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Fashion as performance art

A night of conceptual fashion at Berlin's Mathew Gallery with Harry Burke

I'm sitting with Matthew Linde and two friends on the floor of Mathew Gallery in Berlin. We'd been out together the night before, and although it's late again, none of us are drinking and we're enjoying the feeling of becoming tired. Matthew is explaining the show to me as the others play on their phones. A local curator, Daniel Buchholz, walks past, wearing only a light shirt even though it feels like it might rain. Later, by which time we're all on our phones, Bucholz walks back, with a face that's amused and somehow clownish at seeing us still playing in the gallery. We're talking about our favourite members of Bernadette Corporation, about contemporary fashion practices, and about whether certain Frankfurt School terms are still useful in describing some of the displacements in current post-conceptual art practice.

Linde, a PhD candidate in curating fashion at RMIT University, runs Centre for Style, an exhibition space and store for contemporary fashion practice in Melbourne, Australia. On the 14th August, Centre for Style opened Bouvier's Bedroom at Mathew, a group exhibition of eight emerging (or, as they emphasise, “incredibly emerging”) fashion designers from Europe, Asia, the USA and Australia. The opening night featured a rendition of “Tell me what to do”, a performance by the Viena artist Anna-Sophie Berger, on this occasion performed with Matthew Linde.

Centre for Style is a fashion store, and Bouvier's Bedroom was an exhibition of fashion. Its placement inside the white cube of the art gallery was an attempt to decentre its own mode of display, to question fashion through art and vice versa. Clothes are useful items, in that they have a utilitarian value. Art objects often sacrifice use value for a value that is created in their exhibition. To focus on the exhibition value of utilitarian objects, even if the objects are three fingered gloves (by H.B. Peace), highlights the ways in which objects are both reified and rarefied; how an abstract idea is made into a real object, and then how that object might be made scarce, or desirable. This happens in lots of art exhibitions. The elegance of the fashion show –that it was clothes, and not art, on display – is that it reminds us of the fundamentally social dimension to this process.

The exhibition was arranged, among other found and acquired objects, across the floor and walls of the gallery. Of the designers involved, Eckhaus Latta and Martine Rose were the most well known. The Martine Rose piece didn't make it to the gallery in time for the opening. Ekhaus Latta showed two garments strewn on the arm of a bright orange sofa; a pair of shorts fabricated out of an almost childlike interpretation of the cut for a pair of shorts (the cut for a pair of shorts doesn't look like a pair of shorts), and a shirt featuring delicately knitted plastics. Founded by a pair of Rhode Island School of Design graduates, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, these garments improv around some of the knitted plastics connecting the languages of art and fashion; why settle for one when you can be the other? The result is Fashion by Artists for Artists, crafted and intelligent, insider visions exported to Berlin from the parallel world of New York City, if sadly none of the New Yorkers present at the opening were wearing them.

Of the rest of the contributions, three scarves by recent University of Melbourne graduates H.B. Peace stood out. Collaborations with the artist Christopher LG Hill, these were presented hanging on wall features and collapsed on shelves, fabricated out of used blankets and incorporating texts by Hill that looked like glued on A4 paper but were in fact poems on silk. The scarves had large brass hoops at one end that either fastened the fabric together around your neck or allowed you to carry them like a clutch.

The most outwardly political works in the show were by ffiXXed, designers from Melbourne who have worked in Berlin and now Shenzhen, the major industrial zone in Southern China. These, kind of like sweatsuits, but with skirts not pants, were emblazoned with the text “WORK WON'T WAIT”, as if you weren't already working, or as if alluding to the brutal conditions of work in these late stages of global capital. On the skirts, the “W” in “WORK” was cropped to make a “V”, as if the fabric was cut too soon. One of the pair on display was made out of an aeroplane blanket. The centrepiece of the show was a long pink dress by Laura Fanning, the only garment displayed on a mannequin. The most compelling presence was Berlin-based Nhu Duong, who you'd most likely be seen wearing at the afterparty, whilst her skirt was displayed in the gallery on a lamp stand.

If this was the wardrobe, then exactly the type of bedroom was that constructed by Anna-Sophie Berger. Like a Yvonne Rainer dance but cuter, “Tell me what to do”, which has previously been performed in New York and Vienna, featured Berger giving Linde one line instructions as they navigated the room, as if in a photo shoot, or a prison yard, or a bedroom, telling him what to do. Periodically the roles would be reversed. The performance was an experiment in intimacy, of how one person can communicate with another. The audience was shut out, allowed only to take pictures. 

Space is performative, and constructed through movement, and “Tell me what to do” felt ritualistic in its inauguration of this, playing on the rituals of the fashion world and the art opening at the same time. Yet it also felt engaging as simple movement. Fashion is fast, and the art world increasingly too, with artists compelled to produce work for shows, art fairs and biennials almost at the speed of the A/W, S/S fashion pace. Art and fashion thrive on the speed of global distribution and dissemination, kind of like money and property markets. The movement in the show, and the movement of the objects travelling to and around the show, was kind of also like this. In a networked culture, space is also constructed by the movement of objects and people around the space. Where Bouvier's Bedroom excelled was in using this movement to look at things from different angles, and in turn to interrogate one thing through the form or language of another, be it fashion through art, sculpture through performance, interrogator through curator, or object through thinking through style.

Bouvier's Bedroom, Mathew Gallery, Berlin, 15.08.14 to 29.08.14, featuring Eckhaus Latta, ffiXXed, H.B. Peace, Jessie Kiely, Laura Fanning, Martine Rose, Nhu Duong and Rare Candy.