In the first phase, opened by a hilarious but somewhat unnecessarily prolonged and messy BUTOH performance (sort of post-1945 “avant-garde” Japanese expressive dance) of the performance artists, Ronnie Baker and Luku-San, Elena Slivnyak displayed some of her latest experimental work whose choice of evolving futuristic forms as well as visibly tough and all-purpose texture clearly situated her work in the artistic tradition of “impossible experimentations” inaugurated by Pierre Cardin’s celebrated space age “clothing” in the 1960s. The manifestly Japanese-sounding title of her design house as well as her marked interest in Japan as a source of artistic inspiration reflect…
“far from exploring the “hidden depth” of the naked body of the “strip artist ”, the “end of the striptease” was to emphasize “nakedness as a natural vesture of woman”
Ilianio’s visually liberating art of fashion design
The Counter Attack of the San Francisco Avant-Garde
From “Supreme Beings” to l’Enfant Terrible of French Fashion
By Simon F.Oliai
Roland Barthes’ work remains a major reference in analyzing modern culture and society. In a memorable analysis of the nearly defunct phenomenon of “Parisian Striptease”, the late and influential French theorist, Roland Barthes noted that, far from exploring the “hidden depth” of the naked body of the “strip artist ”, the “end of the striptease” was to emphasize “nakedness as a natural vesture of woman”. With “the icy indifference of skillful practitioners”, Barthes noted, the supposedly naked strippers could take refuge, albeit haughtily, in the sureness of their “science” which “clothes them like a garment”.
Beyond the obvious and oft ill-understood point that “clothes” and “garments” should be viewed as the meaningful elements of a “system” (which Barthes called the “Fashion System” ) within which they would acquire their “fashionableness”, Barthes’ chief argument was one that remains both valid and yet misunderstood by the critics as well as the supposed “practitioners” of his theoretical approach to analyzing contemporary cultural phenomena such as art or fashion design. The latter category still engulfs, unfortunately, those whom the witty, “avant-garde” and San Francisco-based design-visual artist, Ilan Reuben, amusingly refers to as latter day “poststructuralist robot sentries” and “web monkeys.” Or, as the late Jacques Derrida once told me in a moment of exasperation at the superficiality with which “French Theory” had sometimes been received in the English-speaking world, those whose practice a new brand of “postmodern voodoo” when engaging in “theoretical reflection” on contemporary art and culture.
Barthes’s point was that, as a meaningful element of the “Fashion System”, “clothing” has no “intrinsic utility” in as much as clothes are not simply designed to add additional “cover” to the already clothed body of the supposedly “naked stripper” or the “naked woman” in general. For the fact that the “stripper” in a Parisian club is physically “naked” does not mean, or as Barthes put it, “signify” that (within the “Fashion System”) she would not be wearing a woman’s “natural vesture ”. That is to say, her physically “naked flesh”.
Wearing “clothing” is thus not simply a matter of putting on different sorts of clothes for, as Barthes incisively noted, “ it is not the object but the name (of the brand) which creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells.” The fact that, for example, the history and the contemporary pertinence of the so-called “Islamic veil” in the Middle East and Western Europe have been so hotly debated, could also be explained by pointing out that merely wearing or not wearing the “Islamic veil “ (a cultural fiction that has no clear basis in Islamic theology) is in itself not sufficient to determine whether a woman who refuses to wear such a “veil” is really “naked” or not in the “eyes” of a particular observer.
Clothing is not simply about wearing or not wearing certain items any more than fashion can be reducible to the mere designing and selling of clothes to those who can simply afford ” buying” them.
“Clothing” is about choosing “meaningful clothes” whilst modern fashion systematically be-speaks the constant change of meaning, which all “fashionable clothing” as such must undergo in a given linguistic-cultural context. Perhaps, no recent display of creativity in design has highlighted this oft eclipsed distinction between clothes as a set of variably “fashionable” garments on display and their fundamentally non-utilitarian function as “meaningful clothing.”
This sets the stage for “Supreme Beings”, organized at San Francisco’s SOMArts Culture Centre on March 1st, 2012. I must confess that I was intrigued by the very title of the event. Indeed, I found it almost incredible that, in the backdrop of widespread underestimation of the artistic import of “fashion”, which also reflects the self-satisfied parochialism of certain actors of the Bay Area’s socio-cultural context, the impressive creations of two original designers—artists could be presented as “clothing” displayed by “Supreme Beings”. Nothing short of a supreme irony in the Bay Area where, based on what I have observed so far, the aesthetically “conventional” (if not politically conservative) bourgeoisie and the artistic avant-garde seem to coexist in a state of contractual tolerance and seemingly benign neglect of each other. That is to say, without much engagement in the sort of open conflict or mutually transformative symbiosis that have oft characterized their complex relations in contexts such as Paris, Berlin, New York and, to a lesser extent, London.
The inconceivable “nakedness” of “Supreme Beings”. Equally intriguing, I thought, were the descriptions which the effective promoters of “Supreme Beings”, Rena Ramirez and Michele Gates, had provided of the respective professional backgrounds of these two artists.
After reading them, I felt rather confident that attending an event featuring the creations of a “survivor of the San Francisco Art Institute” who wished to “defy the commercially-mandated boundary between the fashion and art worlds”, that is to say, the refreshingly uncompromising Ilan Reuben, would certainly not be recorded as the stuff of a merely pleasant souvenir in my rather long memory of polyglot observer of contemporary art and culture across the world.
I was equally confident that reviewing a San Francisco “conceptual fashion event” in which the “creative director” of IIMUAHII Couture, the charming Elena Slivnyak, was scheduled to present her “inconceivable fabrics with distinctive textures” and “never-before-seen silhouettes” would be nothing less than a stimulating visual experience. I should say that, notwithstanding certain perfectly editable defects such as the unspeakably mediocre quality of the “doggy red wine” put up for sale to the haplessly duped participants after the event, I was not at all disappointed by the overall experience. The choice of the electronic music duo “SpacEKraft ” was most appropriate in as much as the diffusion of their brand of well-recognized electronic music within the main presentation gallery of the SOMARTS Culture Centre seemed to have encouraged even the most visually insensitive participants to pause and, perhaps, reflect a bit on the oft neglected “meaning” of such “clothing” as the inspiring designs which Elena Slivnyak and Ilan Reuben presented in two very distinct phases of the event.
Perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of Elena’s displayed work was her “systematic” downplaying of the importance of the “top”, that is to say, the coiffure and the “head” of her models throughout the entire event. Her provocative decision to impose a little-noticed but purposefully chosen sense of uniformity of the “top” went beyond, I would argue, her known fascination with the design legacy of the famous 1960s TV series, Star Trek or Raumpatrouille: Space Patrol Orion.
Elena Slivnyak’s futuristic fashion design can be situated in the tradition inaugurated by Pierre Cardin. For it served, above all, to highlight the chief function of all “clothing” as such which is that of allowing the texture of her “inconceivable fabric” to impart a sense of formal and yet highly individualized meaning to the invariably naked and formless bodies of her models. Bodies which, outside the form so imparted to them, could have no “natural vesture” even if they were “physically naked”. In harnessing the “top” and imposing a sense of “uniformity” on the “eye”,Elena did not seem to be as much inspired by the outfit of some fencing champion as by her own manifest desire to dispense with all manner of petty calculation oft hatched in the small “heads” of certain recently enriched sponsors of the contemporary fashion business.
Small “heads” whose fatefully neglected harnessing and artistic education would be the key to establishing the “supreme” function of all ”clothing” as the expression of the “art” of designing ”meaningful” forms in the public sphere.
A graduate of California College of the Arts, Helena Parriot is also a promising painter as well as a graphic designer whose work is grounded on what she terms the “transformative power of light, hope and enlightenment” and has been displayed in Japan as well as Northern California. I should add that befriending her has been a pleasure for me since we share a markedly intellectual approach to analyzing such cultural phenomena as the visual arts and fashion.
So much so that I am convinced that the great physical effort which she so gracefully undertook on Ilan Reuben’s behalf must have left a lasting trace on her memory. A trace which shall for a long time differentiate her participation in the “Supreme Beings” fashion event from her memorable contributions to similar events in San Francisco’s fashion scene. Visibly enough, for Helena hopping was not at all walking since it could never be memorized as walking.
Its “meaning”, that of the design that she wore (whilst hopping) could only be conserved in terms of its “mental difference” with mere walking. Indeed, it is nothing less than awareness of the inevitably linguistic mediation of such a mental trace in society that could distinguish and, ultimately, preserve all serious visual art from the cult-like fetishism to which the work of such otherwise highly creative contemporary designers as Jean Paul Gaultier have oft fallen victim in the contemporary public sphere.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s iconoclastic work has now assumed the questionable status of the object of a “fashion cult”. Whilst the exhibition was rather exhaustive in its manner of covering Gaultier’s four decades of creative and “iconoclastic” work as “ L’Enfant Terrible” of French fashion and Gaultier’s humorous remarks were quite helpful in terms of shedding light on the cultural and the psychological underpinnings of his decisively influential career as a fashion designer as well as cultural “icon”.
For speaking, as Fritz Lambandrake, the admirable organizer of quarterly fashion shows in San Francisco, does, of “fashion only events” risks obscuring the saddening reality of the behavior of the majority of the admirers of even the most innovative and “outrageous” creations of a designer-artist, as George Bataille once said of the naïve admirers of the writings of Le Marquis de Sade, oft “resembles that of primitive subjects in relation to their king, whom they adore and loathe, and whom they cover with honors and narrowly confine”.