Aware: Art Fashion Identity
BY JOÃO PAULO NUNES
The Construction of the Self through Clothing
The exhibition “Aware: Art Fashion Identity”, currently on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, sets out to depict how artists and designers examine clothing as a mechanism to construct and communicate individual and collective identities.
Despite some lukewarm reviews in a number of newspapers, mostly owing to somewhat set expectations of what themes fashion exhibitions should focus on, this is an outstanding and thought-provoking collection of pieces by talented artists and designers that addresses the conceptual roles that fashion can have. The exhibition contains work by 30 emerging as well as established international contemporary practitioners including Hussein Chalayan, Andreas Gursky, Susie MacMurray, Alexander McQueen, Yoko Ono, Grayson Perry, Cindy Sherman, Yinka Shonibare and Yohji Yamamoto.
Occupying the main galleries of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens building, “Aware” is divided into four clearly demarcated sections. The circular and fluid layout of the galleries allows the visitor the possibility of revisiting the art works at different paces and developing personal interpretations of the rich layers of meaning that they produce regarding the role of fashion in the construction of identity.
The first section, “Storytelling”, acknowledges the role of clothing in the representation of the self, within a formative background of personal history and moulded by shared cultural experiences. Visitors are welcomed to the exhibition by Grayson Perry’s “Artist’s Robe’”(2004), an elaborate patchwork coat of luxurious fabrics and a comment on the role and the status of artists in today’s world. This section also hosts works by artists Lucy Orta and Cindy Sherman and introduces the narrative of the exhibition by questioning the role of the body and the garment as material embodiments of identity and emotions. In this context, Susie MacMurray’s “Widow (2009), an elegant dress structure of black nappa leather covered in sharp dressmaker pins, translates the internal pain of love loss into an aggressive external presentation of the garment as object that inflicts pain to the wearer while repelling human contact.
The second section “Building” addresses the concept that clothing can be both a form of protection and a way to carry one’s own shelter, referencing the nomadic, portable nature of modern life. On display is “Shelter Me 1” (2005) by Mella Jaarsma, well-known for work establishing parallels between garments and architecture. Jaarsma’s piece depicts shelter not as a house but as the minimal construction needed for individual protection according to the proportions of the human body. Similarly, Azra Akšamija’s “Nomadic Mosque” (2005) portrays a garment as wearable religious architecture, challenging commonly held notions of the physical public and collective spaces of worship.
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