In the summer of 2020, when Americans were cautiously emerging from the first Covid-19 lockdown, the multimedia artists Joe McShea and Edgar Mosa quit New York City for Fire Island, a long strip of land just south of Long Island, and began making flags. McShea started out in photography while Mosa trained as a goldsmith, but the two, now partners in work and in life, have long been preoccupied with the interaction between fabric and the elements. In 2018, inspired by the Baroque frescoes at the 13th-century Palazzo Monti, in Brescia, Italy, where they were artists-in-residence, they developed a series of ephemeral sculptures by wrapping stone staircases in ribbons and photographing fabric in water. As an afterthought, they also created a flag made of ribbons fixed to a cardboard tube with masking tape. Though it was simple, they felt it had power and, sure enough, things took off two summers later, when the duo began sewing colorful hand-dyed silks, deadstock ribbons and tulle to lengths of ribbon that, doubled over, acted as halyards — or, as they refer to them, hoist ribbons — and tying those with simple bows to scavenged bamboo poles, which they planted on the beaches of Fire Island Pines.
Though the poles only ever sat in the sand for several hours at a time, during sunny intervals with lots of breeze (“We’d always be watching the skies to catch the perfect moment to let them fly,” says McShea), they proved an invitation: An eclectic crowd began to gather in the same spot to see the couple’s latest creations unfurling in the wind. “People were drawn to them,” recalls McShea. “They had a hypnotic quality.” The gatherings, in turn, dispelled his and Mosa’s misgivings about Fire Island, which is known for being a party destination. “We found there were a lot of creative people there seeking quietude and wanting to make work,” says Mosa. “We were able to gather a small family.”
What did the installations mean? Lots of people wanted to know. But McShea, a 36-year-old bleached-blond Marylander and the more voluble of the duo, and Mosa, who grew up in Portugal, has dark hair and is also 36, repeatedly demurred. In contrast to the national flags McShea pored over in his atlas as a child, these were intended not as symbols but as a call to contemplation. “Instead of telling you, ‘Go here, feel this, march, fight, kill, whatever,’ they are not speaking back to you,” he explains. “And when they are stripped of that meaning, all that’s left is the physical object, which is this beautiful flowing textile interacting with light, water, air.” Plus, Mosa adds, “They are oftentimes a really good vehicle for cutting through small talk.”
The flags cut through the noise on social media, too, which is how Jonathan Anderson, creative director of the Spanish fashion house Loewe, came across them. The Brooklyn-based artist Doron Langberg, who is a friend of McShea and Mosa’s, ended up painting the pair one afternoon in the Pines as part of a 2020 commission from the Public Art Fund. Anderson bought the painting and, curious to find out more about its subjects, searched for the couple on Instagram. In July 2021, he messaged the men asking for more information about their work. “I felt like [the flags] were such an optimistic symbol,” says Anderson. “I grew up in Northern Ireland in the early ’90s so when I think of flags, I always think of the negative connotations — the two sides.” These flags, by contrast, seemed “a symbol of a better future.”
This past weekend, 87 of the pair’s ribbon flags captivated a new audience: the attendees of Loewe’s fall 2022 men’s wear show, which was held at the Tennis Club de Paris, in the city’s 16th arrondissement. Dressed in looks rich with surrealist touches, such as bodysuits with LED lights aglow just under the surface, handbags shaped like conch shells and coats embellished with round drain covers, the models crunched their way across a floor covered with sand — 40 tons of it, to be exact — and through a guard-of-honor-style formation of fabric. Hung from a network of slanted aluminum poles, each measuring just over 21 feet long, were some 8 miles’ worth of silk ribbons in a spectrum of 13 candy-colored hues. Unlike on Fire Island, there was no wind to move them around. (A wind machine was considered but ruled out.) Instead, says Mosa, “we went with that tension — a flag that is silent and asking for, waiting for, a little breeze that makes it flutter.” Indeed, there was a sense of anticipation each time the ribbons trembled and a new model came into view beneath them. And certainly the set heightened the feeling of displacement evoked by the clothes — it was as though the men were traversing a forest in a strange but beautiful parallel realm.
McShea and Mosa arrived in Paris four months before the show to create the site-specific work. Having visited the approximately 15,000-square-foot venue and acquainted themselves with the Loewe team, they set about devising a layout within which they could unveil as many flags as possible. “From the beginning, we wanted to fill the space,” says McShea. (A short film by the British director Stephen Isaac Wilson documenting the process, which included a kind of artistic warm-up during a side trip to Ibiza in December, can be viewed on Loewe’s YouTube and Instagram channels.) It was a meaningful experience for McShea and Mosa’s practice and relationship. After all, art making has always been their preferred method of communicating with one another — their second date consisted of a photo shoot, held in McShea’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn, living room, of jewelry that Mosa had designed. Anderson, too, feels buoyed by artists and makers — in 2016, he helped establish the Loewe Craft Prize, which supports artisans around the world with a prize of 50,000 euros (about $57,000) and an exhibition — and, more so than most fashion designers, often collaborates with them. “I feel that my job, what I do, is ultimately [to create] a platform for people,” he says, “and to come up with things that have creative integrity.”
In six months or so, when the men’s collection begins to drop, McShea and Mosa’s flags will be installed in Loewe stores around the world. By that time, the artists will be back in New York and, they hope, planning their next project. For now, though, they are pinching themselves. McShea, a poetry lover who tends to underline passages that resonate with or contextualize the duo’s work, cites a few lines from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: “The flags sang their colors / and the wind is a bamboo shoot between the hands / The world grows like a bright tree.”