Reflections on Manus X Machina at the MET: Fashion and Technology, Couture to RTW

While Yves Saint Laurent once quoted, “Art is a very big word for couture. It’s a métier like any other, but a poetic métier,” it was difficult for me to look at the pieces on display at the MET’s Manus x Machina exhibit and not see many of them as wearable sculptures.

img_3268-1Dress featuring both hand-embroidered and 3D-printed elements, by threeASFOUR, 2014

If you didn’t get a chance to check out the recent fashion and technology exhibit before it closed this Labor Day weekend, I wanted to give you an opportunity to see some of the beautiful pieces that were featured, and consider the topic of fashion and technology.

dressIris van Herpen dress including polyurethane resin and iron fillings hand-sculpted with magnets, Autumn/Winter 2014

One thing that really struck me about this Apple-sponsored, Andrew Bolton-organized exhibit was that, for a fashion and technology exhibit, it didn’t feel very high-tech. It was more like a retrospective of how high fashion has kept up with and experimented with the tech of its time over the last century. For instance, many of the 3D-printed pieces which were presented as some of the more technologically advanced of the show were created several years back. I’d even previously seen the Iris van Herpen 3D-printed corset in early 2014 the Bass Museum in Miami.

vanherpenIris van Herpen, 3D-Printed Dress (far right, 2010)

The lower-tech vibe of the show, on the positive side, can be viewed as a testament to how well some of the show’s participating haute couture designers have been integrating new technologies into fashion – allowing couture to retain its handmade look while keeping up with some of the latest technologies available. According to The New York Times, this has always been the case, i.e., with the invention of “the sewing machine (used to make a Paul Poiret coat in 1919) and machine-made lace (Coco Chanel, in the late ’30s).”

diorGowns, Dior (left, center) and Alexander McQueen (right)

There also seems to be a limiting factor in regards to the marriage of high-tech and haute couture: since a lot of technology is created to be utilitarian, and by its nature haute couture seems to be the antithesis of utilitarian, will the applications of technology in haute couture be limited to purely the aesthetic?

Even when considering Hussein Chalayan, whose fashion designs have included robotic, LED, and remote controlled technologies, the tech provides a visual wow-factor but no practical benefits for the wearer. Then again, no one ever looked to haute couture for its practicality.

Has it been frowned upon in the fashion world for couture to incorporate practical technology? Is there this consensus that the wearer of couture wouldn’t need high-tech life hacks woven into her ensemble at the moment of wearing it because its presence might reveal her earthly needs in her moment of being a goddess? I wonder if any designers right now are experimenting with pushing what those limits seem to have been.

chalayan“Kaikoku” Floating dress, Hussein Chalayan, 2011-12

Breaking from those limitations, the ready-to-wear fashion industry on the other hand is using technology to transform clothing itself into wearable tech smart devices. For instance, Google’s “Project Jacquard” recently debuted a partnership with Levi’s for a smart commuter jacket made of tech-connective denim that you can swipe like a smartphone screen to answer calls, control your music, and more, while remaining alert riding a bike. Antonio Cerruto, an engineer working on Project Jacquard, notes, “What I find exciting is that the people working on fashion tech now are the people who will be defining a vocabulary and mode of interaction for this area.”

It’s interesting that while tech is being integrated into both haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion in different ways, the core principles of the two categories – one as essentially wearable art and the other as utilitarian – seem to remain the same. And, the most “cutting edge” of the tech seems to be applied to the most common of the clothing: a denim jacket.

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Vanitas and Explorations of Eroticism in Consumer Culture: In Conversation with David Baskin

The art scene in Bushwick is of the most thriving in New York, and it attracts artists that span the spectrum of early-career through well-established. David Baskin is an artist of the latter category. He is a conceptual sculptor who has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center, and NYC’s Grace Building lobby (commissioned by Arts Brookfield), among other recognized institutions both in the US and internationally. While Baskin’s sculptures range from structures as ornate as antique chandeliers to hyper-simplified monochromatic mold-like forms, they all share the common thread of being comprised of recognizable everyday objects.

Following a v cool studio visit to Baskin’s Bushwick creative space, Artifactoid sits down with the artist to discuss his work in connection with the 17th century Dutch artistic traditions that inspired it, as well as its relevance in contemporary society, problematizing the relationship between human beings and material possessions throughout the ages.

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What inspired you to work with the art historical idea of vanitas?

The Vanitas project began with the idea of using art historical models to address contemporary issues, specifically consumerism. Many of the Dutch vanitas paintings were made during the Dutch Golden Age, roughly spanning the 17th century. I saw a relevant connection between this period and our present day culture. The Dutch created the first modern market economy, which can be seen as a model for our capitalistic system. The East India Company was the first multinational corporation and was financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. To finance the growth of trade and the economy, the Bank of Amsterdam was established, a forerunner to the modern central bank.

Obviously, every work of art is a product of the time period in which it was created and I see the Vanitas paintings as having a particularly unique connection with the socio-economic climate of the Dutch Golden Age.

An abundance of commodities based on mercantile trade comprised much of the objects on display in these paintings. I saw this as having a direct relationship to our current consumer culture. One of the Flemish painters who exemplified this connection the most was Adriaen van Utrecht. His work depicted a sumptuous and abundant display of objects, ranging from exotic fruits, flowers, dead animals, glassware and foreign and local luxury items that were available in the 17th century Antwerp markets. These paintings, depicting a range of “consumer goods,” brought to mind retail stores and malls where a seemingly endless amount of products are on display to entice consumer desire. Clearly these historic works can be seen in a contemporary consumerist light.

984px-Adriaen_van_Utrecht-_Vanitas_-_Still_Life_with_Bouquet_and_Skull

(Above: Still Life with Bouquet and Skull by Adriaen van Utrecht)

Describe the connection between consumerism and vanitas present in your work– ideas of vanitas in our contemporary culture. How did the intersection of these concepts lead you to develop your different series of works, including your still life pieces and fountain?

I initially became interested in the notion of the “still life” through my interest in consumer culture and retail display strategies. Abundance is a central theme to the historical still life and it seemed to me that the notion of the contemporary “still life” was more relevant in a retail context than solely in an art historical context.

I also saw the 17th Century Calvinistic message to renounce earthly possessions as a kind of early consumer critique. The historical vanitas paintings represented a moral lesson that would have been understood by early Dutch viewers. The message had religious overtones that emphasized the transience of life and the need for moderation and temperance, particularly when it came to amassing wealth and possessions. The irony here was that many of the paintings were commissioned by the merchant class and became commodified and highly prized as valuable possessions in themselves. A kind of meta-fetishization occurred, reinforcing the idea that an artwork isn’t separate from a market economy.

The “still life” sculptures that I make incorporate these ideas by bridging the historic model with our contemporary consumer culture. All of the objects in the sculptures were store bought and my active role, on one level, is as a consumer. I selected chromed objects to emphasis a false sense of desire and value, most items arranged in the sculptures are kitsch and ersatz products that are ubiquitous throughout the retail landscape.

The fountain sculpture is also an extension of the Vanitas project. Instead of chromed metal, all the objects on display are made of glass and crystal. I was thinking about the original purpose and function of a fountain as a source of drinking water for residents of villages and how now it can be seen as a symbol of personal and corporate wealth, power and excess.

fountain 2

What is your selection process like for the different items/elements that go into each of your still lives?

Some items directly reference objects and symbols that one would find in the historical work… a skull, flowers, and animals. But mostly, I was looking for a cross section of consumer goods that everybody could identify and relate to. Some items create vignettes within the larger group of objects and all were made either in China, Mexico, South East Asia and India, reflecting the current international manufacturing hubs based on globalization and free trade policies.

vanitas 1

What led you to create the works, “Still Life (Cosmetic Bottles),” and “Dove Bottles?” What did you learn about consumer culture from creating this project, and in which ways was the result of the piece either different from or similar to your original imagining of the work?

The sculpture “Still Life”(Cosmetic Bottles) was the first work of art I made that addressed the still life as subject. It comprises a selection of store bought cosmetic bottles that were cast in pigmented urethane rubber. A mold was made directly off of the original manufactured forms. By re-contextualizing the products in a fleshy colored rubber and by stripping them of their brand recognition, logos, or semiotic labeling, one begins to see the high aesthetic quality of these objects and what was once a latent eroticism now becomes quite overt. By revealing the “naked” forms of the bottles one can see the strategies and narratives designers incorporate to sell products and act upon the subconscious desires of consumers.

Still life-CosmeticBottles

Similarly, the Dove Bottle piece follows the same strategies as “Still Life” (Cosmetic Bottles). A variety of colored cast resin Dove bottles were installed in the window of the gallery, Carriage Trade, NY, NY, for the exhibition: Market Forces, Consumer Confidence. As with retail shelving and window displays, the objects on view were meant to engage the viewer on a purely visual level. Referencing planned obsolescence and the endless quantity of consumer products the bottles also become stand-ins for minimalist sculptural strategies. The window installation inside the gallery intentionally set up a dialog with the external retail environment in Soho, once the center of New York City’s art world.

dove bottles 1

How did you decide to show your works inside display cases? How does this decision affect the experience of the work?

Once I began making the sculpture I was confronted with the issue of presentation. The objects in a traditional still life were always on a table or some sort of substrate and there was a great deal of attention paid to the arrangement and relationship between each item on display. It was a type of stage setting, a mise-en-scene that created a space of intentionality. I brought these ideas into my sculptures and decided a vitrine would be the best framing and display device. On one level, the pieces are a kind of Wunderkrammer or Cabinet of Curiosities. The vitrine creates a literal and conceptual border for the objects and artifacts. I also was very much aware of the role of the vitrine in institutional museum display and it’s relationship to retail window display. Each serve to heighten the intrinsic or aesthetic value of the object and can be seen to have a direct relationship to the shop window in the rise of commodity culture going as far back as Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace and the Parisian Arcades in Walter Benjamin’s theoretical writings.

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If you are in the US, see Baskin’s work this fall in Brooklyn at Smack Mellon, “20yrs,” from November 12 -December 31, 2016, and if you are in Europe, at the MU Museum, “For Play,” from October 7th – November 30th in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

About David Baskin:

David Baskin received a BFA from The Cooper Union in 1987. Solo exhibitions include Arts Brookfield, Grace Building Lobby, NYC,  Freight+Volume Gallery, NY, NY; Sculpture Center, NY, NY; Ingalls & Assoc., Miami, Fl and Black and White Gallery,  Brooklyn, NY. Selected group exhibitions include the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; Marianne Boesky Gallery, NY; Carolina Nitsch, NY, NY; Pavel Zoubok Gallery, NY,NY; Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, NY; Triennale Design Museum, Milan, Italy; Musée de Design et d’arts Appliqués Contemporains, Lausanne, Switzerland; Carriage Trade, NY, NY; Galerie Erna Hecey; Brussels, Belgium; Lesile Heller Gallery, NY, NY; Rudolf Budja Gallery, Vienna, Austria; Flag Art Foundation, NY, NY. Honors and awards include McDowell Fellowship, NH; Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Yaddo Fellowship, NY; Commission through Brookfield Properties for a lobby installation at the Grace Building, NY, NY. He has taught at the Cooper Union School of Art, New York Institute of Technology and was a visiting critic at the School of Visual and Arts, NY, NY; Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, and the University of Buffalo, NY. David Baskin was one of the original members of the Brooklyn based non-profit art organization Smack Mellon and he lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Interview: Founder, Designer, Director and Curator Prem Krishnamurthy

Whenever you go to an art show, it is not only important to consider the art itself, but the space and context within which it is presented. These are all factors that exhibition designers, curators, and artists consider when working to bring an exhibition to life. At a recent, engaging panel at Americas Society, Prem Krishnamurthy and Shannon Harvey of Project Projects shared expert insight on many key elements of putting together an art show from start to finish. In this exclusive interview, Artifactoid sits down with Krishnamurthy, designer and founder of Project Projects, an award-winning graphic design studio, as well as the director and curator of P!, a critically-acclaimed exhibition space in New York’s Chinatown, to chat about curation and exhibition design, his eight-year dedicated study of East German graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel, a new experimental artist residency onboard commercial cargo ships, and more.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most important elements of curation and exhibition design to pay attention to when viewing an art show?

PK: I find that the most important thing to consider when viewing an exhibition is: what is the exhibition’s intention? What is it trying to persuade you of? How is it mobilizing the entire exhibition apparatus (or “exhibition prosthetics,” to use artist Joseph Grigely‘s term) starting from the press release (both text and design), checklist, display mechanisms, placement, lighting, contextual information, etc. in order to make a point or sell something? If you can understand the context and polemics of any given exhibition — especially in so-called “white cube” exhibitions, which make a claim to objectivity — then you have a better sense of where you, as the viewer, are being asked to stand.

Artifactoid: At a gallery show, museum exhibit, or art fair, what are the roles of the curator, the exhibition designer, and the artist? How do their roles differ, and on which aspects do they collaborate or exchange/interchange roles?

PK: Typically, these roles are intertwined — and thankfully so. Even though exhibition credits panels like to simplify and separate these roles, in the best exhibitions, there is a healthy overlap and intersect between content, mediation, and display. Not every exhibition has all three roles explicitly, but they are implicit in the work of making exhibitions.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a curator, and how did you overcome them?

PK: I don’t come from a curatorial background; rather, I studied art, focusing on photography and graphic design, and was drawn to organizing exhibitions and programs early on. Although I’ve always had ideas for projects, as I began over the past 8 or so years to focus more rigorously on curating, I discovered I had a lot about the professional practice of the field to figure out. However, I’ve had the great advantage of having worked as a designer with many of the most talented and thoughtful curators and artists in the field, from whom I’ve learned a lot.

Artifactoid: Tell us a bit about some of the unique elements and processes that went into putting together the most recent show that is on display at P!, from a curation/design perspective.

PK: The most recent show at P!, OST UND oder WEST: Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski was an unusual show for us on a number of levels: typically, we focus on mixing together different media, approaches, and historical periods, but this exhibition, in contrast, is truly about graphic design. This stems from the fact that I have been researching the subject of the exhibition, East German graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel (1910–1985) for over eight years. So in this case, it’s an exhibition that I have researched, organized, curated, and designed from start to finish. I’ve even acted as collector, since I’ve had to track down his work over the years! This wholesale collapse of roles almost makes it feel more like an artist project than a curatorial one. Yet in this case it’s also quite appropriate, since Wittkugel himself worked in this holistic manner, and sought, within the East German context, to broaden the role and reach of graphic design.

Ost

Artifactoid: Are there any exciting upcoming projects you’re looking forward to executing this year? 

PK: There are so many projects this year! It’s a really exciting time, actually, where it seems like I’ll be able to integrate the work I’m doing in design and curating to an even greater degree. A partial list of projects includes curating and designing an exhibition called Dis-Play/Re-Play at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York in collaboration with curator Walter Seidl; curating, organizing, and designing a new and experimental artist residency onboard commercial cargo ships called Container Artist Residency 01, with project founder and artist Maayan Strauss; a new website for Ballroom Marfa; curatorial consultation and permanent exhibition design for The Bass in Miami Beach; and identity, print, and web design for Zarigüeya, a new contemporary art project in Quito, Ecuador. Plus, I’ve got a whole slew of writing and publishing projects, in addition a full exhibition program at P! — so it should be a productive “Year of the Monkey”!

For more from P!, don’t miss the upcoming show, “Maryam Jafri: Economy Corner,” artist Maryam Jafri‘s first US solo exhibition, opening this Thusrday, February 25th with a reception from 6-8PM.

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