Alexander McQueen: Joan of Arc inspired dress 1999
GSK Contemporary is 3 years old and has an ambitious agenda, covering the grey areas where the art world overlaps with performance, science and now with fashion. This year’s Aware: Art, Fashion, Identity at the Royal Academy, includes the work of higher concept fashion designers as well as artists exploring the significance of clothes and identity.
Being the second GSK exhibition visited, my mind has wandered to the success of these broad-themed displays. There is a tendency to include too many loose strands (one work from many different artists) and to ruin the overall flow of the show. The lack of continuity this case is perhaps the result of four different curators working on four separate parts of Art, Fashion, Identity.
Apparently, McQueen’s death early last year has been the inspiration for this show. The designer’s lacy red frock has faced various qualms from critics, one describing it as ‘lifeless’ (Guardian). The fault for this lies largely in the way the works are presented – namely, on a faceless mannequin – the most generic image reminding us more of shop windows than art. In order to appreciate their identity-defining element the pieces must be worn. It would have been a better exhibition had I seen someone walking through the exhibition and casually wearing one of the pieces.
Wearing a particular garment has long signified one’s position in society, one’s need for inclusion, and obedience towards certain customs as well as one’s social aspiration. It is certainly a way to send an immediate message to every person on the street and clothes have become a way for an individual to reveal their individuality and creativity. It is now an activity practiced by many city dwellers. The most well known of these might be performance artist, Leigh Bowery, who spent years producing sick and spectacular outfits for himself and sometimes unbelievable distortions of his true figure. By refusing to sell his work or let others wear it, he was separate from the role of a fashion designer.
This exhibition should have featured more ordinary people who have successfully combined their personal identity with their daily wardrobe, allowing them to become characters in a sea of mass-produced clothing and obsession with designer labels. I guess what I am saying is that the people who invent their own identity in real life are a deal more interesting than the works in the exhibition. Even Grayson Perry’s embroidered cloak seems vacuous without the artist to wear it, his public identity being so closely linked with the frocks he wears.