STICKING POINT: Mark Khaisman’s packing-tape portraits of Birkin bags at Pentimenti Gallery.
Mark Khaisman’s hands move quickly, layering colored, translucent strips of packing tape onto a homemade plexiglass light box and then slicing the roll away. The abstract shapes seem at first to be a frenetic kaleidoscope, but gradually a sharp jawline emerges from the chaos. He steps back to inspect what now is clearly the face of Victoria Beckham, part of a series he’s working on to show at CONTEXT Art Miami during Art Basel this December.
It took him a while to get here, though. Khaisman’s parents, artists themselves in the Cold War-era U.S.S.R., urged him toward the Moscow Architectural Institute and a comparatively practical career. After Khaisman and his wife moved to Philadelphia in 1989 to start a family, it was a challenge to visit home, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years later. But, per his parents’ wishes, Khaisman found work as a freelance architect, which entailed, he says, trying “to fit 20 office spaces into a building that only fit 18.” He also worked at a stained-glass studio; though it wasn’t artistically fulfilling, either, it did lead him to his current work.
A decade ago, he noticed the way the tape marking designs on a stained-glass work-in-progress created an array of gradients of shadows in its overlaps. Intrigued, he created his first tape image solely from brown packaging tape, slowly building the layers into an identifiable film still from Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
Khaisman chose this image for a reason, he says — black-and-white films obviously lend themselves to the medium of monochrome tape, but also because the scene was so iconic. “The tape image is kind of incomplete, so you must recognize and be familiar with the image so your brain can complete it for you. In a way, you feel like you unconsciously participated.”
After years of feeling “stuck” on stained glass and architecture, Khaisman felt he had finally arrived at his destined medium. But with a wife and three children to support, being a full-time artist wasn’t immediately financially viable. “Being an artist is a struggle, especially if you have family obligations,” he says. He held on to his jobs for years, making pieces in his spare time.
Then the Internet found him.
In early 2008, a reporter from the Daily Telegraph in London got in touch, looking for an interview. Confused, Khaisman asked how he’d found him. “He told me to look myself up online,” he laughs. When Khaisman Googled his own name, he says, he was surprised to turn up thousands of hits. Images of his tape works had gone viral on Tumblr and design blogs.
Press inquiries from all over the world started pouring into his inbox. Khaisman has since been the subject of a documentary in Tokyo, featured in exhibitions from Barcelona to Korea and written into textbooks read by German art students; an ad campaign featuring his work won a Silver Lion for best design at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. (The ads were for, naturally, tape.) He’s even been approached by Ripley’s Believe it or Not. “They contacted me for ‘craziest art’ — some stupid, stupid stuff,” says Khaisman. “I told them I’m in fine art, and I refuse to be in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
Khaisman’s been very into Hermès’ Birkin bags lately, as seen at an exhibition at Old City’s Pentimenti Gallery this spring and in the Victoria Beckham series. The Miami show expands pixelated paparazzi snapshots of Beckham toting some of her many Birkins — a few years ago, her collection was valued at more than $2 million — into kaleidoscope-like portraits.
Like the Hitchcock film still, the Birkin was partially chosen for its recognizability. But Khaisman also sees in it something of a parallel to the art world. Birkin bags start at between $5,000 and $10,000; bags made from saltwater crocodile leather or encrusted with diamonds can sell for upwards of $150,000. Further, the Birkin resale market, like the fine art market, is speculative — prices of individual bags can increase with time, and the resale value can be huge, particularly in Asia.
The high value placed on a Birkin is, as with art sold in high-end galleries, highly subjective. Birkins are handmade in France “with very high-quality craftsmanship, but that doesn’t determine the price,” Khaisman says. “It’s only priced like this because there are people that would buy it for all that money.”
How, the Birkin series seems to ask, do we assign value to objects? What distinguishes a $1,000 bag from a $10,000 bag? What’s the difference between artwork that sells for hundreds and artwork that sells for millions?
Khaisman is unsure how to feel about the pricing of his own art, especially given how the roots of his success are online, where, as people say, everything wants to be free. “Most of the time, your works are posted without permission. I feel OK about it if intentions are not commercial,” Khaisman pauses. “Unfortunately, if we were paid, like, 100 bucks every time they were posted, we’d be rich.”