Aware: Art Fashion Identity at the Royal Academy

The third exhibition of contemporary art at the Royal Academy's Burlington Gardens space explores how clothes are used by artists and designers as a form of communication to reveal and conceal identity

Written by Sally Mumby-Croft

Yinka Shonibare MBE, Little Rich Girls, 2010, Installation shot from GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity, Commissioned by the London College of Fashion and the Royal Academy of Arts, © The Artist, Photo: Andy Stagg, Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London

In 2009, the Royal Academy of Art’s exhibition exploring contemporary art, Earth: Art of a Changing World featured a selection of artists engaging with the physical impacts of Climate Change. For 2010 the Royal Academy turned it’s attention to the subject of identity and clothing in Aware: Art Fashion Identity. Broken down into three segments; Storytelling, Building and Belonging and Confronting, the exhibition endeavors to examine the possibilities provided –as explored by artists and fashion designers- by clothing to reveal and conceal our cultural and physical identity.

A new commission from Yinka Shonibare focused on cultural perceptions of the origin of a cloth usually associated with Africa. Under closer examination, these perceptions turn out to be false. Shonibare’s ghostly installation reveals that the origination of the batik pattern thought to be synonymous with Africa, is in fact Holland. The Dutch pattern makers sold the fabric em masse to Africa, only after a European buyer could not be found.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965, A film by Albert and David Maysles of Yoko Ono’s performance of Cut Piece at Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, 21 March 1965, 16mm black-and-white film with sync sound, transferred to DVD, running time 9’ Courtesy of the artist

After entering the Royal Academy via Burlington Arcade and walking up the stairs into the main exhibition space. The audience moves through the three sections in a circular motion; first encountering Storytelling (announced by the presence of an embroidered kimono by Grayson Perry) then Building and finally Belonging and Confronting. The audience departs Aware: Art Fashion Identity via the two of the exhibition’s most interesting works – both of which are nearing 30 years old.

Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic’s performance pieces lay bare the artifice and cultural constructs which lay at the heart of both fashion and art identity. In the 9 minute video, Marina Abramovic and Ulay stand naked in a gallery doorway, forcing visitors to confront the physicality of the naked body, stripped of it’s adornments. Meanwhile in a video opposite Yoko Ono sits quietly on a stage whilst members of the audience snip her free from the garments of femininity. An exciting introduction to these two artists, it is a shame that more of their work was not included.

The limited inclusion of performance art is a lost opportunity, specifically because the three included pieces (Marina Abramovic Yoko Ono and Cindy Sherman) lend themselves vividly to the concept (i.e. the relationship between our cultural and personal identity and how we are perceived by others) this exhibition was starting to explore.

GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity
Royal Academy of Arts, 2 December 2010 – 30 January 2011, Marina Abramović, Imponderabilia Performance 1977
Galleria Comunale d’Arte, Bologna © Marina Abramović. Courtesy of Marina Abramović and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. © DACS 2010
Photo by Giovanna dal Magro

Cindy Sherman’s Paper Doll, an early video piece from the acclaimed artist, which lasts for 2.30 minutes, was located within the first room of the exhibition. In Paper Doll Cindy Sherman questions the accepted popularity of a toy heavily steeped in gender stereotyping: the paper doll. In the piece Sherman reduces herself into an inanimate object whose sole purpose is to decide what to wear depending on that day’s activity. At the end of the film, a hand removes the clothes displaying the doll’s nudity and places her back in her box. An intriguing piece of work, this singular nod does nothing to encourage the exploration of Sherman’s overture, including Untitled, a series of stills in which the artist explored the creation of a particular type of femininity after the rise of the movie.

Cindy Sherman, Doll Clothes 1975, Stills from 16 mm film on DVD, © Cindy Sherman / Sammlung Verbund, Vienna / Sprüth Magers Berlin London

Throughout the exhibition, Aware: Art Fashion and Identity makes rapid nods to artists and fashion designers alike – a single McQueen stands in the corner. Devoid of its context and standing alone within the white walls of the RA the identity of the dress becomes lost. When viewed within an entire collection, this beautiful object becomes a brutal critique on historical and modern notions of femininity.

Alexander McQueen, Autumn Winter 1998: Joan, Photo © Chris Moore, Courtesy of Catwalking

An enjoyable exhibition, though the art appears to be spread too thin and the outcome of which is that interesting ideas are left hanging or barely graspable unless you enter the exhibition with prior knowledge of the artists or fashion designers previous body of work.

The final section of the exhibition explores ideas surrounding Belonging and Confronting. Sharif Waked’s Chic Point places the daily humiliation the Palestinian man undergoes at Israeli checkpoints onto the catwalk. The photographs included at the end were taken by the artist, visualising the moment when clothes cease to become clothes and mutate into something – whether imagined or not – fearful and different.

Sharif Waked, Chic Point, 2003, DVD, running time 5’ 27” Courtesy of the artist, Photo Sharif Waked

Coco Chanel suggestion that we “look for the woman in the dress and if there is no woman, there is no dress” is taken up by Hussein Chalayan’s latest commission. In Son of Sonzai Suri, the fashion designer uses the 300-year-old Japanese tradition of Bunraku puppet theatre to lay bare the hidden puppeteers at the heart of the fashion industry.

Hussein Chalayan, ‘Son’ of Sonzai Suru, 2010, Installation shot from GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity, Commissioned by the London College of Fashion and the Royal Academy of Arts, © The Artist, Photo: Andy Stagg, Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London

Aware: Art Fashion Identity closes with the video pieces of Marina Abramovic and Yoko Ono. With the decision to close the exhibition here, it appears that the critique of identity and femininity stopped in the 70’s. It could have been an interesting experiment to juxtapose 70′s performance art against the catwalk shows of Alexander McQueen or Maison Martin Margiela.

The past few months have been fantastic for those interested in fashion, with a splurge of fashion related exhibitions across the capital, get to the Royal Academy quick before Aware: Art Fashion Identity closes on the 30th January 2011.
Royal Academy, 6 Burlington Gardens, London

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