What is it about art and fashion that mixes into such a sour brew? Why do the most exciting runway fashions wither and die when they’re stuffed into a museum showcase? Is it because clothes are meant to be admired in three dimensions, not cooped up in galleries like dead butterflies, pinned to a wall and explained away by dreary placards?
Anticipation runs high for Creative Time’s “Exposing Meaning in Fashion Through Presentation,” at the Anchorage exhibition space (through July 18), given that it features a short list of the avant-garde’s most vaunted fashion designers. The designers (or the people who work for them) were charged with creating site-specific installations, and what a site it is: the crenellated coffers of the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, a soaring stone colossus as cool and intimidating as a fairy-tale fallout shelter.
It’s a tough room to play, and the installations reflect this chill. Since it isn’t clear whether curators gave designers any strictures or guidance— and there’s no mission statement from Creative Time— it’s not fair to blame contributors entirely for the lackluster, pompous, academic nature of the proceedings. But whoever’s fault it is, it isn’t much fun to look at, and it certainly doesn’t provoke particularly profound thoughts about clothes.
Susan Cianciolo, a downtown designer who at the present moment is riding the crest of whatever constitutes New York’s meager fashion bohemia, has mounted a huge display— a grab bag that includes floor plans for the choreography from prior Cianciolo presentations, videos of same, and a welter of mannequins wearing the raggedy, anything-goes-with-anything, cut-and-paste, thrift shop outfits that are this designer’s stock in trade. Two handmade, life-size stuffed cloth dolls lying on low wooden platforms are vintage Cianciolo: With their creepy pink mummy heads and rough stubs instead of hands and feet, they bring to mind Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny, if someone had dressed him up in a lace-flecked muslin shift covered by a Lurex shawl fastened with a gold safety pin.
On the other hand, Viktor & Rolf, a pair of bad-boy couturiers from Holland, left the clothes home altogether and have instead contributed a large cage containing a big mirror, a couple of tree limbs, and a floor strewn with wood chips and loose magazine pages. On opening night, two fellows in silly, brightly colored outfits (could they have been Viktor & Rolf?) posed in the cage at intervals, one perched on a branch, one curled up on the wood chips (ouch). Neither elicited much curiosity from the cocktail-sipping crowd.
The masterful Martin Margiela, a quirky character who doesn’t permit photographs and won’t submit to interviews but has nevertheless managed to become the designer of record for the venerable house of Hermès, contributed a long row of beautifully lit outfits hung in a recess of the bridge that looks like a loading platform. All the hallmarks of his craft are in evidence— thick knit sweaters, discordantly proportioned jackets, cleft-hoof boots, deconstructed 1950s cocktail dresses, etc.— and they look perfectly charming, but, as it turns out, this is no souped-up boutique rack: These clothes, unlike the ones on the fourth floor of Barneys, have attained their variegated lavender and lime hues with an infusion of what Maison Margiela describes as “three applications of bacteria applied to garments.”
It’s a bit of a surprise that British design doyenne Vivienne Westwood agreed to participate in “Exposing Meaning” at all, since she’s made no secret of her contempt for modern art. But here she is, exhibiting a tableau of mannequins, including a Grace Kelly type in a pink taffeta gown (emphatically not a Westwood); a couple of children carrying plastic McDonald’s burgers, Teletubbies, and other chestnuts of bourgeois commercialism; and a statue in a Doris Day wig wearing a torn vintage slip and carrying a book entitled “Rape and How to Enjoy It.” The not-very-illuminating name of this botch is “The Future of an Illusion— Work in Progress.” (If it weren’t for the Westwood charm dangling from one of the kiddies’ backpacks, it would be impossible to distinguish this particular “work in progress” from a pretentious graduate student’s year-end project.)
Some designers didn’t bother building installations at all, but simply went for the videotape— not that this prevents their work from being as inflated and obscure as the more ambitious undertakings. Hussein Chalayan, a designer who caused a scandal a few seasons back by binding women’s arms to their sides in straitjackets and is now in the employ of the intensely upper-middle-class TSE Cashmere, sent a slow silent movie of models in khaki dresses along with the explanation: “This presentation evolved from an analysis of how the body is exemplified through technology and design with the systems that facilitate modern life.” (Huh? Like what, talking on a cell phone?)
Perhaps the least annoying effort was contributed by Victoria Bartlett and Richard Pandiscio, but then, it also seemed to have the least to do with fashion. An overhead projection of rotating images, like a giant pinwheel, it offers shifting film clips— everything from Gold Diggers of 1937 to Belle de Jour to safe-sex videos to footage of the late performance artist Leigh Bowery. Just a few brief seconds of watching the gigantic Bowery schlep across some long-forgotten runway in a daffodil ball gown with his face bandaged like a Cianciolo mummy and his feet jammed into platform slippers is enough to make you remember what “Exposing Meaning in Fashion Through Presentation” is supposed to be all about.