Royal Academy's Aware: Art Fashion Identity

We speak to co-curator of the RA's new exhibition exploring the relationship between artsists and designers in how they use clothing as artistic expression

Fashion Incoming
Yoko Ono 'Cut Piece', 1965. A film by Albert and D
Yoko Ono 'Cut Piece', 1965. A film by Albert and David Maysles of Yoko Ono’s performance of Cut Piece at Carnegie Recital Hall, New York. Courtesy of the artist

Following the success of two previous GSK contemporary shows, the Royal Academy’s next exhibition Aware: Art Fashion Identity will examine how both artists and designers have used clothing as a form of artistic expression. It will contain the work of over 30 international contemporary practitioners including Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, Gillian Wearing and Yohji Yamamoto. Two artists, Hussein Chalayan and Yinka Shonibare, have been commissioned by London College of Fashion and the Royal Academy to produce new works especially for the show.

Dazed Digital spoke to co-curator Edith Devaney, who is also Head of Membership and Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, about the importance of the exhibition.

Dazed Digital: How did the exhibition come about?
Edith Devaney:
This is the third season of GSK Contemporary at the Royal Academy of Arts, and across the programme we have endeavored to examine contemporary art as broadly as we could. Last year we had an issue-led exhibition with Earth: Art of a changing world and we were looking to do something very different this year. Two external curators, Lucy Orta and Gabi Scardi, had worked on a idea for a clothing based art exhibition, which they shared with us. The Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Kathleen Soriano, and I worked closely with them on the final curation and presentation of the exhibition.

DD: What fuelled the decision to present both art and fashion together?
Edith Devaney:
There is a general recognition that the 1960's was a time when both art and fashion underwent a huge shift - both becoming more accessible and relevant to the public. In recent years, there has been a cross over in ideas between designers and artists and acknowledgment that skills in one discipline can be applied to another as a form of artistic expression.

DD: How did you go about choosing the artists and designers involved?
Edith Devaney:
We looked for artists who have very deliberately appropriated the creation and examination of clothing as a means of artistic expression. They each explore issues of individuality and social identity. Clothing has particular resonance for those artists who are attuned to the social situations of their times. The designers included have crossed over into areas of artistic expression and have begun to examine issues through the medium of clothing. This exhibition seeks to go beyond commercial concerns of the industry to examine the artist’s and designer’s particular interpretation in using clothing to speak of our experience of the world, its complexities and changing nature.

DD: Hussein Chalayan and Yinka Shonibare have been commissioned to create new work for the show. Why did you specifically chose the two artists?
Edith Devaney:
Hussein Chalayan stands out as a designer who continually pushes his work beyond the confines of fashion. We could have exhibited many fantastic pieces of existing work, but having worked with him before we were aware of how he responds to new challenges. His interpretations of the principles behind the exhibition are clearly illustrated in his new and complex work.

Yinka Shonibare's work examines the effects of past colonization and this is further explored in his new piece. The wax-printed cotton batik fabric that is a feature of all his work is strongly associated with Africa, but in fact was originally designed and printed in Holland and exported when it found no market in Europe. The installation of children’s clothes underlines cultural crossovers and economic dependence. London College of Fashion worked with the Royal Academy on both these commissions and their expertise in pattern cutting has been used to great effect here.

DD: What do you feel are the key pieces in the exhibition?
Edith Devaney:
Each exhibited piece brings an essential element to the overall form of the exhibition. Personal highlights are Claudia Losi and Alexander McQueen. Losi’s project started as a life-size model of a fin whale that she constructed from cashmere suiting fabric. Following a tour of the world, Losi’s whale has been ‘dissected’ and made into a collection of jackets by the fashion designer Antonio Marras. Memories of the whale’s journey have been stitched into the newly created garments. On the other hand, Alexander McQueen’s work from his Autumn/ Winter 1998–99 collection took St Joan of Arc as its theme. As in many of McQueen’s collections, the historical reference is clear in the clothing. The red fabric and shrouded face suggest female strength, which is then counterbalanced by the intricate lace and delicate beading on the bodice. It reminds us what a great talent he was.

GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity will be on display at the Royal Academy of Arts , 6 Burlington Gardens, London, from December 2nd to January 30th.

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