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Issue 224

Does Martin Margiela Believe in Art Production, or Not?

At Lafayette Anticipations, the famed fashion designer achieves little in translating his much-lauded tactics of defamiliarization into art

BY Jeppe Ugelvig in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 03 NOV 21

It’s tempting to approach ‘Martin Margiela’ at Lafayette Anticipations through the lens of the designer’s mythological tenure in the fashion industry, but the exhibition literature insists this is an art show, so we must evaluate it as such. Despite entirely rejecting fashion, however, Margiela’s crash landing into the sphere of contemporary art feels deeply haunted by its epistemologies.

The exhibition begins on a high note, with a towering, billboard-style image of a protruding deo-stick plastered onto the institution’s back wall (DÉODORANT, 2021). The ubiquitous smell of antiperspirant – everywhere to be sensed but nowhere to be seen – seems an appropriate play on the famed designer’s legacy, which continues to be felt everywhere in the fashion world while Margiela himself has maintained his anonymity. Sadly, the self-reflexivity ends here, as audiences enter a greyscale labyrinth of office blinds to encounter more than 20 discrete works spread over two floors, which are presented, according to the exhibition literature, as indisputable ‘proof that Margiela has always been an artist’ with the ability to ‘expand the limits of the artwork’.

Martin Margiela, DÉODORANT, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; photograph: Pierre Antoine

His ‘Hair Portraits’ series (2015–19) sees female icons from 1960s and ’70s magazines manipulated so that their faces are entirely covered by hair. A long-time obsession for Margiela, hair reappears in a whole string of works, such as REDHEAD and VANITAS (both 2019), in which uncannily wigged spheres in expensive-looking vitrines speak to, we are told, ‘the shifting symbolism’ of red hair and greying hair as the mark of the ‘passage of time’ on the female body. This banal discourse, stripped of any real questions of identity, continues throughout the exhibition. RED NAILS model (2021), for instance, comprises fake nails magnified within a vitrine to form a pop-art sculpture that points to ‘the creation of an artificial female beauty’, and how the sexualization of women’s bodies has shifted over time. Confusingly, these ruminations on the grotesquely fashioned body – evocative of 1990s’ consumer commentary by artists such as Vanessa Beecroft, the Chapman Brothers and Sylvie Fleury – share space with works that differently, but just as didactically, explore media specificity: ‘Lip Sync’ (2020), for instance, an Andy Warhol-like series of silicone prints featuring stills from lip-reading videos that render their messages forever indecipherable. Yet, these apparently arbitrary references to artistic genres and themes seem to achieve little beyond asserting the work’s own status as contemporary art.

Martin Margiela, RED NAILS and RED NAILS model, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; photograph: Pierre Antoine

Interspersing these works are empty plinths and walls with demarcated ‘missing’ artworks, indicated only by their painted shadows and wall labels. This proposed dematerialization – or refusal to materialize – of the artist’s work was, perhaps, more along the lines of how many of us had imagined an exhibition by Margiela, the notorious anti-celebrity, would look. Here, however, surrounded by expensively produced sculptures, paintings and videos that riff off 1990s art practices with an unapologetic free-hand, the logic of this ‘institutional critique’ not only collapses, but points directly to the exhibition’s existential issue: does Margiela believe in art production, or not?

Martin Margiela, Torso I-III, 2018-21, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; photograph: Pierre Antoine

In its engagement with the toolbox of contemporary art, the show can be read at best as naïve. In relegating fashion altogether and branding himself a long-time visual artist who happened ‘to have worked’ in fashion, Margiela exposes the superficiality of his preoccupations: the artist’s much-lauded tactics of defamiliarization worked effectively within the dramaturgy of fashion precisely because that industry thrives on the perpetual renewal of its own metaphors. In art, these tactics end up gesturing, perhaps accidentally, to long-established art-historical discourses – surrealism, institutional critique, postmodernism – of which the artist either has limited understanding or has adopted as gimmick. It’s ironic that, despite Margiela’s enduring anonymity, it is identity – romanticized, marketable identity – which seems to be the biggest and most affirmative product in this exhibition.

'Martin Margiela' is on view at Lafayette Anticipations until 2 January 2022.

Hed image and thumbnail: VANITAS, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; photograph: Pierre Antoin

Jeppe Ugelvig is a curator and critic based in New York. His first book, Fashion Work, was published by Damiani in May 2020.