BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 03 FEB 05
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Issue 88


BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 03 FEB 05

If the recent show ‘Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990’ at MoMA Queens was the crowning of art, film and fashion photography as identical cousins, then ‘Fashination’ at the Moderna Museet is where all the bastard children were stashed. ‘Fashination’ was autistic in character; it was far from homogeneous, always asymmetrical and jittery; it could be withdrawn at times but was often pushy; and it was impetuous, incapable of telling its story the same way twice. It was also a bewildering success.
Since Robert Storr gave ‘risk management’ the heave-ho as the strategy for his virtuoso installation of the Bruce Nauman retrospective at MoMA in 1995, few museums have dared follow suit, but the Moderna Museet is one of them. In ‘Fashination’ the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. Sub-plots overwhelmed and overshadowed the ubiquitous historicizing that is routine for museum exhibitions. The show multi-tasked with fabulous untidiness; you needed to be able to contend not only with art, film and fashion photography but also with interior design, politics, performance, experience design, sociology, craft, industrial design, gender theory, costume design, status symbols, video art, music, accessories, pornography, fashion design, theatre, economics, digital art – the list goes on. The exhibition permitted all these practices to smudge and careen productively into one another, producing an almost haughty clarion call for what design (not fashion per se) represents at the present moment. One could say it is the heir to Elsa Schiaparelli’s understatement that ‘fashion is born by small facts, trends or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows’.
Under such risky conditions total triumph would be unheard of, which brings us straight to Benoît Méléard. The chronic infatuation with his role as enfant terrible makes it seem as if he plays everything for laughs. His yawning tomfoolery with shoes churns out all-a-tizzy wrappers but no content, leaving his work to commemorate C. G. Lichtenberg’s axiom that ‘to do just the opposite is also a form of imitation’. Without a hint of the ersatz Anne Valerie Hash provides fresh miracles, leaning on her pedigree as an haute couturier at Dior, Lacroix and Chanel, although her debt to Rei Kawakubo is what comes through. For Hash innovation works incrementally; her work gathers momentum in small, sometimes unpredictable steps, and the result is wilful and dramatic. In recent collections she has unravelled the affluence and power tacitly present in the technique and style of the Savile Row suit, and no doubt Cindy Sherman’s ‘Film Stills’ (1977–80) – usurping the male gaze to turn it back on itself – provided her with room to work. But rather than being straightforward quotation, her collection is all feedback – something alien yet vaguely reminiscent. Her jagged intensity and unbridled confidence render convention and authority in quaint, echoing tones.
There were other designers here of equal status to Hash, possessing trans-disciplinary fluency and speaking with diagnostic clairvoyance on a range of subjects, but they refuse to be banded together beneath the colours of a Zeitgeist. They may be without a common heritage, but they are a far cry from what Roland Barthes called the bastard form of mass culture, ‘humiliated repetition [...] always new books, new programmes, new films, news items, but always the same meaning’. Among them is Hussein Chalayan, whose video attuned the theatre of ceremony to fashion, eliding into costume and back again. And there is Alexander McQueen, whose intelligence for creating meaning from stylistic collage is the flipside of the hysterical sensationalism of a John Galliano. Or Alicia Framis’ rendition of the bhurka (from her anti_dog Collection, Beauty Beats Violence, 2003) using Twaron, an industrial fabric designed to defend against the wear-and-tear of guard dogs, bullets and fire. With the report that at least 100,000 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed as a direct result of the United States’ adventurism in Iraq, Framis’ work is proving to have a reach even she may not have imagined.
It was the late Richard Martin – for years the leading light of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – who remarked that his own memorable ‘Haute Couture’ exhibition (1995–6) was not ‘a vindication of privilege and wealth, but a powerful demonstration of fashion’s ability to perform and persuade under the special circumstances of outstanding technique’. This is the least that can be said for Martin Margiela. His contribution to ‘La Mode Destroy’ – what used to be called deconstructive fashion, before cooler heads prevailed – is to employ vintage and lowbrow fabrics to cross-breed class-bound trends and haute couture technique. His white jacket, bearing a buttoned pattern evocative of a chesterfield couch, is subtly turned into a delicately sanguine harlequinesque costume. While one might not expect to feel at ease confronted with so many cultural signals flashing out contradictory rhythms, Margiela’s ambivalence is totally familiar.
In his introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue Lars Nittve allows that Steven Meisel’s 2001 White Cube exhibition of his photographs for Versace was the most impressive photo-based work that year, and there are reasons to agree. Wealth, luxury, status, affluence and illusion, the pillars of art and fashion-making, are Meisel’s bare-faced subjects. But in ‘Fashination’ they must also be shared with Bless’ 2004 line of accessories, which include wooden designer watches carved by Tanzanians to be buried with their dead for the afterlife. Frenetic tilting, in this case from the grand to the grim, ran right through ‘Fashination’, corroborating that there is ‘no there there’ in our culture, no matter how hard museums may work to stage it.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.