The Future of Fashion is Now & Building with Textiles

Building with Textiles
Textiel Museum, Tilburg, the Netherlands
27 September, 2014 – 25 January, 2015.

The Future of Fashion is Now
Museum Boijmans, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
11 October, 2014 – 18 January, 2015.

Two large exhibitions in the Netherlands this autumn tackle the textile bedfellows of fashion and architecture. While arguably more adept at courting the limelight, the perception that fashion and architecture command greater sex appeal, commercial clout and conceptual nonce often overlooks that fact that they are utterly intertwined with textile materials and textile thinking.

With these similarities in mind, it comes as less of a surprise to see that two large-scale exhibitions stumble at the same challenge: how to get the viewer inside the material. Both rely on traditional exhibition formats to present exteriors of objects that we really need to know from the inside. Admittedly, Building with Textiles offers up a yurt, but the overriding sense is an exhibition that feels dutiful, but dull.

This is a shame because some of the content is fascinating – the changing colours of Astrid Krogh’s optical fibre and paper yarn weavings are magical, especially on first viewing; the beauty of Aleksandra Gaca’s sophisticated woven acoustic surfaces make it easy to overlook their considerable function; German architect’s SL Rasch’s shading system for the Prophet’s Holy Mosque in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina present beauty and function on an entirely different scale.

The Textiel Museum has created a crucial remit for itself by producing, as well exhibiting, textiles. The nearby rooms of the TexteilLab create an atmosphere of real purpose for the Museum, which fell short in this exhibition. Instead viewers are faced in the very first room with lines of repeating wall text (at least in the English version) suggesting something in the exhibition planning was a little off. A few rooms later the space designated for workshops is covered with unnervingly large “do not touch” signs – an irony that somewhat sums up what this exhibition lacks – a sense of feeling as well as seeing.

A short train journey to Rotterdam and another sizeable exhibition – The Future of Fashion is Now – looks impressive from a distance. The museum entrance welcomes visitors with Studio Wieki SomersMerry-Go-Round Coat Rack. Apparently inspired by systems used by space-poor miners, the circus-like contraption offers an effective system of locking suspended winter coats high above visitors’ heads. Simple but effective, it makes you pause to think a little more about the familiar. The show struggles to sustain the same sense of intrigue throughout – perhaps because it is just so vast. Fifty-eight artists and designers from a range of cultures confirm that guest curator for the show José Teunissen looked well beyond Europe. Impressive as 1,500 square meters of exhibition space may seem, initial impressions give way to the sneaking sense that the space posed a challenge to fill.

Four huge themes are used to organise the show: Materiality and Experience; The (Re)Definition of the Human Figure (with walls painted blood red); New Values and New Stories; and in the final rooms, Fashion Activism: Community and Politics. This breadth may also be part of the exhibition’s real challenge as any one of themes would have provided more than enough to take on.

Much like Building with Textiles, this show struggles (despite the blood red walls) to get under the skin. Helen Storey’s dissolving dress Say Goodbye was – on the day of my visit – suspended over an empty bowl making it hard for those unfamiliar with the work to imagine the material’s vulnerability in liquid. The outcome felt more like a curiously fixed artefact of fashion history than a dynamic statement on NOW.

Again, there are gems – particularly in a number of works that passed pointed commentary on the fashion industry. Viktor and Rolf’s Red Carpet Dressing is what it says – a gown and matching shoes of red carpet. It works so very well, not simply because of the clever idea, but because of the precise skill in executing the idea. Minna Palmqvist’s Intimately Social 4.09, an installation of slowly deflating balloons, clothing and shoes offers a poetic response to the reality of our ever-changing bodies and fashion’s impossible expectation that we can police and control those changes. And Adele Varoe’s tongue-in-cheek video Imagining Chanel (also performed at the exhibition’s opening) is a true emperors-new-clothes story of naked models scrutinised in the setting of a traditional salon show.

Both exhibitions are worth the visit. The problem is you are left with a sense that they could have been something so much more, perhaps by tackling a lot less.

Selvedge magazine (issue 62, 2014: 90-91)