A Review of “David Bowie Is”

Jay Ruttenberg reviewed "David Bowie Is" for Fashion Projects in January, 2015, as the show was concluding its run at the MCA in Chicago. On the occasion of the exhibition's takeover of the Brooklyn Museum, here is the review once more….

6033d9bodysuit
6033d9bodysuit

by Jay Ruttenberg

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.

“David Bowie Is,” the museum retrospective of the singer that recently concluded its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, featured virtually every artistic medium imaginable. Included works extended to music, film, video, fashion, and, in Bowie’s portraits of his Berlin running buddy Iggy Pop, painting. One display case featured the star’s long-retired cocaine spoon—a redundancy, considering the exhibition’s inclusion of his “Life on Mars?” video.

The show originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and made its sole U.S. stop in Chicago, where it was greeted with the crowds and fanfare of a blockbuster. The outpouring of interest seems sensible: Absent from public performance for nearly a decade, Bowie is pop’s missing man. His mark remains everywhere; he is nowhere. “David Bowie Is,” which was produced with the subject’s cooperation, if not curatorship, made a resounding case for his significance. To view the exhibition’s many rooms detailing his work in the 1970s was to peak into the 1980s. The phlegmatic British vocals that would dominate a corner of ’80s pop and the nervous mutability of music and media that would define Madonna (to say nothing of Gaga) have roots here; arguably, so does Michael Jackson’s cheesy white Thriller suit. In one displayed video, 1979’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as his own backup singers, garbed in the elaborate gowns and wigs of female drag. What seems shocking about the video, however, is the main image of Bowie ostensibly as himself, clad in the dark suit of a prototypical mid-80s yuppie. It’s this look—which, for the record, predates Bret Easton Ellis’s debut by six years—that appears to be the video’s true act of drag.

A museum show about a pop star inevitably runs into limitations. In an exhibition of a painter, visitors directly confront the subject’s primary source: the painting is the ultimate art. Even for a multidisciplinarian such as Bowie, the true art lies in his records and performances; the stuff inside display cases can seem secondary, if not trivial. But the aim of this exhibit, where headphone-clad visitors roamed as an army of enthralled zombies, was immersion. It was presented with high-minded care and, at least when covering the years that matter, the exhaustiveness of a box set. Over 400 items were on hand: photographs, handwritten lyrics, a monstrous set of keys from the musician’s Berlin apartment, even an old pocket map for the West Berlin subway. There were also more than 60 stage costumes, most fetchingly the pear-like black-and-white jumpsuit that Kansai Yamamoto designed for the Aladdin Sane tour. Even all these years on, we discover new sides to the pop star: Meet Ziggy Stardust, the world’s most glamorous hoarder.

But the exhibition’s showstopper was drawn from nobody’s closet. Rather, it was the famous video of Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live, in the waning days of the 1970s. The video deserved greater prominence at the MCA, if not an entire museum to call its own; it also would have benefited from the other two songs recorded for the episode. Nonetheless, the clip could move mountains. Bowie is accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, vanguard figures from the nocturnal club world, both clad in monochromatic Thierry Mugler dresses. The men carry Bowie to his microphone as if he is a children’s toy. Wearing a cardboard tuxedo that was designed by the singer and Mark Ravitz under the spell of 1920s Dada, Bowie sings with the bemused detachment of a Martian. Space alien analogies always fit Bowie—after all, we are talking about the Man Who Fell to Earth—but they seem particularly apt for the SNL appearance. At the taping, he was newly returned from self-imposed exile in West Berlin, introducing irrefutably avant-garde notions to a mainstream arena. (Not for nothing did Kurt Cobain cover this song in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set.) The ’80s—which thwarted the world’s rock stars where no drug or label chicanery ever could—were mere days away. Bowie seemed intent on ending his decade of dominance in spectacular style. The appearance is not an act of subversion so much as it is a sterling media performance—pop as art and back again.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Readerand of its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. He has written for The New York Times,The Boston Globe, and other publications.

2d11c1aladdinsane
2d11c1aladdinsane

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photo: Brian Duffy. © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive.

Experimental Fashion Lecture at the Somerset House, London, April 6th

  Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

by Francesca Granata

I will be giving a lecture on my book "Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body" April 6th at the Somerset House in London organized in partnership with the Fashion Research Network.

I am particularly excited to discuss the work of Rei Kawakubo, whose exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is forthcoming. Most of my research on Kawakubo's work was, in fact, conducted at the Met's Costume Institute while I was there as a Polaire Weissman Research Fellow. Equally exciting was to research Kawakubo's collaboration with Merce Cunningham for Scenario at the Cunningham Archives, then located at Bank Street, and at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts.

For anyone interested in coming to the lecture and chatting afterwards about experimental fashion while sipping wine, please visit the Somerset House website, as advanced reservations are required.

 

On the Beauty of the Already Known: A Review of the 'Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia' Exhibition at MoMu Antwerp Fashion Museum

   
  
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     Installation by 'Honest by' Bruno Pieters in collaboration with Marie Sophie Beinke. Photo: Stany Dederen

Installation by 'Honest by' Bruno Pieters in collaboration with Marie Sophie Beinke. Photo: Stany Dederen

by Roberto Filippello

In the face of current accelerationist tendencies in political and social theory pointing toward an intensification and repurposing of capitalism, the exhibition "Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia," on view at MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp until February 26th, auspicates the return to a slow temporality that allows for the exploration of intimate connections with oneself and with others, suspending the pervasive mediation of the virtual into our everyday lives.

  Ensembles by Christian Wijnants. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Ensembles by Christian Wijnants. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

The exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of Rik Wouters's death. This Belgian fauvist painter (1882-1916) devoted a large part of his oeuvre to the exploration of serene and intimate domesticity through portraits of his wife Nel. His longing for a bucolic way of life, detached from urban frenzy, was informed by David Thoreau's transcendentalist inquiry into simple living as a conduit for personal introspection, and took artistic form in a series of unfinished canvases depicting scenes of harmonious homeliness.

 The exhibition, thanks to a multi-disciplinary curatorial philosophy, combines different media to dissect ideas, phenomena and aesthetics. Paintings and sculptures by Rik Wouters are displayed alongside ceramics, interiors and clothing by a number of Antwerp contemporary artists (BLESS, Atelier E.B., Berlinde de Bruyckere, Ben Sledsens) and fashion designers (A.F. Vandevorst, Ann Demeulemeester, Veronique Branquinho, Haider Ackermann, Bernhard Willhelm, Walter Van Beirendonck, Christian Wijnants, Dries Van Noten, Jan-Jan Van Essche, Martin Margiela, Marina Yee, Bruno Pieters, Anne Kurris) who have each in their own way addressed the desire to regain the secure intimacy of domestic life. Unfolding through seventeen thematic sections, such as 'Indoors,' 'Looking Outside,' 'Sculptures and Ceramics,' and 'Handicrafts,' the exhibition traces a visual narrative of how simple living has been translated into figurative and applied arts by artists and designers seeking shelter in an intimate creative environment, away from the turmoil of contemporary urban societies.

   
  
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   Dirk Van Saene's ceramic from Essaouira   (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Dirk Van Saene's ceramic from Essaouira (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 A renewed interest in artisanal techniques such as weaving, ceramics, and dyeing, as well as the usage of materials found in nature, are the key principles of the so-called "slow movement" to which this exhibit gives voice. As a reaction to the industrialization of fashion and its often unbearable hectic pace, the designers featured hereby make objects that are imbued with affective potential insofar as they result from a pondered and lived-through handcrafting practice. Their personal corporeal interaction with the matter reflects a utopian longing for an authentic way of being, living, and doing in the world. Antwerp-based fashion designer Christian Wijnants, for instance, dyes wool by hand and assembles collages of fabric using various application techniques such as knitting, embroidery and crochet. This hints at a bodily doing that disentangles fashion-making from the maze of corporate regulation and outsourced production to focus on the intimacy of affective engagement with fabrics and textures.

   
  
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   Ensembles by Walter Van Beirendonck   (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Ensembles by Walter Van Beirendonck (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

Reframing one's life in Thoreau's woods or in Thomas More's fictional island society, however, is not the only way to materialize utopic living. Throughout the exhibition, utopia comes to coincide with the beauty of the already known, figured through the making of Dirk Van Saene's home crafts, Bernhard Willhelm's crocheted accessories, or through the night silk gowns of A.F. Vandevorst, Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackerman. In a sensationalist era where technologies set out to design posthuman bodies, the familiarity with domestic attire conjures a sense of safety and tranquillity freed from the obsession with aesthetic futurism. According to Roland Barthes, the mark of the utopian is the quotidian (Sade, Fourier, Loyola).

   
  
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   Installation by Marina Yee. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Installation by Marina Yee. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

It is this kind of utopia that the exhibition ends up exploring: rather than advocating the 19th century idealist project of going back to nature, which was indeed dear to Rik Wouters, who moved to the edge of the Sonian Forest to live together with like-minded utopian artists. The exhibit seems to embody the concrete possibility of finding beauty and joy in the domestic setting. Utopia, as an affective structure, can be materialized through the regaining of what we already know in order to propel its yet undisclosed potentiality into the future. It consists of living with pragmatic and optimistic imagination: using the past, or the pre-existent, to act presently at the service of a better future.

Marina Yee, a member of the historically renowned fashion collective 'Antwerp Six,' which laid the foundation for current Belgian fashion culture, began to turn away from fashion's cyclical consumption in the 1980s and since then has worked at her own pace, focusing on sustainability and artistic development. In the exhibit, an oil painted replica of a 19th century camisole and a sculpture made of glass, silver, copper, wire and leather by Yee are on display. Bruno Pieters, with his collective ethical label 'Honest by Bruno Pieters' questions the norms and regulations enacted by mainstream fashion by sharing with the customer how the garments are manufactured, the hours required for their completion and the pay received by the seamstresses. These details constitute the core of his utopia for a sustainable future.

   
  
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     Maison Martin Margiela's blanket becoming one with the interior. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Maison Martin Margiela's blanket becoming one with the interior. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

These designers share a creative practice grounded in the ambition to redesign clothes, interiors and all the objects of the everyday life beyond the unethical limitations posed by industrialization, imagining a future in which applied arts contribute to human and environmental well-being. Such a perspective is invested with the optimism of finding beauty in the creative process and of letting the consumer participate in it: while acceleration has failed to produce a collective sense of accomplishment, slow movement and sustainability foster a sense of belonging in which harmony may be intimately felt and shared.  

Roberto Filippello is a fashion editor and writer whose academic expertise lies at the intersection of fashion studies and queer theory. He is an alumnus of the Master of Arts in Fashion Studies at Parsons The New School, where he has taught courses on the history of fashion and critical analysis of fashion photography. His current research focuses on the articulation of queer affectivity in fashion and pornography.

A Review of the Exhibition "Fashioning the Body"

 Double_Panniers

Double_Panniers

by Rachel Kinnard Double panniers with pockets. France, 1775–80. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

“There is no natural body, but rather a culturally-defined body that reflects the social requirements of the period in which it exists,” Curator Denis Bruna notes in the accompanying exhibition texts to "Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette." The exhibition, at the Bard Graduate Center, tells the history of western fashion through the undergarments that provided its foundation. The collection includes such varied items as 400-year-old “Spanish doublet,” corsets for children, and the contemporary push-up bra. During the curatorial tour for the show, Bruna insisted that the exhibition was about “the body--not fashion.” While the exhibition narrates the history of the western body through shaping undergarments, "Fashioning the Body" brilliantly demonstrates how fashion and the body are inextricable from each other. This is an exhibition about the fashion and the body.

Situated in the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s six-story townhouse, the exhibition spans three floors connected by a spiral staircase. Considering the prudish nature of the items’ original owners, the intimate gallery setting feels appropriate for examining garments that were never meant for public view. The show traveled to New York City from the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. It was originally shown in 2013 under the title "La Mécanique des dessous," which translates to "The Mechanics of Underwear."

Displayed on mannequins hidden under black velvet, these shells from past bodies seem to float in mid-air. The exhibition design is perfect, allowing an unusual intimacy between viewer and object. A whalebone stay is displayed at the particular angle which reveals its internal architecture, the side that was once pressed up against its wearer’s flesh. It’s a rare chance to see the complex skeleton of these bodily casings usually seen only from the exterior.

The ancient underpinnings are brought to life through animated reconstructions placed throughout the galleries. Deliberately displayed on white, full body mannequins to differentiate them from historical garments, the mechanized reconstructions serve as ghostly tour guides wearing self-animated clothing. An articulated panier slowly collapses onto the mannequins hips, demonstrating how a woman would flatten her wide silhouette to pass through a narrow doorway or board a carriage. On another reconstruction, a hoop skirt rises from the floor to encase the frozen mannequin’s lower half.

 Bridal_Corset

Bridal_Corset

Bridal corset. United States, ca. 1860–70. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

Like most fashion exhibitions displaying historic dress, "Fashioning the Body" commissioned unique mannequins to fit the garments. The mannequins themselves are important to this exhibition, receiving their own portion of a gallery dedicated to viewing them undressed. Shown bare, we can see the variants of the ideal western body through the centuries. The forms are displayed chronologically to illustrate the changing shape of the idealized female form. It’s an unusual and ingenious approach to displaying the body in the context of a fashion exhibition. Instead of relying on period ephemera such as paintings or photography, the exhibition exposes the bodies directly from the display cases. In this approach, the viewer can interpret the garments on display and the bodies shape these highly structured garments would have called upon and helped construct.

Experiencing the transformation of the corset through its various incarnations is a powerful demonstration of how the female body has been forcibly controlled by western fashion. Corsets are generally known by most as uncomfortable and restrictive undergarments of history. But the experience of "Fashioning the Body" strips the corset of any romanticism and presents the harsh physicality of the contraption. It’s made clear in the exhibition that a women’s stay was her second skin. As noted in the accompanying exhibition text, there was a time when a gentlemen might present “a rod made of metal, horn, wood, ivory, or whalebone that is inserted at the center front [of a women’s stay] in order to stiffen the torso,” as a gift to his dearest. A gift that at once is held close to the heart (literally) and acts as an aggressive torso stiffening device for his beloved.

Today, undergarments such as the metal caged crinolines and whalebone corsets on view seem archaic to the contemporary body. But although the contraptions have changed, the need to fit a fashionable ideal through a controlled body remains to be a powerful aspect of western culture. On the same day of the exhibition opening in New York City, the French National Assembly approved a bill that would punish modeling agencies for hiring malnourished models. If passed into law, the measure would also require labeling on photos using retouching to alter a model’s appearance. The fashionable silhouette is ever changing, but the pursuit to control and shape the body into an ideal is timeless.

"Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette" is on view at Bard Graduate Center Gallery from April 3–July 26, 2015.

Rachel Kinnard is Assistant to the Chair of Fashion Design at Pratt Institute. She holds her BFA in Fashion Design and MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons The New School for Design. Rachel’s research interests explore the boundaries between fashion and body, specifically within technology and medicine. www.rachel-kinnard.com

 Bustier_Bra

Bustier_Bra

Bra (and bustier). France, 1920–30. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

A Review of "Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive – Couture in Colour" at MOMU

by Philip Warkander Hubert de Givenchy, Winter 1971/72. Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri. Gazar Brodé Chenille, Winter 1971/72. Silk and entamine, shantung appliqué. Abraham Archive.

In1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker published the book Art Worlds, in which he argued that art is not the production of single individuals – artists – but rather the result of a number of interactions among people and materials, together constituting the contexts in which art works can be defined as such. According to Becker, art is not the result of one person’s work, but is a value constructed according to specific settings, or art worlds. This perspective has become hugely influential in art theory while also having an impact in fashion studies, most notably through sociologist Yunyia Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An introduction to Fashion Studies (2004). Explaining how fashion comes into being, Kawamura aligns herself with Becker by claiming that fashion should not be understood as the product of designers working in creative isolation in their studios, but instead as the effect of an entire system of interactions, based on the negotiations between designers, stylists, magazine editors, PR consultants, retailers as well as a number of other actors.

Currently on view at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is an exhibition exploring the effects of this theoretical perspective on the textiles, prints and fabrics manufactured by the Swiss company Abraham Ltd. The exhibition was originally produced by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, but the Antwerp version (in the museum’s own words) “recaptures and expands” the original version. Placing the materiality of the fabrics and the print designs at the center of the exhibition, the process of producing prints is explained in detail, not only making for a pedagogical but also for an aesthetically advanced display. For example, the exhibition shows how a rose pattern, which was one of the company’s trademark prints, required nine stencils to print nine colors in nine separate print runs. The fabrics produced by Abraham Ltd. were so intricate that they became – due to the high cost of production – often reserved for haute couture, thus establishing intimate interconnections between the Swiss company and French couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As a result, Abraham Ltd. became one of the key players in the high fashion industry of the twentieth century, their patterns and textiles shaping much of what is otherwise generally assumed to have been designed within the couture houses.

Installation with 20 Abraham scrapbooks, 2010. Abraham Archive

The textile supplier worked closely with Dior haute couture throughout the 1950s, and when Christian Dior passed away, the company’s leader Gustav Zumsteg met Yves Saint Laurent at his funeral, marking the beginning of a partnership that would hugely influence contemporary fashion, ending with Yves Saint Laurent’s last couture collection and the demise of Abraham Ltd, both in 2002.

Abraham’s technical possibilities for producing blow-up prints had a huge impact on the fashion of the 1960s, while the company’s talent for creating animal prints enhanced fashion’s “playwith abstraction and illusion”, as stated in the exhibition texts. Monochrome fabrics show the complexity of the materials, sheen surfaces and raw structures creating unexpected and organic patterns. The exhibition creates a narrative through a textile archive of the recent past, but with a new perspective on the creations of some of the most established and iconic designs. The works of Pierre Cardin, Nina Ricci and Pierre Balmain are exhibited here as products of collaborations, the result of successful partnerships between textile supplier and fashion house. These relationships are explored to their fullest in the small exhibition room named “Abraham Revisited”, in which five contemporary fashion designers (Akris, Peter Pilotto, Dries Van Noten, Heinrich Brambilla and Diane von Furstenberg) selected their favorite fabric and prints from the Abraham archive and then projected these onto mannequins wearing their own iconic designs. The result underlines the power of fabric and patterns, altering the appearance of the fashion designs with each new projection.

Focusing an exhibition on a fabric company unknown to most people outside of the fashion industry might sound like a niche strategy, targeted mainly on those already in-the-know However, the beauty of the materials is overwhelming and the story of this company fascinating, so much so that I was brought to tears as I walked through the exhibition space, in awe of the understated elegance and vivid display of craftsmanship. Also, the mapping of how the fabrics were once shipped to over forty countries (detailing quantities, dates, cities) worldwide chronicles the complexities of the system of high fashion while momentarily bringing back to life all the many individual but largely anonymous actors, without whom the iconic designs of the large couture houses would never have come into existence.

Philip Warkander recently completed his PhD in Fashion Studies, and is currently working as a freelance fashion writer and consultant, while also teaching fashion theory and gender studies in Stockholm.

Silk and Prints from the Abraham Archive. Couture in Colour. Photo: Boy Kortekaas