When, about ten years ago, Angela Merkel wore a stylish evening dress to the opera, photographs of her low-cut neckline made it onto the front page of newspapers, not just in Germany, but elsewhere in Europe as well. The often ironic commentary served as a reminder that the world is still not ready to open up traditionally male positions to women who do not, at least a little bit, conceal themselves as men. Paradoxically though, Merkel has often been criticised for not presenting herself as ‘feminine’ enough. The German chancellor is undoubtedly neither the first nor the last woman to have had to come to terms with societal pressure determining how she dresses. But fashion is not just about women. It has affected, and continues to affect, our lives deeply. Just how important a socio-political role it plays is examined in the exhibition ’33 – ’29 – ’36 at UM Gallery, Prague. Its curator, also one of the artists represented, is Scottish-born Lucy McKenzie.
Despite its small scale, the exhibition, which presents both applied art from the late 1920s and early 1930s alongside contemporary international artists, is a treasure trove displayed with a novel curatorial edge. Lucy McKenzie and Beca Lipscombe (who together make up Atelier E.B) have long been examining the history of design and its function in society, while at the same time taking active steps to preserve the remnants of garment industry design in Europe. This interest stems from, among other things, an awareness of the need to make repeated readings and new interpretations of artifacts. Their work can thus sometimes resemble detective work on a case that has long gone cold.
This is underscored by ‘The Girl Who Followed Marple’, 2014, a short video available online only and not in the exhibition itself. A good example of the artist-curator’s approach, it illustrates a mix old and new and a pursuit of timeless artistic and ideological patterns. The video also serves as an example of the pitfalls that can arise from this kind of artist-curator approach. Individual characters in the narrative are dressed thoughtfully and stylishly, the surroundings they inhabit being similarly considered. The actors’ performances, however, are unconvincing to the point of self-parody. For those who expect the exhibition to have an authoritative voice, the fact that the arguments are unconvincing may prove a disappointment. But I see it as a positive expression of the collage-like nature of the exhibition, allowing it to be open and expanded on and added to.
Although the exhibition presents the work of designers including Božena Horneková-Rothmayerová, Kató Lukáts, and Madeleine Vionnet, it cannot be called historical. Any historical themes or motives mentioned serve as a springboard for considering feminist and women’s issues relevant to today, reinforcing the need to re-examine the past to inform the present. McKenzie does not make any specific criticisms of either past or present, but instead, simply creates a space in which the viewer can apply the themes of the past to her own present.
For example, the sophisticated meditations on the physical behavior of different fabrics and cuts made by Vionnet, an important French fashion designer (1876-1975), show us the kind of design in which women realised their potential during an age when men built steel bridges and designed the first fighter planes. On the other hand, the approach of Czech fashion designer Božena Horneková-Rothmayerová (1899-1984), seen in several pieces from the modernist exhibition Civilized Woman 1929, illustrates that the emancipation of women through the introduction of trousers, cutting off braids, and equality of working hours, is still not yet complete. As a result, the way in which those who are ‘less civilised’, mimic or are forced to accept the ways of those who are ‘civilised’ will always be unequal.
The historical research and its realisation by Atelier E.B is stimulating and current in appearance. Work by invited contemporary artists initially appears to be displayed more superficially. Closer inspection of work by Eileen Quinlan and Katja Mater reveals that this ideological shallowness is caused by the nature of the installation that does not provide enough space their works. For this reason their contributions tend to appear as illustration of exhibition concept and don’t speak for themselves. This approach worked better for Tauba Auerbach’s pieces because they are deliberately ornamental and as her work is primarily abstract and graphic, it becomes strongly entwined with Atelier E.B’s thinking.
It is precisely in this comparison between ‘high art’ works and those from the applied arts that we can see the value of a critical approach to design that opens it up to a wider reading within a fine art context. McKenzie’s work, in taking examples from other exhibitions – the Gallery Buchholz in Berlin (2015/16) and SVIT Gallery in Prague (2015) – can also at first glance seem to be simply a formally appealing revival of modernist design. A number of contemporary artists have taken pleasure in work that creates doubles of already existing objects in everyday use. Given the lack of functionality that brings them from the applied world to that of fine art, objects whose outer, visual form belongs to the familiar in today’s world, but whose sense is entirely different from those of the original objects, are thus created. While many works resulting from this approach can be devoid of substance, Lucy McKenzie’s objects do not suffer from this inner emptiness. On the contrary, her work comes alive with its great array of layered, sewn-on, and repainted stories, allowing their value to her deliberate choice of objects.
McKenzie’s activities chime with an ever-expanding interest in applied art. At long last, even in the Czech art world, its importance – not just as artifact, but also as co-creator and bearer of social meaning – has come to the fore. This exhibition, made in the boundary-free context of the dual role of curator/artist, is exceptional in the Czech context. While ’33 – ’29 – ’36 might, at a cursory glance, seem as inconspicuous as Angela’s three-buttoned jackets, its substance is deeper.
Translation: Guy Tabachnick
‘33 – ’29 – ’36, curated by Lucy McKenzie, artists and designers: Atelier E.B, Tauba Auerbach, Beca Lipscombe, Katja Mater, Lucy McKenzie, Eileen Quinlan: historical works: Božena Rothmayerová-Horneková & Civilized Woman, Kató Lukáts, Madeleine Vionnet: shown at UM Gallery – Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, 20 December 2016 – 25 February 2017.
The exhibition is produced by Are | are-events.org and the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague in partnership with the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague.