Saturday, August 27, 2011

Watching from afar

This is one of those moments when I wish I were still in New York. The Met put up an Alexander McQueen retrospective, featuring 100 ensembles and 70 accessories from his two decades of work in fashion. Now I am on the other side of the pond, all I can do is to buy the catalogue and read from the press, watching from afar...

(All images are from the Metropolitan Museum website. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø)

Titled "Savage Beauty," the exhibition showcased McQueen's wild imagination and dark romanticism. Maybe it's because he started his career from tailoring, I always find his design very architectural, paying close attention to the tectonic aspects of the garments.


Many of McQueen's forms were based on the construction/deconstruction principles of tailoring. "My designing is done mainly during fittings. I change the cut," he once explained. "I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them." A simple jacket became brilliant after a light touch of alteration. A dress in Plato's Atlantis, his last collection in 2010 before he died, showed the hybrid and juxtaposition of different fabrics morphing together with an organic curved cut.

Jacket, Joan, autumn/winter 1998–99
Dress, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

McQueen designed from the side, the angle that he believed to be the worse where you have all the lumps and bumps. "That way I get a cut and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body," he said. He worked with the body, and at the same time he wanted to push the silhouette. "To change the silhouette is to change the thinking of how we look." Does it really fit? could be the question many people ask when they saw the "Jellyfish" ensemble.
“Jellyfish” Ensemble, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

When McQueen wanted to fit the body, he went all the way. Inspired by the coiled necklaces of the Ndebele people of southern Africa, the "Coiled" corset carefully traced the female form with aluminum coils. Jeweler Shaun Leane made the coils one by one according to a concrete cast of the model's torso. Architects, do we have the same attitude towards our building sites?
“Coiled” Corset, The Overlook, autumn/winter 1999–2000


McQueen always had bold ideas about what could go on a dress. He loved feathers. He was inspired by their colors, graphics, weightlessness, and "engineering." He tried to transpose the beauty of birds to women, both the elegance and the dark side.

Dress, The Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2009–10
Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7

McQueen's use of natural raw materials became shocking when he made an entire dress out of razor-clam shells in the 2001 VOSS collection. There were also oyster shells in the same series. Later in the 2003 collection, he tried to achieve the soft oyster texture through hundreds and hundreds of circles of silk organza. Again, we could see the skills of a tailor through the use of draping and lightness.
Dress, VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Ensemble, VOSS, spring/summer 2001
“Oyster” Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003

One of the reasons McQueen used shells was to emphasize the ephemeral nature of fashion. He also used fresh flowers mixed with silk ones in the Sarabande collection. "Things rot... I used flowers because they die." This reflected perfectly his unique sense of dark romanticism.
Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007

Hair was another "crazy" raw material on McQueen's dresses. There was synthetic hair and horsehair in the Eshu collection. In his graduation collection, he encapsulate human hair, and some of his own hair, in the coat.
Coat, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Dress, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Detail of Coat,
 Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, MA Graduation Collection 1992


McQueen's graduation collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims was based on a London serial killer in 1888. His fascination with Victorian culture and death was also shown in a corset in the Dante collection featuring jet beading and lilac color which were symbols of mourning in the Victorian era. He once told Vogue in an interview, "I believe in history." It was no surprise to see many historic references in his work, including an English-Queen-style crimson coat and a crinoline of metal wire half exposed underneath a beige leather dress.

Corset, Dante, autumn/winter 1996–97
Ensemble, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9
Ensemble, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001

As a Scotsman, McQueen was quite patriotic about Scotland. He used McQueen wool tartan in the Widows of Culloden collection, which referenced a battle in the struggles between England and Scotland.
Ensemble, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7


Like the use of tartan, pattern for McQueen was never random decoration. It was another layer to the special type of beauty, the story, or the process of construction. In another Scotland-related collection Highland Rape, McQueen did his signature torn lace for the first time to convey a broken look. The way he did it was to cut around each flower to give a very delicate, torn appearance that reflected the modular assembly of the pattern.

Dress, Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96

For the finale of the 1999 runway show, McQueen had two robot arms spray-painting a dress on stage. The model Shalom Harlow revolved on a turntable. Her movement and that of the robots co-authored the pattern. But was it all accidental? McQueen told us, “It was really carefully choreographed. It took a week to program the robots.”
Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999
The making of the No. 13 dress during the runway show

The McQueen exhibition is over now and it ended up among the Met's top 10 popular shows. (A friend told me it was 6-hour wait to get in on the last day.) I wish the exhibition would travel to Europe so that I could see the pieces with my own eyes. Maybe Lee should go home to London, perhaps V&A?

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I can't see YAP at PS1 this year (probably didn't miss much...), but I made it to Rome for the first ever YAP MAXXI.

MoMA PS1 joined force with MAXXI to launch the Italian edition of the established Young Architects Program. For over ten years in New York, YAP have brought in emerging young talents such as SHoP, WORKac, MOS, and SO-IL to transform the courtyards of PS1 into temporary summer events spaces with shade and water. This year for the MAXXI plaza, young Roman office stARTT was chosen as winner of the first YAP in Europe. The scheme WHATAMI injects a series of artificial green islands across the outdoor space. The main island, closer to the northeast corner of the site, features several zones of different qualities for people to hang out and relax. A "river" runs in front and forms a nice recreational "water edge." Large red calla lilies grow out of the grass and provide shading in the day and lighting at night. I feel that this is more about offering a nice and attractive place to the visitors than an "architectural" geometry play in the other YAP at PS1.

It's interesting to see the notion of architecture and gender here. Zaha's concrete building is curvy, but extremely severe and imposing at the same time. Right next to it, the male team of stARTT introduces more natural elements and to some extent they soften the aggressiveness of the strong lady with cheerful summer minds. The museum building and the new intervention co-exist in harmony, and they seem to be even complementary in a funny way.

I was surprised how well this was built. I know the PS1 budget was always so tight ($60,000-85,000, varying from year to year) that the architects usually chose very cheap materials and relied on volunteers for construction. I guess the recycled or natural materials that stARTT used, such as polystyrene and pressed hay, could still be considered "cheap." But in the making-of video shown in the gallery, I saw professional construction workers and serious metal cutting and welding work. Also, the red "flowers" were so well made that they easily top all the PS1 constructions I've seen. Maybe the city was convinced to increase funding because these high-tech objects were supposed to be relocated throughout Rome, in one of those abandoned places waiting for rehabilitation.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Art on the margin

Parallel to the main Art Basel, there were several smaller shows happening in the city. Design Miami/ Basel, showcasing 20th and 21st century design, was one of the prestigious ones. It was not as massive as the Milan fair, but it still had quite a few interesting things.
Design Miami/ Basel at Messe Hall 5, with Nacho Carbonell's outdoor pieces Playground Closes at Dusk
The Aranda\Lasch designed "scattered" floor layout

Jean Prouvé seemed to be the superstar this year. Both Jousse Entreprise and Galerie Patrick Seguin dedicated their booths to his work, not mentioning the chairs and tables scattered around in the hall.
Jean Prouvé at Jousse Entreprise booth
Galerie Patrick Seguin constantly assembles and dissembles Jean Prouvé's 6x6m demountable house

I spotted this chandelier I saw before as a wall installation at the "Dead or Alive" exhibition in New York. Ralph Nauta & Lonneke Gordijn of DRIFT gathered dandelions, removed the puffs and then painstakingly glued them back seed by seed to a constellation of LED lights.
DRIFT, Fragile Future 3 Chandelier, 2010

As one of the winners of the "Designers of the Future Award," London-based architect-designer Asif Khan devised an archetypal space with helium gas, water and soap. Soap bubbles slowly rose into the air, floating upward and eventually caught by a fish net stretched across the ceiling.
Asif Khan, Cloud, 2011

The most impressive work at Design Miami/ Basel was the Luciferase series by Spanish artist Nacho Carbonell. Considered as "light-producing creatures," the pieces took inspiration from flora and fauna living in abysses, with their extraordinary colors, textures, and gesture. The effects were beautiful, resembling the seductive sparkling quality of amethyst, quartz, and malachite.
Nacho Carbonell, Luciferase series, 2011

Other concurrent shows, including Scope and Liste, provided venues for emerging galleries and artists who were "too young to get into the main fair." Perhaps these shows were simply smaller so that the art could get more attention. I felt I saw a higher concentration of talents here, with fresh insights and more innovative techniques.
Scope 11 at Kaserne
Liste 16 at Werkram Warteck pp

Patrick Cornillet's oil paintings of isolated building elements, Andrew Rogers' land art, Alex and John Gailla's red nylon wire sculptures, and Samsul Arifin's installation with ricesack figures were among the nice things at Scope.
Patrick Cornillet, Structure
Andrew Rogers, Rhythms of Life: Shield, Kenya, 2010
Alexandre and John Gailla, Crucifixion (left); La Lutte (front)
Samsul Arifin, Goni's Voice, 2011

American artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley participated in Scope with their interesting performance piece. For the five days of the show, the two artists lived in a self-contained vertical living unit. Tied to either end of a single rope, the two had to depend on each other to move up and down their habitat, even to the kitchen and bathroom. With Schweder's architectural background (Pratt-Princeton), this artwork explored several architecture-related issues better than many "experimental" houses. It reexamined notions such as everyday domestic routine, modes of circulation, building-inhabitant interactions, and ultimately, interpersonal relationships.
Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, Counterweight Roommate, 2011
Counterweight Roommate concept model

Digital technology is one of the trending issues in art today, especially among young artists. The "Principia" exhibition during the Milan Design Week put together some 3D-printed sculptures and a robot arm drawing portraits. This time at Scope in Basel, there was a machine painting in color pixels, very similar to the way drawings were made in the TV drama series Kyle XY.

Young Japanese artist Macoto Murayama used 3D modeling and graphic softwares to create inorganic flora in uncanny details, bringing the power of science and the fantasy of art together.
Macoto Murayama, Commelina communis L. - front - ow, 2011
Macoto Murayama, Commelina communis L. - side view - b2011

On the slightly less high-tech side, artists used computer graphic techniques to create surreal collages. They appropriated either masterpieces or familiar built environments and turned them into bizarre scenarios.
Lluis Barba, Santa Cena, Leonardo, 2009
Tom Leighton, Appropriation of Space: Venice 1, 2010
Jean-Francois Rauzier, Vestibule

Appropriation could lead to another characteristic of young art - humor. In Liste, I couldn't help laughing when I saw Romanian artist Ciprian Mureşan showing the probable result of Yves Klein's Leap into the Void, and a mock Calvin Klein advertisement by the Chinese group Double Fly.
Ciprian Mureşan, Leap into the Void, after 3 seconds, 2004
Double Fly Group, Brand Franchise, 2010

Swiss artist MARCK's work showed a good synthesis of technology and humor. His video art typically featured a woman (his life partner Sandra) in a metal box, seemingly trying to avoid a swaying sickle or finding her way between the screws. This direct confrontation with the Urangst would make us think about relations between the physical and the virtual, reality and imaginations.
MARCK, Dornen, 2009