Ben Westwood, son of Vivienne, claims celebrity as his influence and has taken pictures to prove it. Since he was raised by two punk icons in a house where the Sex Pistols dropped by for tea, perhaps it's not surprising.
Ben Westwood has a knack for controversy. But then, the second-generation enfant terrible, fetish photographer, and crusader for hard-core porn was raised by controversy connoisseurs. Brought up by his mother, punk icon Vivienne Westwood, and her boyfriend, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Ben’s new art exhibition, “Spawn: Bound,” is, as much as anything, a tribute to his roots.
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The exhibition landed in East London in June, a collection of photo montages featuring the faces of celebrity children attached to bodies clad in bondage-wear and posed in awkward positions. Kelly Osbourne’s head sits atop the body of a woman squeezed into a rubber French maid’s outfit; Jade and Elizabeth Jagger are knotted lewdly together wearing lacy lingerie on a bed. Leah Wood, Kimberley Stewart, Theodora Richards, Amber Le Bon, and Stella McCartney also make appearances, many of them bound, gagged, and squished into a variety of grotesque ensembles.
Predictably, the works have generated buzz, and in turn, put Westwood on the map. Peaches and Pixie Geldof (daughters of Irish rocker Bob) were said to be enraged at their inclusion in the artwork. Sharon Osbourne, with typical swagger, publicly offered to purchase the portrait of her daughter. And even the artist's own mother, Vivienne, allegedly deemed the concept " a load of rubbish." The fallout has been publicity gold, and now Westwood is said to be scouting locations in New York for a new show that would add Liv Tyler, Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, and Paris Hilton to the mix.
But whether such a show will produce the same shock value for jaded New Yorkers remains an open question. "I don't know,” admits Westwood. “Maybe they'll be a bit more familiar with bondage than in London—it is cowboy country after all.”
“I’m not mocking these girls…although some people might want to have Peaches [Geldof] tied up and gagged.”
He describes his work as a comment on the modern phenomenon of “famous children of the famous,” held back by their parent’s star power—a theme in which his life has been an immersion study. “They’ll always be introduced as someone’s daughter, in the same way that I am always introduced as someone’s son,” he says. “You wonder whether you have ever achieved anything for yourself.”
Critics have dubbed the collection cynical, and Westwood, who normally eschews pop culture, confesses to not even knowing who half the celebrities were before he came up with the idea for the project. “I’m not mocking these girls,” he insists. “That’s nothing to do with it, although some people might want to have Peaches tied up and gagged,” he adds, cheekily.
The drama surrounding the show is nothing new for the artist who, in October, caused an uproar with his theatrical defense of hard-core pornography in London’s House of Commons. Westwood stormed the legislators’ chamber with a chain of bound-and-gagged models dressed in fetish clothing, in protest of a government bill that could potentially ban his book of sadomasochistic photographs of women, F**k Fashion: The Erotic Photography of Ben Westwood.
“We shouldn’t be controlled by an establishment view of morality,” explains Westwood of the protest. (The government claims it’s cracking down on what it sees as dangerously “extreme” and “violent” pornography.) “If people were actually dying in images, then fine. But it’s acting. Fantasies are fantasies.”
For all the bombast, in person Westwood is rather timid, soft spoken even. He looks like Fagin from Oliver Twist—wiry, with long, graying hair and a perfectly pointy beard. His eyes, small and birdlike—similar to his mother’s—are intense. The son of Vivienne’s first husband, Derek, he was born in North London while she was still a teacher. After the couple divorced, Westwood moved with his mother to Clapham where he grew up in the thick of London’s punk explosion. Bricks were thrown through their windows. The Sex Pistols came round for tea. Johnny Rotten once took young Westwood to the dentist.
Did he ever yearn for something more conventional? “I’ve never known what conventional was. It just seemed more colorful and adventurous with my mother,” he says, admitting that there was tension with McLaren, who was just 19 years old when he and Vivienne met. “I was always a bit wary. He wasn’t a father figure, but then he wasn’t trying to be. He was a big, romantic kid himself.”
Westwood developed his taste for kink early. “It started with shows like Batman and Robin. They were always being tied up, weren’t they?” Porn as a career came relatively late, though. He studied furniture design and worked a few jobs, including a stint for his mother’s fashion company in the 1980s, before turning to his dual passions: fetish and art photography. He’s since produced numerous specialist books, a porn film titled Gangster of Love, and other exhibitions. And he works regularly with half-brother Joseph Corre (purveyor of saucy undies line Agent Provocateur) on titillating window and photography projects. He’s also accrued an impressive collection of vintage ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s porn, which influences his work heavily.
His latest project is developing a small collection of men’s clothing, which he hopes to show at London Fashion Week in February. But for now, his main priority seems to be his photography. What does he make of the reaction to his images? “Well, they’re an ice breaker.”
London-based journalist Lucie Greene is a regular contributor to titles including The Financial Times UK, Women’s Wear Daily, and I-D Magazine. She specializes in fashion, luxury and culture.