While fashion, clothing, and style surround our social, aesthetic, and political lives, it is often overlooked variously as air-headed, consumer-complicit, unserious – and, as a result, prompts very few intellectual inquiries. But a new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design tries to move beyond what they have capitalized as “Fashion,” the commercial and aesthetic apparatus disliked for endlessly perpetuating its own clichés of short-lived trends, idealized body types, aggressive branding, and gender stereotyping. Instead, the exhibition desires to address a new, critical kind of “fashion” (non-capitalized) – one that operates in an “expanded field determined by concept and context,” and signaling “a more reflective, concerned, attentive & creative process that is not developed solely by commerce.”
This was an ambitious and admirable goal for the small exhibition fashion after Fashion – and one that, in summary, remained unresolved at MAD. Despite several interesting inclusions (Henrik Vibskov’s architectural installations, used both as performative environments in his shows and as sculptural works in their own right; Ensæmble’s (Alisa Närvänen and Elina Peltonen) sculptural cast molds of skinny blue jeans), the show failed to produce any cohesive argument that moved beyond the clichés (of commerce, of beauty-standards) that the exhibition itself set out to critique. Fashion designer (and a Central Saint Martins and Parsons double graduate) Ryohei Kawanishi presented a “fictitious” clothing brand and showroom promoting found garments, purposed as a critique of the specialized publicity strategies at work in the fashion industry – perhaps without the realization that in today’s world, self-aware, auto-critical branding is often the most desired, and found everywhere executed much more elaborately than Kawanishi’s white cube installation. More than anything, it felt like a preliminary stab, a first step towards an opening up of the sub-categories of “fashion practice” – particularly because the exhibition, despite its supposed anti-commercial stance, almost exclusively featured operative fashion businesses and brands.
However, a night of durational performances pushed the thesis of fashion After Fashion forward with a trio of new live work, co-curated by MAD staffers Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy and Danny Orendorff as a response to the formal exhibition. Entitled “Kinetic Intimacies” —a reference, perhaps, to the close interaction clothes play with the moving human body— the performances took the social and performative processes of dress(ing) as its starting point, and expanded outward, taking over the upper galleries of the museum. The role of performance in fashion, from its display and consumption to its experience on the body, is foundational, particularly, one could argue, in an expanded, critical fashion: the ephemeral nature of performance makes it fundamentally hard(er) to economize than objects, and approaching the concept of fashion as something temporal rather than material opens up a realm of conceptual possibilities.
Shani Ha’s Embody (Nude) (2017) illustrated, quite literally, garments’ central place in our perception of bodies, as she imagined the human form as constantly emerging from and morphing into garments. Three performers moved cautiously around the room dressed in shapeless, over-sized, beanbag-like dresses – sometimes, the top of a head or an arm sticking out, and in other moments only the indication of a human shape through layers of fabric. To the sound of an endless guitar riff, these bodies continuously shape-shifted, freezing intermittently in postures that ranged from unresolved blobs to sharp ballet poses. Each performer’s contorting costumes attempted (and ultimately failed) in “nude”-colored fabric to correspond with each performer’s respective skin tone, a recurring subject in fashion criticism; reminding the viewer of the many processes of standardization and economization that the body is subjected to in fashion design and image-making.
The fashioned body as image was echoed in all three pieces, but resonated particularly strongly in Chris Habana and Vincent Tiley’s Scorpions (2017). Counter to Ha’s immersive piece, Habana and Tiley staged three models on a black platform, dressed sparsely in leather underwear, mesh masks, and intricate strapped-on jewelry. Through the jewelry pieces, which cited both equestrian and S&M accessories in their form and color, two models were locked closely together heads facing each other, and their lips embracing a golden ball, suspended erotically between them. The third model, reclining by their side, had, in turn, their arm strapped to one of the models’ foot – in effect producing a knot of bodies that could only move as one. Like a fashion shoot, the performers assumed and extended still poses, producing a stream of “fashioned images” in zombie-time. The incredible tension, strain, and endurance of such image-making was clear by Habana’s manipulation of bodies: eventually, as performer succumbed to the strain of interlocking one’s body with another, and desperately moved a limb, the whole trio had to move, navigate, and re-organize together. Within this co-domination, pleasure was visible too, speaking to how clothes and garments can control and dictate sexual and social practices, but also evoke unspoken contracts of trust. Finally, as stand-alone pieces, the jewelry was remarkable, translating its performative function to exquisite armor-like sculptural adornment contouring the body.
Lingering Affections (2017) by Jade Yumang, the least memorable of the three performances on offer, focused, like Habana and Ha, on the process of dress, but did so through a historical examination of the film noir tradition. A male and female performer dressed in neutrally striped bodystockings and a deconstructed white dress moved hastily across the space among hardened, perforated black pods, creating a sort of mis-en-scene in the otherwise undecorated room. After some initial gesticulations, the performers began dressing each other in loose garments recovered from inside the pods, teaching each other in the process how to wear and to walk, fixing postures and checking each other out. Yumang, whose installation and performance work engages queer historiography, presented Lingering Affections as an homage and investigation into the subtle expressions of queer affection within the American film noir tradition, but beyond the press release, this was only legible via the sporadic show tunes and exaggerated antsy body movements of the performers, which felt mimicked and flat.
Idealized beauty, the process of dress, sexuality, the body and its images: Kinetic Intimacies effectively engaged these familiar terms, despite the exhibition’s desire to move beyond them.
Jeppe Ugelvig is a critic and curator based in New York. He is currently a graduate student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and contributes frequently to publications such as Flash Art, ArtReview, and i-D.