merry touches turns to phantasmagoria. Hunkered in the confines of a crowded Eurotunnel terminal, encircled by bi-lingual shouts that protest our 3+ hour delays (a power outage on the English side has triggered a landslide of late departures), my spirits could have easily dampened. Instead, I’m glued to my tablet; transfixed by visuals, both moving and static, of Merry’s awe-striking oeuvre. Scenes from “The Gate” — released by Bjork two years ago to fervent acclaim — erupt with scintillating splendour. Everyone talks about the Gucci dress encasing her (and with good reason: the custom gown took 550 hours to fashion, 320 of which were spent embroidering) but it’s Merry’s otherworldly masks, not to mention his co-creative direction across the music video, that have me hooked.
Coruscating stills from a shoot with Tim Walker – boasting Pam Hogg garments and gold-pearl nosepieces by Merry – have travelled from the pages of Vogue Italia to the V&A, as part of Walker’s “Wonderful Things” showcase. Even the most lo-fi phone footage of Björk’s summer performances at The Shed – a spellbinding residency show in New York that introduced her tenth concert tour (and first theatrical production), ‘Cornucopia’ – corroborates claims that this latest tour is her most intricate yet, and Merry played no small part in crafting this optical feast. Consumed by the magical worlds these artists have woven, my mind feels miles away from the surrounding chaos.
Transcripts from my mid-autumn chat with Merry, who resides in Iceland, prove just as resonant. A softly-spoken Renaissance Man (minus the ego) Skypes me from his small cabin-cum-studio, whose location straddles the best of both worlds: a mountain stands between Merry’s home and Reykjavík, fully immersing him in nature (birdsong occasionally soundtracks our conversation), but “I can actually walk to a bus and get downtown quite easily whenever cabin fever starts kicking in. That’s one of the best things about Reykjavik, the proximity of the nature to the city – you can be right in the middle of town, and within 20 minutes be out in a deserted lava field.”
Raised in Gloustershire, Merry, a natural-born hand-embroiderer, has been encircled by creativity from the outset: in a reverse rebellion of sorts, rather than follow suit when his sisters went to art school, he studied Classical Greek at Oxford. Such tutelage garnered unexpected use when, post-uni, he wound up working for Damien Hirst: “I worked in his studio [in London] producing the butterfly paintings. Since many of their scientific names correspond to characters in Greek myth, I got really good at remembering all the lepidoptera classifications and ended up moving to work in his office.” His now iron-clad collaborative ties to Bjork were sparked in 2009, while still working with Hirst, when an assisting position arose on her impending, multifarious project, “Biophilia” (released in 2011). Following the Icelandic songstress to New York, the travel-heavy decade that ensued has seen Merry propel his embroidery to unprecedented heights, whilst expanding his savoir-faire in a myriad of artistic mediums: app-building, album coordination, virtual reality experimentation..
It’s safe to say that, aesthetically speaking, Björk and Merry are remarkably in sync.
Their intertwined, ever-evolving tastes mesh technology and nature together, spawning — to cite some of their greatest hits so far — silicon face-pieces in sorbet shades and part-lace, part-pearl ‘moth masks’. ”Most of my earlier headpieces were entirely embroidered,” Merry states, “usually onto a flat piece of fabric that would be worn flat against the face — but after the third or fourth mask, I wanted to start lifting the thread off the face and make it float around the head.. So, naturally, I started experimenting with wire; threading pearls onto it and bending it by hand symmetrically around the face.” Sometimes, it feels as if they’ve plundered a cabinet of curiosities and dissected its contents, re-constructing each find within an extraterrestrial framework; other times, their provenance seems to evade definition, so inventively sourced are their references. Nevertheless, hearing Merry recount his and Bjork’s formative attendance, ten years ago, at the National Geographic Explorers Convention in Washington D.C — an invitation-sealed gathering of scientists, conservators and other ecological innovators — I get a stronger sense of how their collaborative influences started (quite literally) to flower.
“At the end of the convention we met with the boss of National Geographic, and they couldn’t believe that we had gone to every single lecture and speech,” Merry recalls. “I think most people usually show up just for one or two [talks], but we sat through the whole thing – taking notes and meeting with the explorers afterwards. It felt like being back at university.” Merry is known to the press as Bjork’s prodigious mask-maker, and this obviously forms a key facet of his creative practise (in 2016, fans could emulate Merry through a Make Your Own Mask kit released in partnership with Wintercroft). Yet labelling him as such can unintentionally stick him in one-trick-pony territory, when this couldn’t be further from the truth — he has co-helmed creative direction across Bjork’s “Vulnicura” (2015) and “Utopia” (2017) videos, alongside various other visual offshoots.
This eclecticism aside, Merry approaches each project with an embroiderer’s mindset. A literal thread lacing through his life’s work, he thinks while he makes: the most pre-meditation and prototyping he’s been met with occurred during that Gucci collaboration for “The Gate”. “The masks have ended up moving in a more sculptural direction, now without any sewing or thread involved at all,” says Merry, “but in my head [it’s] still embroidery.. just in three dimensions. Even my drawings in pencil or pen tend to be an extension of my embroidery: they are often just line drawings, so I feel like it is the same idea of a thread running across the page.. just in a different medium.” Somehow, he still finds time to flesh out his solo pursuits: as one example, “Sporticulture”, concocted for Opening Ceremony, pairs Merry’s flora-and-fauna embroideries with vintage, logo-centric athleisure, the latter thoughtfully sourced by the artist.
With Cornucopia’s Dublin incarnation on track for Thursday 28th, Merry stresses the tour’s unforeseen magnitude: Bjork’s previous concert schedules were more residency-esque, involving a series of non-consecutive gigs in smaller venues across one city. Upsizing these spectacles to arena scale was no mean feat, but Merry is modestly proud of the result: sonic innovations include 360 degree sound and a specially-devised reverb chamber, evoking Bjork’s studio-recording process within a live setting, whilst Merry’s visual direction encompasses bespoke masks for Viibra, a self-described utopian flute septet, and — of course — the main visionary herself.
There’s little more I can tell you that won’t steal the element of surprise, but I’ll conclude with one last nugget: you have never seen Balmain Couture before you’ve seen it on Bjork.
@björk / @james.t.merry
Björk performs in the 3Arena on Thursday November 28th as part of “Cornucopia”, a touring spectacle which stems from her 2017 album, Utopia.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady
Feature Image: David Abrahams
James Merry Photo by Tim Walker
Drawing of Notget Mask by Alex Noble
Björk, Silver Wire and Cornucopia Photos by Santiago Felipe