Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Backlund

Fashioning_the_Object_reviewBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, and Sandra Backlund
The Art Institute of Chicago
April 14 – September 13, 2012

Curated by Zoë Ryan and exhibited in three distinct sections, this exhibition is as much about how fashion is represented than it is about fashion itself. Refreshingly the garment is not the core of the exhibition. In her exhibition introduction, Ryan notes that her selected triumvirate of designers Bless, Boudicca and Sandra Backlund are each adept at “Harnessing a conceptual and intellectual approach to design” with practices that “are located firmly within the fashion industry, yet their work is not driven purely by market forces.” This may be true, but I found the more engaging aspect of this exhibition to be the decision to select three examples of designers who question – through different means – the presentation of fashion.

The Austrian/German duo Bless set the tone with an installation that hangs and hides much of its content in a series of metal and raffia chainmail curtains that the visitor must push through in order to see the work. No bland standing back and staring is allowed. Instead, the curtain’s physical barrier encourages what we are so often discouraged from doing in the museum context: reaching out to touch what we see. Captured in the curtain and along the walls behind are pieces from their collections, as well as print material used to document their eclectic design strategy. Bless have become expert in the temporary adoption of existing publications to act as platforms for what can be likened to a look book. As a result, nothing appears quite where you would expect it to be, highlighting how often we come to accept and expect the formulas of fashion.

From this invitation to touch, the show leads the viewer into the British partnership Boudicca’s black cube where, in contrast, very little physical material is on display. Instead video takes the foreground. Rather than using the moving image to capture an event locked in the past, Boudicca’s use of video feels more like an attempt to record the shifting reference points of a particular project. At times the moving image is a necessity in communication. “Wode”, for example, their 2011 perfume, sprays on as a deep blue before disappearing under the wearer’s touch; the Motion Capture Sequin Dress from “Fragmented Dream”, Spring/Summer 2011 is covered with sequins that move when the surface is stroked. Both require movement and time to properly understand the work. Ironically, the predominant projection in this room is given to the Spring/Summer 1999 show “System Error”, which is in many ways the most conventional. Not only does the video record a catwalk presentation of a collection, it edits out what the fashion historian Caroline Evan’s recollects as the audience discomfort caused by the single model who “changed backstage, produc[ing] painful moments as the audience fretted in uncomfortable silence, wondering if something had gone wrong.”

A clean white cube reappears for the display of Swedish knitwear designer Sandra Backlund’s work. This final section contains the most material work of the whole exhibition – eight works in knit, fabric and a paper mock-up, each displayed on stands accompanied by a single large suspended print of a photograph. Shot by photographer Ola Bergengren these images do not record Backlund’s garments on the body or in motion but in fact aim to do the exact opposite: capture the stillness and detail of the work. Rather than record the object, they act as particular interpretations of form and texture. Here each image is printed so that some of the reverse is also visible from the back, accompanied by the shadow of the garment on the stand. Ironically, it is the flat image that encourages the viewer to see Backlund’s exquisitely crafted, often extreme, silhouettes in the round.

Ryan writes that the exhibitors’ “presentation methods are . . . fundamental to the meaning of their work.” The truth is that none of these elements flourish if forced into isolation. Backlund’s garments are misunderstood if known solely through Bergengren’s photographs; Boudicca’s films esoteric without some accompanying dialogue to contextualise; and the output of Bless potentially more exciting as process than outcome. As three contrasting practices they show a thriving curiosity that is often made bland by the time fashion reaches the commercial setting. Ryan’s curation is careful not to overcomplicate the picture, and brings professionalism and creativity to a smart exhibition.

Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, and Sandra Backlund is published in conjunction with the exhibition by the Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2012.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 48: 91)