Guest Post by Maya Man: (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

Maya Man was elected by the Friends of HEK 2023 community to create a solo exhibition on HEK’s online exhibition space, virtual.hek.ch. In this blog post, Man gives insights into the conceptual background of the exhibition, exploring Danish fairytales, the online shopping platform, depop, and red shoes as objects of desire.

In April of 1845, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen published the fairy tale “The Red Shoes.” The story warns against temptation and greed by making an example out of the young girl protagonist. In the story, the girl intensely desires a pair of gorgeous, expensive red shoes. She begs for them and eventually receives them as a gift. But once she puts them on, she is unable to take them off and they force her to dance incessantly against her will. At the end, she gets the shoes, and her feet, cut off. 

This “thou shalt not covet” cautionary tale, first passed along to me by Molly Soda over lunch while discussing ballet flats, has been retold throughout art, music, and film over the last century, always connecting a young girl’s desire to both dancing and her own demise. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film, Kate Bush’s album, and Matthew Bourne’s ballet, all titled The Red Shoes (1948, 1993, and 2016 respectively), each present the concept of a girl forced to dance to her death by her earthly desires. 

Left: Still from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948); Right: Kate Bush, The Red Shoes (1993) album cover.

This exhibition (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes takes inspiration from the original fairytale story as well as its forms of reproduction, which I believe to also include, consciously or not, Elvis Costello’s 1993 single which inspired the show’s title. The central, browser-based piece in the show features a collection of user’s posts scraped from Depop, a social shopping platform known for its young audience and ability to capture, though its users, the demand for current trends. The posts featured in the work were collected via a script written to automatically search the category “shoes for “ballet flats” that are tagged as “red”. The resulting dataset gives a glimpse into the endless circulation of “pre-loved” and “lightly worn” shoes online. 

@i_love_tiktok__47

study for a new browser-based work coming this january ❣️

♬ original sound – 🧸

 

Like the original fairytale, this piece focuses on the red shoe as an object of desire. But unlike in the original fairytale, the girls in this story are not only desiring, but also manufacturing desire, working to convince others like them to wish for what they are posting. This comes through in the descriptions attached to each image, clearly typed out by a person rather than a faceless brand: “fratelli rossetti RARE designer ballet flats 🍒,” “red is THE color for the winter so these are perfect to have,” “remind me a bit of mui mui #muimui #balletflats #freepeople #stevemadden #balletcore”, “🥺🥺 the cutest red gingham vintage flats. look at those little bows!!” In 2023, the roles of buyer and seller in consumer markets are blurred and cyclical. Those who are posting on Depop once desired to be the owner of what they are now working to discard. 

Screenshot of «(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes», Maya Man, 2024

There are, it feels, thousands of think pieces, tweets, and tiktoks theorizing on the “accelerated pace of consumer culture due to micro trends.” It sounds heady, almost immaterial, when considering this phenomenon through abstracted language. With this piece, the audience is intended to feel the opposite: the weight and presence of each item, as they are confronted with girl-posted, red shoe Depop listings one by one. The website visualizes the material existence of all of this “ballet-core” Depop debris.

The data unfolds on screen in a performance that plays out differently with each refresh. The algorithm live generates the score, a new note is played each time a letter is typed on screen. The generated music provides a soundtrack to the posts as they debut, and in a sense, dance out on top of this custom built, in-browser stage. The code will run forever if you let it, just like a girl in her red shoes, who dutifully dances on and on…

Unlike shiny and sterile e-commerce product shots, images on Depop appear highly intimate. These images are mostly taken by girls on their phones in their bedroom rather than professionals in a photography studio. The amateur photography along with the instagram style interface of Depop makes the entire browsing experience a bit voyeuristic. Not in a creepy way, but instead in a way, that to me, is comforting. It feels as if I am inside of the posting girl’s house, peeking into her closet, debating if I want to take home her unwanted pair of red shoes. The collages included in the exhibition feature both photos and text excerpts from individual red shoe Depop listings. 

Left to right: #balletcore #redflats #coquette, Too Big On Me </3, Too Big On Me </3, Maya Man, 2024

Shoes, and ballet shoes specifically, have a long and fraught relationship to youth and femininity. This past year, ballet-core, ballet flats, and everything “girl” soared in popularity. As shiny as these new trends may feel on TikTok, the driving force beneath, a girl caught between her complex desire for art, beauty, respect, and approval, is a fairytale as old as time, yet one historically told at the expense of the girl herself. What forces beyond individual desire are play in these stories? As Claire M. Healy writes in her column Girlhood Studies for AnOther Magazine, “The physical architecture of the ballet shoe produces its own metaphor for idealised girlhoods: the expectation to appear shiny and flexible, and to conceal unruly or dysfunctional interiors.” Peek behind what easily appears shiny and flexible through the glass of a screen and consider the algorithmic operation of the machine inside. The girl world machine churns on, “red ballet flats” are in, I want a pair, and I watch myself want them: Perpetual dancer, choreographer, and critic, all at once. 

Found image

“Oh, I used to be disgusted

But now I try to be amused

But since their wings have got rusted

You know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

But when they told me ’bout their side of the bargain

That’s when I knew that I could not refuse

And I won’t get any older, now that the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Oh, I won’t get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes”

– Lyrics from Elvis Costello’s (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

We look forward to Maya Man’s solo exhibition, «(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes», on virtual.hek.ch opening on March 17th, 2024! Man will also be releasing a new book on February 8th, 2024 under the title: FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, more information can be found here.

Want to contribute to HEK’s decision making activities? Join the new Friends of HEK season here, we’re still in the early stages so it’s the perfect time to have your voice heard. Free online onboarding sessions can also be booked here.