NEW YORK – On now through August 14, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York will present Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art, the first global survey exhibition dedicated to the use of clothing as a medium of visual art.
The exhibition examines work by 35 international contemporary artists, several of whom will be exhibiting for the first time in the United States. By either making or altering clothing for expressive purposes, these artists create garments, sculpture, installation and performance art that transforms dress into a critical tool for exploring issues of subjectivity, identity and difference.
Garmenting as an artistic strategy emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. Its rise is linked to performance art, as garments used in installations often double as costumes in live and video-based performances. The practice came to increased prominence during the 1990s, its flourishing paralleling the emerging effects of globalization. With its emphasis on craft and the unique object, garmenting has been adopted globally by artists seeking ways to respond to the 21st-century blurring of socioeconomic boundaries, cultures and identities. While some celebrate the hybridization of cultures resulting from globalization, others protest the fading of regional and ethnic traditions and communities; and many do both simultaneously. No matter their perspective, all these artists’ practices were shaped by transnational creative — and commercial — exchange.
The exhibition will comprise garments, sculpture, installation, video and live performances. Spanning two floors of the museum, Garmenting includes an introduction to the concept of garmenting and its historical antecedents and is organized around five interrelated themes.
One of the major issues with which garmenting engages is the traditional divide between the fine and applied arts. Garmenting offers a critique of this division by questioning what makes a garment “functional” (i.e., wearable in everyday life) versus “art” (i.e., for exhibition or performance). This section includes early examples of garmenting such as Franz Erhard Walther’s interactive Werksatz (First Work Set) [1963-69] and Blue Days (1996) by Louise Bourgeois, and continues with works by Annette Messager, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Beverly Semmes, Vivan Sundaram and Nazareth Pacheco.
Clothing is intimately intertwined with the construction of gender. Traditionally, femininity, and particularly female desirability, has been closely associated with clothing and adornment. Artists in this section, including Zoe Buckman, Annette Messager and Esmaa Mohamoud, cast a critical eye on these conventions. LGBTQ+ identities are also intimately associated with clothing, especially drag. In queer communities, dress has always been deployed in self-fashioning, group formation, protest and disguise, as in the work of Kent Monkman and Raul de Nieves. Today, societal perceptions of gender seem to be becoming more inclusive overall. Artists have played a key role in effecting these changes. Influenced by feminist and queer theory, many use garmenting to look critically at the construction — and disruption — of gender identities.
Artists have long practiced garmenting as an activist gesture, deploying the symbolism inherent in dress — particularly in relation to gender, sexuality and cultural difference — to help advance a political agenda. For some, the activism is inherent in the making, as for Oliver Herring, who co-opted knitting’s feminine associations to express his feelings as a gay man. Political expression is tied to performance and protest in works from Jeffrey Gibson, Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Jakkai Siributr.
Clothing has always been instrumental to the formation and protection of group identities. Historically, dress was primarily determined by cultural identifiers such as ethnicity, region, religion and class. Many of these markers have been eroded by industrialization and globalization. For cultures under threat by outside influences, traditional dress can be essential to preserving group identities and histories, as is often the case among Indigenous cultures.
By the same token, dress can serve as armor or disguise, shielding individuals and groups from discrimination or violence. Artists in this section, including Nick Cave, Tanis S’eiltin, Mary Sibande and Yinka Shonibare CBE use the vocabulary of dress to combat threats to help preserve or reflect upon racial, ethnic and cultural identities and difference.
The rise of performance art in the 1960s helped precipitate that of garmenting, and the two practices have always been intimately linked. Garmenting includes a live performance series at MAD, and a different artist, including Enoch Cheng, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko and A young Yu will perform at the museum each month of the exhibition’s run.
At all other times, the gallery will feature video footage of past performances by each participating performance artist. While these artists’ backgrounds and practices are diverse, they share concerns around how the language of dress affects bodies in motion, often intersecting with gender, cultural difference and activism discussed throughout the exhibition.