Like all great ideas, Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao's delightfully bizarre photo project, Dress Tent, started with a muumuu.
It was 2004 and the two San Jose-based photographers were talking over the phone, floating ideas about the body in relation to place, shelter, clothing, and the basic necessities for survival, when suddenly it hit them—the idea to create and photograph a dress that doubles down as an enormous tent. Pao was staying temporarily in Hawaii at the time, so they started with a muumuu, using the metal ribs of an umbrella to give it structure. And that's how the Missionary Muumuu Dress Tent, the first of their dress tent installations, was born.
Over a decade later, Lasser and Pao have created and photographed over 20 dress tents, and have made an impressively solid career doing it. Though the dress tents started out as a personal project, they have since been commissioned by museums, artist residencies, and even the U.S. embassy in Russia. In each case, the pair built a narrative around the dresses and documented them. But now they're being brought together for the first time in a new exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California.
Since that first muumuu dress, the process of creating the dresses have gotten a bit more extensive. Pao, who has an interest in fashion, and Lasser, who has a background in installation and set design, now hire a team of fabricators to help them construct new installations. Whereas before, the structure of the dresses were more ad-hoc—built from umbrella tines or a children's play tunnel from IKEA—now they're made from the more sturdy combination of steel scaffolding and fabric. For example the Edible Garden Dress Tent, a commissioned installation for a popular wedding venue, the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California, it's even strong enough to hold a couple on a romantic swing under the skirt.
The dresses are a bizarre but impressive sight—a bit like a less benevolent versions of Mother Ginger in the Nutcracker; instead of 18 children dancing merrily from her skirt, the implication is that the camo-clad Ms. Homeland Security (2005) is smuggling in immigrants. Photographed against a backdrop of the Tijuana-San Diego border, Lasser and Pao created the dress as a self-initiated project, touching on geopolitical issues emerging in those years.
Six years later, they were asked by the U.S. consulate general in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to create a public installation. They chose a location foregrounding the Church on the Blood—so named for being the site where the last tsar of Russia and his family were killed—to install Ms. Yekaterinburg, whose skirt houses a camera obscura that visitors can view through a peephole in the pocket of her dress. The structure of her dress reflects architectural elements of the Russian orthodox cathedral in the background.
Although each of the dresses is fully collapsable and can be packed up and stored anywhere, the objects themselves are not currently part of the new exhibition. Still, this will be the first time the photographs have all been on view together in the U.S. "I would love if people came away with a sense of wonder and inspiration," says Lasser. "I hope people came away thinking about their own bodies in relation to place, and their own sense of identity and social justice."
[All Photos: Robin Lasser + Adrienne Pao]