There are many that argue that art is elitist; a medium enjoyed only by those specifically educated to decipher and appreciate it, or sufficiently “cultured” to willingly choose paintings and sculpture over pursuits with more mass-appeal. These sceptics are right in that whilst art is available to everyone, not everyone is interested, and by default this makes art the premise of the few rather than the many. On the other hand, being able to wander around the Royal Academy on a Sunday afternoon in almost splendid isolation makes you glad that everyone else in London didn’t have the same thought that morning; despite the catastrophic impact this must have on arts funding, elitism has definite perks.
Without wishing to sound like one of those suitcase-wielding tourists you want to drop-kick on the tube, there is something magical about the Royal Academy. The history, the lofty ranks of Academicians, the gorgeous building, everything about the institution highlights it as something truly special. Inevitably this puts pressure on the works of art displayed there to meet the standards of its environment, and to reflect the quality visitors expect; this is a space for beauty and prowess, whereas art lovers would tend to go elsewhere for more experimental and conceptual pieces. To this end, I suspect that showcasing fashion at the Royal Academy wasn’t quite what Joshua Reynolds had in mind.
Aware: Art Fashion Identity is an attempt to showcase fashion designers as artists and juxtapose their pieces with works of art that employ cloth as a medium. I was surprised to see an artist like Yinka Shonibare here; his Little Rich Girls (2010), which explores African fabrics through the creation of a series of batik dresses, was commissioned especially for this exhibition. His pieces are beautiful, but I wonder if Shonibare’s message would have been clearer in a different medium; as they stand there was little to derive from the dresses other than the fabric’s aesthetic appeal. To give the exhibition credit, there are works that make sense in the context of an art-fashion collaboration, in particular Susie MacMurray’s Widow (2009), a flowing silver dress constructed from nails in order to explore the female reaction to grief and the emotional distancing of the griever from others. The use of clothing as a symbol within a work of art absolutely works here, just as it does in Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965), in which the artist invited members of the audience to cut away sections of her clothing in order to test their boundaries.
Artists producing clothing as part of their work is not a new phenomenon; the Weiner Werkstätte, for instance, was creating outfits to compliment their Palais Stoclet interiors in the early 1900s. Aware falls down as an exhibition for me, however, because whilst there was genuine artistic reasoning behind the introduction of a fashion department in a group such as the Weiner Werkstätte, that context and passionate artistic necessity is missing from this show. There is instead a sense that artists who use clothing in their work have been gathered together haphazardly and mixed with fashion pieces by the likes of Alexander McQueen in order to serve a purpose rather than to highlight a real trend or movement.
Using fashion as a means of expressing your identity is one thing, and the ability to do so through the work of fashion designers with artistic imaginations is wonderful. To call it art and showcase it in a space where some of the greatest British artists have walked, however, creates a discordance that resonates throughout the show, adversely affecting both the works on display and the space itself.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy the artists and the Royal Academy of the Arts, London
Photos by: Andy Stagg
images: Helen Storey, Say Goodbye, 2010, Installation shot from GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity, (2 December 2010 – 30 January 2011 Royal Academy of Arts, London) Science by Professor Tony Ryan OBE, University of Sheffield,; Alicia Framis, 100 Ways to Wear a Flag, 2007 Installation shot from GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity (2 December 2010 – 30 January 2011 Royal Academy of Arts, London) Textile, variable dimensions.