Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art
The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), New York
March 12 – August 14, 2022
The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) present Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art, the first global survey exhibition dedicated to the use of clothing as a medium of visual art. On view March 12 to August 14, 2022, the exhibition examines work by thirty-five international contemporary artists, from established names to emerging voices, 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 twenty-first-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 is guest curated by Alexandra Schwartz, a New York-based art historian, curator, and adjunct professor in the School of Graduate Studies at SUNY | Fashion Institute of Technology. Schwartz remarked, “Despite the current ubiquity of garmenting as a visual arts practice, it has not previously been examined or theorized. This exhibition centers on contemporary artists’ exploration of dress as a formal trope and critical tool, using the language of fashion to address fundamental aspects of subjectivity, including gender, class, race, and ethnicity.”
“Garmenting furthers MAD’s mission to connect handcraft and design to the global contemporary art world,” said Elissa Auther, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator. “The artists brought together share objectives of upending tired distinctions between the fine and applied arts, creating work that explores the essential relationship between the body and the garments that adorn it.” 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 (Germany) interactive Werksatz (First Work Set) [1963-69] and Blue Days (1996) by Louise Bourgeois (France-USA), and continues with works by Annette Messager (France), Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz (USA), Beverly Semmes (USA), Vivan Sundaram (India), and Nazareth Pacheco (Brazil), among others.
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 Zoë Buckman (United Kingdom), Annette Messager (France), and Esmaa Mohamoud (Canada), 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 (Cree-Canada) and Raúl de Nieves (Mexico). 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 (Germany), 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 (Mississippi Band Choctaw/Cherokee-USA), Sheelasha Rajbhandari (Nepal), Jakkai Siributr (Thailand), and more.
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, the 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 (USA), Tanis S’eiltin (Tlingit-USA), Mary Sibande (South Africa), and Yinka Shonibare CBE (Nigeria), 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 (Hong Kong), Jaamil Olawale Kosoko (USA), and A young Yu (Korea), 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. Live performances and activations involving five of the artists whose work is included in Garmenting will be presented throughout the run of the exhibition on dates to be announced. In addition, Lexy-Ho Tai (USA), A young Yu, and Enoch Cheng will be leading in-gallery, drop-in workshops for intergenerational audiences.