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Style Without Substance

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Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 5

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. --Oscar Wilde

Though you'd hardly know it to look at me at this stage of my life, I'm a sensualist at heart. Most people are--though you wouldn't know it to look at them either. We believe in the world we contact through our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and skin. Even our spirituality is sensual: a way to confirm the goodness of the physical world. This is healthy. Take the sensuality out of faith--make it blind, say, or numb to touch--and you end up with the religious sensibility of a bin Laden. Or a Bush.

Art is a sensual faith, an attempt to plumb--and, paradoxically, to reveal--the mystery of the visible world. Fashion isn't. The aspirations of fashion designers seldom run toward revelation. In fact I'd say they tend to run in the opposite direction, toward concealment, deception, and role-playing. You might reply that artists practice concealment, deception, and role-playing too. The difference is that for artists they're tools while for couturiers they're often goals.

So when someone mounts a show that equates fashion with art, be suspicious.

"Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh" makes the equation and confirms the suspicion. In her catalog essay for this Museum of Contemporary Art show, curator Sylvia Chivaratanond offers the obligatory reference to "increasingly blurred boundaries between fashion and art" and goes on to list their shared impulses: "grappling with a specific form, attempting to create a new language, breaking with tradition, resolving form with content, working with a set of materials, and contributing to a larger dialogue." It's an unconvincing set of affinities, as applicable to computer programming as to art or fashion. And most of the works on display do little to vindicate her argument. Chivaratanond's ten participants--nine designers or design firms plus Li Edelkoort, a self-described archaeologist of the future who predicts trends for corporate clients--have contributed installations that often express wit, sexiness, beauty, craftsmanship, imaginative flamboyance, and a degree of power. But they arrive at the revelatory frontier of art only when they're willing to go to the absolute end of commercial fashion.

Indeed, these installations suggest reasons why even the most avant-garde designers are unlikely ever to cross that frontier--reason number one being that their frame of reference is painfully narrow and unexamined. Though they project tons of subversive elan, not one of the couturiers represented here seems willing, for instance, to confront the most glaringly parochial convention of fashion: the hegemony of the healthy young body. Unlike Liz Lerman--who years ago broke through antiold, antidisabled, antifat taboos in dance--these designers unanimously adopt a lean, commercially attractive, Vogue-style youthfulness as their aesthetic baseline.

One near exception comes in an installation by the English studio Boudicca, in which five pairs of shoes and five black skirts are suspended from the ceiling by rods. Each skirt accentuates the butt more dramatically than the last while the heel of each pair of shoes is more bulbous than the last, as if in sympathetic response. The display calls attention to the orthodoxy of the fashion silhouette without quite dissenting from it; the statement comes across as a joke rather than a manifesto.

Japanese designer Jun Takahashi also takes a cunning baby step toward liberation. Working with animal-themed head coverings by Anne-Valerie Dupond and jewelry by Michelle Jank, Takahashi (of the Under Cover studio) has created a collection of grotesquely beautiful costumes--like something out of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death"--that defeat runway conventions by entirely hiding the face and obscuring the shape of the model wearing them.

Of course the cost of Takahashi's solution is the dehumanization of the model, who remains anonymous. But that seems preferable to the other varieties of dehumanization a model can suffer. Implicit in the convention of the healthy young body is the denial of individuality, and a consequence of the denial of individuality is contempt. That contempt is abundantly evident in "Skin Tight"--but usually disturbingly unremarked, either by the designers or by the curator. It's joshingly present in an array of 12 outlandish headdresses by Walter Van Beirendonck of Belgium and in a video, Russian Doll, that documents Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf as they cover a model in layer after layer of clothing until she's utterly immobilized--a head sticking out of an haute iron maiden. Contempt takes a more malevolent turn in the hands of Bernhard Willhelm, a Paris-based German, whose collection video depicts young women being drugged, then abducted and abused by white-sheeted figures (putative "ghosts" who will remind Americans of Ku Klux Klan members). Although the abuse is patently cartoonish, its humor depends on our willingness to laugh at the sight of women being manhandled.

Hussein Chalayan takes things a crucial step further. His installation, After Words, is both brilliant and acid in its contempt--not only for models but, on a philosophical level, for all of humanity. By devising chair coverings and a table that can be worn as clothing, the London-based designer essentially says that people equal furniture.

It's Edelkoort the archaeologist, however, who makes the ultimate statement in this regard--and thereby sticks her toe over the line between fashion and art. Her contribution includes a series of gorgeous large-format nude photos by Marcel van der Vlugt, printed in such a way as to give the skin a pale tan green tinge. Installed among the photos is a rubber sink by Hella Jongerius, yellowish like a tanned hide. The juxtaposition is startling and painful: a flashback to tales of Nazi lamp shades made of Jewish skin. The equation here isn't merely that people equal furniture but that under certain, not completely foreign conditions they become furniture. The ultimate in contempt, the logical outcome of the cult of the healthy young body, and--intentionally or not--a revelation.

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