The GSK Contemporary season has become a regular feature at the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens location in London. This year the sponsored platform presenting contemporary art to a London audience has mounted a substantial exhibition that examines certain themes running through art and fashion.
‘Aware: Art Fashion Identity’ examines how clothing is used as a vehicle for making complex statements about identity, whether the clothing itself proves to be a wearable item produced by a fashion designer or fundamentally a clothing-like object produced by an artist never actually intended for practical use.
Taking what is effectively a huge and sprawling topic, the approach has been to divide the exhibition into four main strands of discussion: storytelling; building; belonging & confronting and performance. Within these slightly more specific areas, the works of a large cast of fashion designers, contemporary artists and designers operating at the conceptual fringes of each discipline are handsomely exhibited within the nineteenth century grandeur of the building.
Of course, each of these thematics themselves remain fairly broad and enable the curatorial approach to open a generous discussion ranging from notions of clothes literally behaving like buildings and providing protection for the body – and in the process assuming the architectonic quality of garments produced by the likes of Yohji Yamamoto- through to the ways in which an artist like Yinka Shonibare has persistently worked with the once neglected history of colonialism intrinsically embedded in the Dutch wax-cotton prints that form a regular signature in his work.
What is particularly interesting about this exhibition is not so much the questions that it raises about the stated content. Althhough there is a lot of food for thought to make it an entirely engaging experience, the undertow of identify politics embedded in the art, for example, is now a bit of a stalwart topic in British institutions. Rather the questions it raises about clothing; about the relative value of garments themselves are fascinating. In presenting clothing objects by fashion designers and artists on more or less a level playing field in a gallery space, exactly what differentiates ‘fashion’ and ‘art’? No, nothing as simplistic or reactionary as suggesting that ‘art’ and ‘fashion’ are the same or operate as the same discipline simply for being considered together, but rather a more serious question about how one should read either fashion or art in this or other contexts. Interestingly enough, given the stated theme of the exhibition, it is interesting to see that some level of basic anthropological enquiry – so evident in some of the art works presented- seems somehow absent. There remain, for example, societies in which body decoration and clothing (together with decorative crafts used to embellish practical implements) are the primary outputs of the human aesthetic tendency; art in the ‘Western’ sense being entirely absent.
At times there a little flashes of this anthropological aspect, such as in Gillian Wearing’s piece in which a quotidian uniform becomes the catalyst for examining identity within an constructed social grouping or in Hussein Chalayan’s ‘Son of Sonzai Suru’ installation in which the appropriated tradition of Japanese Bunraku puppet theatre is used to make entirely different points compared with its traditional role in Japanese society. In Chalayan’s piece, the traditional black hooded figures that manipulate the fashion model become the centre of attention as we are encouraged to consider the apparently unseen forces at work within the fashion industry. In the traditional Japanese discipline, the audience is trained to zone out and suspend disbelief, to not see them because they are not important to the story being told. On the whole though few of these anthropological aspects are elaborated in the same way that some of the more obvious themes are highlighted.
However, one of the great things about the exhibition is that whilst it most certainly includes work by many top name artists and designers, it also includes interesting work by others who are all too rarely given such good conditions under which to show their thought-provoking work.
Be warned, ‘Aware: Art Fashion Identity’ only runs until the end of January 2011. Between time rushing around buying presents and moping about in the early January doldrums, that really doesn’t give that much time to take in a top class exhibition of its ilk.