Monday, June 28, 2010

A conversation with Akira

QUT Fashion After Hours

The art of reality

by Alison Kubler
Sarah Jessica Parker with Simon de Pury, the "mentor" of Bravo's "Work of Art." Photo courtesy of Bravo

I was in the hair salon today when the iPhone of the woman next to me rang to the Sex and the City ringtone. While I cringed for her as she tried, in vain and red-faced, to get to it in time before the entire song had played, it got me thinking: what is a quirky ringtone if not the harbinger of doom? Was my co-salonite a complete bimbo? (Cue pensive look out the window while Carrie muses...).

But seriously, when the world as we know it finally implodes and the earth is covered in the ash of humanity's combined accumulated cultural bric-a-brac, who will be left to take the time to comb through the sludge? Will the anthropologists and archaeologists of the future give enough of a proverbial to trawl through the mangled wreck of iEverything that brought about our spectacular demise in an attempt to garner just what it was that made us all tick? I fear what they will find will be distinctly less illuminating than the Rosetta stone and the southern facade metopes of the Parthenon. Because I know what they will find already: Sarah Jessica Parker. The woman is ubiquitous, in a kind-of good way, and in a 'for the love of God, why her?' way too. And now, for reasons known only to herself and the good people of Bravo, she has made a reality TV show about artists. I am incredulous.

It is yet to air in Australia but when it does dear reader I shall be there, glued to the screen I assure you, waiting to post updates. In short, this is the premise of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist according to the Bravo website: "13 contestants will compete for a gallery exhibition, a cash prize and a sponsored national tour. The artists will create works in the fields of sculpture, painting, photography, industrial design and more. Their completed works will be judged by a panel of art world figures including gallerists. collectors, curators, critics and fellow artists. The finalists' work will be featured in a nationwide museum tour." Hmmmm. The prestigious museum in question is the Brooklyn Museum and the art world figures are a strange bunch to say the least.

Oh, they are competing also for $100,000 (sponsored by Prismacolor) which is not to be sneezed at. It is an entirely brilliant and ridiculous concept for a TV show. It is hard to believe that any artist could approach the idea of participating in such a show with anything other than the ironic intention of making it a conceptual performance: "My conceptual program investigates the suspension of disbelief in the context of a reality show." But no, it seems that the entrants are 'serious' artists who want to be taken seriously. Okay, I admit I haven't seen a single episode so I will reserve judgement (sort of)... but given that each week contestants are given challenges such as 'paint a portrait', 'make a sculpture', 'design a book cover'; it seems inevitable it shall fall into parody. The word 'emotion' is bandied about way too much on the website and one of the finalists is named Peregrine. I rest my case. The SJP connection? She is a producer. This means that conceivably when some archaeologist eventually does piece together our society's great cultural moments he/she may make the assumption that SJP was also a great patron, an art doyenne, an artist even. Oh God, I just remembered Charlotte used to work in an art gallery on SATC. She was a curator! It's worse than I thought: I cannot think of a single thing to say, so here's something completely unrelated:

Charlotte, curator & gallerina on SATC

Charlotte: Imagine being completely blind and not being able to see a beautiful day like today. Can you think of anything worse?

Anthony: Stonewashed jeans and a matching jacket.

Friday, June 25, 2010

To exhibit or not to exhibit... fashion

by Nadia Buick

 Australian Made: 100 Years of Fashion at the NGV

 A few weeks ago there was a small article in The Australian by Michaela Boland titled ‘Frocks finally taken seriously’ about fashion exhibitions in museums such as the NGV and NGA. A friend actually clipped it out and saved it for me because this is one of my key areas of interest. In fact, when I began my PhD at the start of 2009, the relationship between fashion and the museum was at the very centre of my research. As is inevitable with postgraduate studies, your interests often shift slightly as you go along and stumble upon more interesting and unexamined questions. Nevertheless, I’m still very invested in the unending debate about whether fashion belongs in the museum. It seems to me to be just one of countless debates that have surrounded fashion for a long time. It’s also intrinsically linked to debates concerning art and fashion. I think the reason many people think that fashion shouldn’t be in the museum is because many people think fashion isn’t art. And perhaps that’s a point for another post, but needless to say, I don’t think that stating that fashion isn’t art necessarily means it should thus be excluded from the museum.

But back to the Australian article. Like I said, it’s quite short, and its context is decidedly a local one, but it really encapsulates the attitude towards fashion in the museum at this moment in Australia. We’re seeing more fashion exhibitions and there seems to be a higher frequency of large, international exhibitions of fashion coming from institutions such as the V&A. While the NGV and NGA have had curatorial departments for many years concentrating on textiles and fashion, along with having significant collections of fashion (the NGV is the strongest example), other national galleries seem to be taking the leap towards fashion too. The Queensland Art Gallery/GoMA has had two major fashion exhibitions in the last twelve months, with a third, the biggest (Valentino), opening in August, making it three. The first was Easton Pearson, which was curated by GoMA, but the others, (Hats: an anthology by Stephen Jones, and Valentino) have come from major international institutions. So QAG/GoMA is an interesting one to watch. Director Tony Ellwood clearly believes that fashion does belong in the museum, but how that will eventuate as part of a permanent program or even department is still unknown.  It would be easy to argue that, as Suzy Menkes pointed out years ago, fashion is simply the new blockbuster museum exhibition. So perhaps directors such as Ellwood are using fashion as a guaranteed crowd pleaser, rather than displaying any real commitment to the field in the form of setting up a department, for instance. I do get the feeling that the fashion exhibition waters are still being tested here in Brisbane.

Tony Ellwood and Stephen Jones at the Hats opening

And of course, as the Australian article pointed out, not all of the national galleries are on board. Edmund Capon, the longstanding director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales is steadfastly opposed to fashion exhibitions (despite his penchant for historic costume from Asia). Capon was quoted as saying “the only thing about fashion is that it goes out of fashion,” which seems remarkably naïve, and frankly, insulting to institutions whose sole focus is costume and fashion. But Capon’s comment is a reminder of the hostility that does exist towards fashion, even as it seems the tide may have turned; I fear the debate may never be completely over. 

What I do think naysayers like Capon are unaware of, and what someone like Tony Ellwood is hyper aware of, is that fashion does function completely differently to other objects in the museum, and therein lies its value. The job of a good gallery director is to understand what the audience will gain from a particular exhibition, and what fashion provides over any exhibition of art (no matter how popular or blockbuster a show) is a feeling of approachability. I guarantee you will never see a wider cross-section of people at an art gallery as when there is a fashion exhibition. People feel entitled to an opinion of fashion in a way that many don’t when it comes to art. Regardless of how accessible museums are today, art retains its air of elitism (which many prefer) and in turn it can ostracise entire sections of the population from ever stepping foot in their local gallery or museum (although maybe not in the instance of the current Ron Mueck exhibition at GoMA...). In my experience, fashion breaks down these barriers. As a fashion curator, this is something I’ve witnessed firsthand. But, it’s not as easy as simply putting some clothes in a gallery space. There are a whole range of display issues that arise, and this is perhaps my new area of research. But I’ll save that for another day. For now, go and see Stephen Jones’ and the V&A’s wonderful Hats exhibition before it closes this weekend at the Queensland Art Gallery. And if you’re in Melbourne, Australian Made: 100 Years of Fashion has just opened at the NGV.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Power & Beauty: the New Wave of fashion documentaries

by Nadia Buick
Last year I co-wrote an article on The September Issue with my partner, Huw Walmsley-Evans, for the Brisbane International Film Festival ( That documentary was one of a number of films in the 2009 BIFF program that could be read through the lens of fashion, and indeed the relationship between fashion and film has a long history. But while most of us accept that clothing and fashion themselves are inherent to the visual landscape and character portrayal in film, there is a recent trend that is taking things a little further.  

 Grace Coddington & Anna Wintour
The September Issue itself was a rare example of a behind-the-scenes look at the sometimes troubling world of American Vogue, and its editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. What The September Issue sought to provide the audience with was the day to day realities of Vogue. The film’s director, R.J. Cutler, is a vocal exponent of cinéma verite, literally “truthful cinema”, and his approach is ideal for the world of fashion. For many, the falseness and facades of the fashion industry, its collusion with commerciality and seeming obsession with idealised beauty make it all together toxic, and irredeemable. In this equation, figures like Wintour, arguably the most powerful woman in the fashion world, are tantamount to the devil (and have been called as such: Wintour was the inspiration behind The Devil Wears Prada). But what Cutler’s film reveals is human relationships, rivalries and power relations. It’s not Hollywood; you’re not tricked into loving Wintour in the end, but there is a complexity that makes this (little) New Wave of fashion documentaries so refreshing. I call it a New Wave because there’s certainly an Old Wave of fashion documentaries and films that dramatise the fashion world (think Robert Altman’s Pret-a-porter), which have done a poor job of even attempting to address anything other than a cavalcade of clichés. 

But moving back to the New Wave for now. Like The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor is an impeccable documentary about a larger-than-life fashion heavyweight. I left the cinema relieved after seeing this film because it resisted the temptation to portray the designer as some kind of ‘genius’. Again, what Valentino: The Last Emperor presents is complex relationships, real situations and struggles for dominance. And beauty; that dirty word which also happens to be the reason why many people hate fashion; beauty is at the centre of Valentino: The Last Emperor. But beauty is complicated, especially when you're in the business of creating it. In each of these films, what the central figure (Wintour and Valentino) does and creates is reliant upon a key relationship with an indispensable partner. In the case of Valentino, it is his life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, who also happens to be his business partner. Valentino: The Last Emperor is above all else a love story, a portrait of this remarkable partnership that has lasted over 40 years. And in a similar way, what makes The September Issue so compelling is the central relationship between Wintour and Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director. Their relationship is tumultuous to say the least, but seeing the reality of these ‘couples’ on screen is what allows the audience to gain a realistic, and intellectually engaging portrait of the fashion industry.

Valentino Garavani

One recent documentary which didn’t succeed in this task was Lagerfeld Confidential, Rudolphe Marconi’s study of Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. Watching this film, it’s hard to believe that the director spent over two years filming Lagerfeld. It seems Marconi’s intention was to simply film whatever was happening in Lagerfeld’s daily life, which seems like it could be vicariously exciting, but is somehow reduced to countless journeys to and from unnamed locations, events and people. Rather than allowing the viewer into this world, Marconi’s technique distances us from getting any kind of insight into Lagerfeld’s existence. Instead we are merely witness to the questions Marconi wants to ask, the things Marconi sees. In the end, this proves to be, frankly, a boring outcome for what should have been an interesting film, not quite Old Wave, but certainly not New Wave either.

I’ve been thinking about fashion films for a while, and plan to continue posting about more of them on this blog in the future. But what triggered this retrospective look at recent fashion documentaries was an article Alison sent me written by Georgina Safe last week in The Australian, about another fashion documentary that has just screened at the Sydney Film Festival on legendary photographer Bill Cunningham. I’m yet to see it, but I certainly hope it’s of the same quality as The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor; maybe then I really can get away with calling it a New Wave.

(And if you’re keen to see more fashion films on the big screen, The Australian Cinematheque is curating a program of wonderful films to co-incide with GoMA’s Valentino exhibition in August

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

If everyone's a VIP, no-one is

by Alison Kubler

Candida Hofer

I recently travelled to Hong Kong for ARTHK10 (27 – 30 May 2010) Although the fair is still in its infancy (celebrating its third birthday) compared to other international events such as Basel (on now) or Cologne, it has quickly emerged as a serious contender. The official figures being touted for visitation are upwards of 46,000, which is staggering over five days. This year 155 galleries from 29 countries participated representing a significant increase from last year, and it would be expected that this will grow again in 2011. There were noticeably more punters this year and more Veuve Cliquot trollies cruising the laneways, which was a happy coincidence as lining up in the VIP bar to BUY a drink was well, unpleasant. To paraphrase Warhol, if everyone’s a VIP then no-one is. Case in point, at the VIP preview, most of well-heeled Hong Kong seemed to jostle alongside other art world VIPs to see the art.The presence of serious galleries such as Gagosian, White Cube, Pace, Lisson and Lehmann Maupin this year added a touch of art world glamour as well as fierce fashion and just as fierce European/New York gallery staff who are vaguely terrifying. The opening night was wall-to-wall Birkin bags and Louboutins, proving that art is still a luxury ticket. In short, ARTHK makes Melbourne Art Fair seem, well, lack lustre. The costs to galleries are almost equivalent too so given that MAF is biannual and HK is annual, it will be interesting to see who wins out. It will be difficult for MAF to retain its relevance biannually. Certainly there were more Australian galleries represented in Hong Kong this year and no doubt more will follow suit. Exhibition is of course by invitation, and apparently over 300 entries were received.

Damien Hirst, The Inescapable Truth and art fair goer

All indications were that the GFC had lifted even though at the very same time the art fair was launching in Hong Kong the press in Australia was foreshadowing a new downturn. It is difficult to get a clear idea of the fiscal success of this year’s fair, and in essence it hardly matters. Traditionally collectors and galleries brace for the vernissage, which is when most of the serious buying is done, but as with ARTHK9, many buyers seemed to hang back in contemplation and wait for the close, rushing to make final purchases. One exception was Damien Hirst, whose work filled one of the large front galleries as part of a special presentation by London gallery White Cube. Hirst triumphantly sold his work The Inescapable Truth for 1.75 million pounds sterling to prominent Chinese collector Thomas Shao on the opening day. Hirst’s dove suspended in formaldehyde above a human skull is at once memento mori and a fabulous pun about the nature of the art world; the impermanence of life versus the longevity of art, or as Hippocrates far more eloquently expressed it, “Ars longa, vita brevis.”

Everything about Hong Kong is big. It is a financial hub and one of the most romantic ports in the world. One part hedonistic expat playground and one part traditional China, Hong Kong is hardworking, restless and exhausting. As is the art fair, which is a week of back-to-back parties, lunches, cocktails and dinners, all of which may superficially appear as so much art luvvie froth, yet this is where the real business is done. Art and money go together, however much artists may rail against this awkward truth. Wealthy people buy art – this is why Veuve Cliquot has a stall and the accompanying catalogue has full-page advertisements for Van Cleef & Arpels and Louis Vuitton. Even the watchmaker Glashütte has a stall amongst the galleries, which is a little disconcerting. I had to do double take at the luxury real estate stall and double check that it wasn’t an ironic art installation. No, they really did want to sell me a villa in Repulse Bay.

Andy Warhol VS Takashi Murakami

Art fairs really are curious events; they can be compared to the experience of eating several different flavours of ice cream all at once so that you can no longer discern one key taste and the overall effect is sickly sweet and vaguely nauseating. There is so much to see that it is most often the case that art as spectacle triumphs over quietly contemplative works, as is the case with most of Hirst’s work. That said the delicate paintings of Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander won the official prize demonstrating the larger intellectual intent of the art fair. Curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist from the Serpentine was special guest this year alongside sculptor Antony Gormley, both of whom participated in a jocular and witty debate about the nature of artistic ability, demonstrating that the real success of the art fair relies on more than just sales.Certainly curators add art fairs to their must see lists because they are often the quickest way in which to see who is making what now. Ultimately I like the immediacy and madness of it all. Good art makes itself audible above even the brashest din.

As usual, at every art fair there is discussion about different ‘models’; debate about the outmoded nature of traditional stall displays with suggestions of virtual art fairs, yet these seem to me to be flawed models too. While seeing so much art en masse can cause indigestion, the veritable feast of ideas on display from all over the world is something that would be difficult to replicate online. It is true I believe that seeing art in the flesh is a completely different experience to viewing it on a computer. There is a place for both of course.

Finally, it may be a uniquely Asian approach to art viewing but the overwhelming theme of the art fair was the art paparazzi, that is the thousands of people taking photos of art. I estimate there are some 46,000 images of Hirst’s dove in existence now, taken via iPhones, mobile phones and cameras. I have never witnessed so much photography of art, ever. Indeed, the vast majority of viewers seemed to be shooting first and looking second, viewing the art through a lens. Maybe that’s the argument for an online fair? It would seem that outside the rarefied realms of the museum it’s a free for all. Some galleries tried in vain to protect the intellectual property of their artists putting up signs requesting no photography, but these were ignored. Where will all these images end up? On Facebook? On a blog? Apparently, yes.