So, it has come to this: a fashion show at the Royal Academy. Up in heaven, they will need to bring in an extra-large tumble dryer to accommodate all the great British artists wishing to enter an eternal spin cycle at the thought of it. Hogarth, Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Stubbs, Reynolds… everything they did, every inch of aesthetic progress they ever fought for, every serious ambition they ever nursed to make art a force for moral and artistic good, all the creative dreams they ever had, culminate, in our time, in a fashion show at the Royal Academy.
Is there a more obviously symbolic or symptomatic civilisational event currently to be witnessed in Britain? I doubt it. Those of us who wondered why Charles Saumarez Smith had been brought in to head the RA, when his most memorable achievement as director of the National Gallery was to imagine its most famous paintings in the style of a Hello! cover, now have our answer. A fashion show at the Royal Academy.
Fashion, these days, is behaving like one of those Icelandic supertrawlers that are vacuuming up all the fish in the world’s seas. Not content with the ample daily catch available to it already by being on show in every street and every shop in every town in every land, it has its eye on everyone else’s territory as well: above all, fashion wants to be taken seriously as a creative art. Don’t laugh — it’s horribly true. Fashion is currently imagining itself to be on a par with art and is moving hungrily into our galleries to prove it.
Cooking isn’t far behind, either: it’s almost as pretentious and every bit as ambitious. But that is a horror to face in the future. Right now, we need to deal with a world-view and an exhibition in which the organisers believe “clothing is an interface between self and others, an element of recognition or discrimination”. And that “rather than being merely a formal exercise, clothing is alive — to the extent that it is connected to (and compromised by) reality”. So, as I understand it, if you sew sequins all over your granny in Cumbria, it makes her easier to see if she falls over again in the garden. I have no idea why fashion designers are the most pretentious creatures on the planet. But they are. The silliness of the outfits they come up with on their catwalks is matched only by the pomposity of the thinking that goes into them.
For the Aware exhibition — subtitled Art Fashion Identity — the chief organiser, Lucy Orta, has rethought the outfits worn by the gallery attendants, so the poor sods have to clink and clunk around the show with bits of mountaineering equipment dangling from their chests.
Why? Because “the garment becomes more than mere clothing: it is a vehicle, a survival vehicle certainly, but also a vehicle which protects against anonymity”. Out here in the real world, few things you can do to a middle-aged gallery attendant would make them look more exposed and less comfortable than parading them through the Royal Academy dressed for the conquest of Everest. You might as well have tattooed a four-letter word denoting an idiot on their foreheads.
It’s that kind of show. In the search for the new reality, the old one has gone missing, and absurdity has taken over at the tailor’s. Orta and her fellow fashionator, Gabi Scardi, who teaches “modules on contemporary art and public art at various Italian institutions”, have assembled a cast of 30 “contemporary practitioners”, some of whom are actual fashion designers (Alexander McQueen, Yohji Yama moto, Hussein Chalayan), others of whom are artists with an interest in clothing and nudity (Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Cindy Sherman), all of whom have been jumbled together in a show that seeks to enlarge the identity of fashion by looking at the role played by clothes in assorted stretches of contemporary art.
Thus, Azra Aksamija, originally from Bosnia, but now styling herself as “an Austrian artist, architect and architectural historian”, has designed a “private mobile mosque” — a fetching little black number, part burka, part foldaway tent, that turns, at the drop of a flap, into a self-contained praying environment. Nomadic Mosque is rather striking in its folded-up state: black and close-fitting, with something of Emma Peel about it. It’s perfect for those nights at the Cairo disco when a girl looks at her watch and remembers her prayers are due… but there’s nowhere to kneel on the dancefloor.
Vito Acconci, meanwhile, whom I first encountered many Venice Biennales ago, masturbating furiously under some floorboards in a live performance piece that set out — as I recall — to test the boundaries between public and private spaces, has since opened the Acconci Studio, a project development organisation in New York, which has come up with the “umbruffla”, or wearable umbrella, “a small dwelling that we can carry about with us and in which we can hide when we need a moment of privacy”.
The umbruffla is basically a see-through plastic hood beneath which couples can snuggle up in public. As with all of Acconci’s work, you sense the Peeping Tom on the design team was handed too much of the creative brief.
In its worst stretches, Aware is staggeringly unaware of its own silliness. Yamamoto, who is surely a fashion designer, but who is quoted, absurdly, in the show’s captions declaring “I hate fashion” — because “fashion has no time. I do. I say: Hello Lady, how can I help you?” — attempts to prove his point about caring for people’s real fashion needs by creating a wooden dress made of joined-up strips of white plywood that turn its wearer into a miniature beach hut! You couldn’t make it up.
To be fair to Acconci, Aksamija and, indeed, most of the artists involved, the sense of untreated silliness that ripples through the event like wind through a silk scarf owes more to the efforts of the curators than the exhibitors. Tugging away at Aware’s secret lining are some serious and proper ideas about the human relationship to clothes.
I know for a fact that Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which she invited members of the audience to come up on stage and cut away pieces of her clothing, was a dark, edgy event that tested the voyeuristic impulses of the audience. I’ve seen it before, without blokes in mountaineering outfits clumping through it. But when a serious
Ono piece is preceded by a sexy see-through creation in red fishnets by McQueen, based on a set of exceptionally ignorant fantasies about Joan of Arc, all the necessary seriousness is miniaturised. That’s fashion for you. Whatever it costs in the end, the initial thinking belongs on the shelves of a pound store.
I was genuinely pleased that Susan Philipsz won this year’s Turner prize.
Her contribution to the Tate show — an empty gallery, echoing to the sound of the artist singing a poignant Scottish love ballad — was strangely unforgettable. Let’s not call it Sound Art: such a description squeezes the fairy-feelings out of a Philipsz experience. She uses sound to trigger delicate memories and fluttery emotions in the visitor.
An even more impressive display of her output can be found scattered about the City of London in an outdoor event organised by Artangel, Surround Me. At various locations around the Bank of England, Philipsz has installed a choir of fragile sound pieces that import poetry and warmth into this cold investment quarter. I particularly recommend seeking out her piece under London Bridge. It’s brilliant. Visit artangel.org.uk/surroundme for details.