Fashion: The Greatest Show on Earth
Bellevue Art Museum, 425-519-0770.

Through Sept 2.

Non-art objects are drafted into art's realm all the time, which is an odd value-adding strategy--just ask any arts council about the perceived value of art these days. And yet recently I was hesitating over a necklace, and the saleslady brightly told me that it was "wearable art." Oh, well then.

Anything, as Arthur Danto has pointed out, can be made the object of detached aesthetic contemplation, but that doesn't make it art. I frequently think about the difference between art and artifact, art and advertising, art and haute cuisine, art and almost anything else--if only in service of a word that, like "visionary" or "creative," has nearly lost all meaning. I do this not by thinking about how art is like any other thing (by being visual, by being craft-intensive), but by thinking about how it's different--which, in almost every case, has to do with its relationship to the viewer, audience, or consumer. Every bird has a beak and wings and feathers, after all, but not every bird is a duck.

Fashion: The Greatest Show on Earth is a thesis about fashion shows as the logical heir of performance art. (It also happens to be the second circus-titled show this year at the Bellevue Art Museum--Oh Boym! was subtitled A Sideshow of Design--another form of cultural reframing that bears noting.) Through slides, videos, and a few actual garments, curator Ginger Gregg Duggan presents what she sees as references in the work of certain designers to performance works by such artists as Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Jana Sterbak, and Rebecca Horn. Fluxus and Dada, as usual, take their share of the credit.

That fashion shows and performance art (or fashion and art, for that matter) have arrived at a similar place is interesting enough, but this show is laid out like a thesis, and it feels like a thesis, with all the joy and insanity drained out. Some designers, it's true, do seem closer to artists, largely because they investigate the uselessness of things, often by making clothes that are unwearable. When wearing is no longer the primary function of clothing, it becomes something else, and through this paradox designers such as Hussein Chalayan (who turns tables and chairs into skirts and dresses) and Rei Kawakubo (who pads clothing in places that most women would not care to be padded) seem to want to examine the relationship between the wearer and the worn and the world. (Chalayan's company unsurprisingly went bankrupt in 2001.)

But the content of the clothes--such as Chalayan's remote-controlled dress, which takes a wearer's agency away rather unpleasantly, raising the question of exactly how much agency the wearer ever has at the hands of designers--is barely examined. There's the 1999 Alexander McQueen show in which a model is aggressively sprayed with paint, and other shows in which models appear to be having (choreographed) nervous breakdowns. All of this means something, but is never investigated past such general terms as "transformation" or "spectacle." Here among the designers who borrow from art, I think, is where there should have been artists who borrow from fashion--where content is at least part of the point. Some Vanessa Beecroft (who has made models in Gucci underwear stand around empty galleries for hours), some Matthew Barney (whose Cremaster films use spectacle and fashion on a grand scale), would have put some air into the airless theorizing.

Because the truth of it is that fashion wants something different from you than art does. Certainly not all fashion designers are venal, nor are all artists pure. Runway shows may share certain qualities with performance art, but I don't think, as Duggan does, that they contain explicit references. They seem more like the kind of canny, aggressive marketing scheme that seems not to care whether or not you fall for it, so that you fall for it to show that you're in the swim.

And you can see where fashion shows have taken certain cues from performance art--the stony-faced models, the impossible clothing, and the absurd scenarios that are not alluring, but distancing, so that the runway show creates exactly the kind of discomfort that performance art does. There you are, in the bodily presence of a body doing something a body rarely does, or that a body shouldn't ever do.

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