London's Studio Swine has created a beautiful and provocative collection of art-pieces made from human hair in resin.
The exhibition, Hair Highway, was developed during Alex Groves and Azusa Murakami's residency in China, where they developed a new material by casting hair in pine resin, yielding a plastic that looks like amber.
The pieces play with ideas of sustainability, human worth, and commodification. There is already a global trade in human hair for wigs, which is explored in fascinating depth in The Red Market, Scott Carney's 2011 book-length investigative journalism piece on the market for human tissues.
China's Shandong province is one of the world's most important hair marketplaces. The pieces that Studio Swine created don't look like they come from hair, and are very beautiful, but the more you think about them, the more depth they reveal.
To accompany their collection, Studio Swine also wanted to document the the world's largest hair market in China's Shandong province. In a drab, smog-filled open air market, locks of all lengths and colors are sold like loaves of bread. Specialized vendors have stalls where hair gathered from nearby villages can be sorted by color, washed, ironed, and sewn into wigs and extensions. While these vendors are responsible for some of Hollywood's most glamorous manes, the market itself is threadbare. "The market is full of bikers with rabbit skins on the handle bars and sacks of hair brought of women in surrounding villages," says Groves. "At first it seems quite Mad Max, but they are actually really friendly."
Buying and selling human hair has become a billion-dollar business, filling the need for celebrity hair extensions, used-car salesman toupées, and some less savory applications. "In the past it has been processed for a protein that's used in baked goods and soy sauce," says Murakami, though rising prices have led manufacturers to replace hair with chicken feathers in their recipes.
Understandably reluctant to trust those who traffic in human body parts, it's customary for buyers to carry their own scales. "Virgin Hair" or soft hair that's never been treated, five-foot lengths grown over 15 year periods, and pure white hair from the aged are best-sellers. Blonde European hair is the most expensive product on offer, with a quarter pound of golden locks fetching nearly $2,000 on the open market.
An Ingenious New Material for High-End Design: Human Hair [Joseph Flaherty/Wired]