Curating the Body


19 July 2017

J.W. Anderson is known for his adroit manipulations of gender. On the catwalk, he has put men in ruffles, sheer fabrics, pastel colours, halter-neck tops and leather dresses.

Western fashion has always strictly demarcated gender and challenging its norms is relatively new. The early 20th century saw a gradual masculinisation of the female wardrobe in tandem with the emancipation of women, but menswear remained relatively unchanged. From the 1960s, gender boundaries were more radically challenged in popular culture, experimental fashion and music. Mick Jagger wore a ruffled Mr Fish shirt with bishop’s sleeves in Hyde Park in 1969, while in the 1980s Boy George and Annie Lennox played ambiguously with gender inversion and androgyny. Despite the best efforts of designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, however, men in skirts are still in the minority today. Conservative business-wear for both sexes remains the tailored suit, which derives from the male wardrobe.

When Jonathan Anderson launched his menswear label in 2008, he introduced traditionally feminine features to the discipline. When, two years later, he launched his womenswear line, he explored how playing with these same shapes and textures might read differently on different bodies. But he was never, he insists, exploring androgyny, unisex or gender difference per se, so much as form. When I met with him to discuss the Disobedient Bodies, which he curated for the Wakefield Hepworth gallery and which ran from 18 March to 18 June 2017, he expressed similar concerns.

Given a free hand to select works of art from the Wakefield collection, Anderson chose to juxtapose a range of 20th-century artists’ work with a mixture of fashion and design objects. Helmut Lang is partnered with Louise Bourgeois, and Comme des Garçons with Naum Gabo. While the selection of menswear and womenswear is about 50/50, Anderson is interested in the dialogue between forms and media, rather than between genders. Eschewing any cultural or historical references, he has paired objects that push comparably at the boundaries of the human form – at least as he sees it. Although it was not a specific design reference, the project recalls Bernard Rudofsky’s 1944 exhibition at MoMA, Are Clothes Modern?, which paired ethnographic artefacts with fashion items that had nothing in common other than their physical shape.

These juxtapositions inevitably challenge cultural hierarchies, and Anderson, who wants to create a dialogue between these forms and values, wonders what the art world will think of them. He is emphatic that the exhibition is a community project and involves locals. It matters to him that it is in Wakefield in the north of England, away from the London art and fashion worlds. It also focuses on the tactility of cloth and clothes, despite the practical prohibition against gallery visitors touching works of art on display – although Anderson has sidestepped this to an extent by introducing a few artefacts that can be touched. But the main event is the interactive central zone consisting of long knitted garments suspended from the ceiling which visitors are encouraged to physically explore by getting inside them and creating moving shapes.

Anderson knows the history of art and design, so his decisions around Disobedient Bodies amount to a careful stratagem. It reflects his interest in fashion as abstract form, rather than as social and cultural history.

Let’s begin by discussing the curation behind Disobedient Bodies. Did you come up with that title?
I was asked by the Hepworth to curate an exhibition about two years ago. We had a desire to explore the challenge between art and fashion as creative beings and how they operate in today’s society: how both have challenged the idea of the silhouette and the body. In my own work, we play with gender and have this idea of a shared wardrobe, so I wanted to look at how fashion brands and sculptors have challenged the fundamentals of the human form. In terms of the title, to begin with we had “disobedience”, then we came to an agreement with the Hepworth’s chief curator Andrew Bonacina that we wanted a word that felt relatable. “Disobedience” can relate to a young person or somebody incredibly old, and disobedience can mean very different things to different people. We eventually reached this idea of the disobedient body.

Is it disobedient in terms of the conventions of art: you don’t put a Henry Moore next to a piece of fashion design?
I think it’s going to be quite a petrifying process, as the art world might dislike me afterwards, but my idea is to create a level playing field. When you enter the exhibition there’s a Henry Moore sculpture and next to it, a Jean-Paul Gaultier Cone dress reconstructed as a Moore. So it consists of these juxtapositions – an example might be Helmut Lang’s harness pieces from the 1990s and 2000s, shown alongside Louise Bourgeois, with whom he collaborated. It’s a configuration of figures in a dialogue of the idea of line and the idea of reduction of form.

I wonder if that move towards abstraction is a shift in your work? Previously you have played more obviously with questions of gender.
I’m interested in how everything that happened in sculpture between 1910 and 1960 was to do with reduction. There was a reduction in how art perceived the human form, which resulted in a genderless form. It’s not like the Pre-Raphaelites, where society was representing a fantasy of itself, or a Frederic Leighton sculpture of the human form, for instance. When I was researching this exhibition, I became obsessed with this time of reduction because the barrier of the human form started to go away too – you look at sculptures and you don’t ask if it’s a man or woman.

Your design work is full of signifiers of femininity on men, however. You’re constantly playing with ruffles, sheer fabrics and so on. In your womenswear there are also gender references. It’s interesting that you seem to be stepping back from that and going towards an abstraction of the body where you eradicate sexual difference and gender.
When you take on a project of this scale, you learn something about yourself. For instance, I would be the first to say that fashion is not an art form, but through researching people such as Helmut Lang, Issey Miyake and Rick Owens, I’ve realised how phenomenal it is, what they’ve done in terms of creative output. If you look at what they have achieved, their work is functional art. I’ve fallen more in love with fashion through this process than ever before.

But to push you on that relationship with fashion and gender, is this a chance for you to take a step back and assess it from a different view?
I’ve always had a fear of the idea of unisex. I remember an interview I did a long time ago when I’d just done a few collections that challenged the idea of a shared wardrobe –
where and what clothing sits on a man or woman, and why we have such a taboo around it. The journalist told me that it was obviously to do with unisex or, even worse, androgyny. For me, unisex and androgyny became stylistic movements in the 1970s and 90s. I’ve always been more excited by the idea that garments are just garments. They stand for the idea that a shirt means two different things on a man or a woman, or jeans mean something different through the idea of silhouette and proportions. You could put a woman’s vest on a man and it becomes a very different thing.

Let’s come at it from a different angle – in terms of sexuality. One of your catwalk shows was famously live-streamed on Grindr, so do you think that’s a gay prerogative or can straight men play with gender, too?
I think straight men are playing with gender because social media has had more of an effect on men than women. Men suddenly turned the camera on themselves and vanity went through the roof. The idea of the male physique or the idea of the character of the male physique became over-evolved and we’ve now reached a moment where it’s nearly fashionable to like fashion and it’s fashionable for men to like fashion. Social media opened up many things that broke down the issues on which the tabloid newspapers had built the traditional idea of man. We did a collection, for instance, when we designed ruffle shorts and bustiers out of masculine, utilitarian fabrics, but the fundamental cut and proportions were taken from womenswear. The reaction was horrific. It was as if I was trying to destroy masculinity, but what I was being accused of was already happening on social media anyway – younger people had broken the idea of taboo and what you could and couldn’t do.

So is gender a political issue and should it matter to us?
I think it’s a huge problem. We’ve seen, for example, over the past year how people use gender in a divisive way. Inequalities in salary are a gender problem and should be eradicated. We have a gender unbalance in terms of power, governance and how we perceive things. When you see what’s happened with Brexit and Trump gaining the US presidency, it has brought up huge gender issues. We now appreciate the idea of different types of gender classification, but that had been stuck on the backseat for a long time. These are political issues and we live in a period where gender has become part of the frontline. If I were to boil things down with the Wakefield show, I’m so glad it’s not in London because London is like an island in its thinking. It’s important as a culture that we get out and live in the country as a whole. We’re entering the decade of “like culture” where we only see what we already like because the internet has shrunk the world, whereas the whole idea was to open it up. We have to drag everything out and share it: creativity should be shared, politics should be shared, money should be shared. We need to find a way to not turn the country into a sinkhole.

Is it important for you to have alternative ways of working in order to think differently around these issues?
Well, I work in two jobs – I’m the creative director of Loewe and I own a brand. If a brand is not fuelled up by the world around it, and it does not give back, then you don’t have anything relevant. So it’s important that J.W. Anderson has invested in the Wakefield project to make sure that we get out of London and do things that are exciting and challenge our horizons. It might lead to us designing in a different way or we might learn something about our brand, or engage with different art forms, whether that be dance, music, art or architecture. Over the past 20 years fashion, art and architecture started to subdivide because of value. Everything became about value, whereas what I hope to achieve through this exhibition is to generate the idea of a creative landscape and the suggestion that everything has a creative value. Helmut Lang had just as much of an influence as Louise Bourgeois. Rei Kawakubo has just as much of an influence as Sarah Lucas. The big question we have to ask is whether we merit creativity on the value of the price tag, or the value of the intent behind it.

Do you think that by juxtaposing art with fashion, which you have said are not the same, there’s a risk of people thinking you’re conflating the two and saying that fashion is art?
Possibly. I would be the first to disagree with equating fashion with art, but look at Christian Dior. He changed the fundamentals of the body with the New Look and made women in that period look at the shape of the body. Then you have someone such as Jean Arp, who challenged something around that as well. These two people were from different periods but were both challenging the fundamentals. The concept of designing clothing or sculpting is physical because you’re using your hands to create something. If you strip it all down, they’re both about physical craft: crafting the body or crafting a sculpture.

In the middle of the exhibition, you have an interactive section. Why did you want to do that?
As primitive as it sounds, everything was inspired by Barbara Hepworth, who believed that you had to touch sculpture to understand it. I wanted a tactile quality. If we didn’t have something that people could engage with, it would be depressing. So there are 38 10m-long jumpers that hang from the ceiling, which I want people to engage with. You can go inside them or tie them all together. You can be a voyeur for the entire exhibition, then let go in this space and become watched. How can you put yourself into something and become the body? I’m really excited about it, because each jumper is completely different. Some have very elastic qualities, whereas others are very narrow. I will be very intrigued to see what kids do with it or what adults do with it, and I’m working with the photographer Jamie Hawkesworth to document that. He has already shot all of the garments in the show – Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang, Issey Miyake from the 80s and Vivienne Westwood’s Pirate Collection – worn by local kids in Wakefield because I wanted to show that it’s a community project.

Are all the pieces borrowed from the fashion houses?
Some are from houses, others from archives or private individuals. Some of these things are very hard to track down and my biggest challenge was that I wanted to find a certain type of garment. They had to have a realism to them and they couldn’t feel like costume – there had to be a tangible quality. The Cone dress we have is from 1981, which is when Gaultier made them in jersey. I wanted something that felt less couture and more something that people could look at and say, “Well, I know that texture. I know what a T-shirt feels like.” We have the Westwood pieces from the Pirate Collection and those are made from British tweed. You know what that feels like – they’re dull, the colours are brown. These are things that have less of a historical barrier. We have garments by Comme that are knitted, tubular pieces, which are incredible on the stand and look sculptural, but they still have a tactile quality. Similarly, we have amazing pieces by Yohji Yamamoto that are quite hard to describe. They’re like blazers that transform into 10m braids of hair. But what is so nice is that they’re still black blazers – there is an undercurrent of reality. Fashion, as much as it can be ludicrous, has this reality.

I started out thinking this exhibition was about abstraction, but now it sounds more as if it’s all about a tactile relationship with the object.
The biggest thing that I want is a sense of the obvious – like displaying Issey Miyake’s Lantern dress alongside Isamu Noguchi’s lamps. I like that obviousness and the feeling that a young child could look at those pieces and appreciate that there is strength in both. It’s not some historical “in 1880 this happened”-type of exhibition.

You’re reminding me of The Unfashionable Human Body by Bernard Rudofsky, which does strange juxtapositions in the style of what you’re talking about. It’s absolutely not historical and not about being correct.
When I go to an exhibition that’s historically dense I think you disengage. Media has changed art and I’m always fascinated by how people behave when they go to museums or galleries. You have people like me who will go and see it in 10 minutes. I have zero patience and so need it to be an overwhelming experience of the building, the work, the thing. It’s just consumption – I like to consume everything and then I’ll focus on two or three things that I’ve never seen before. Then you have people who are more academically led. Finally, you have people for whom art has become a superhero – it’s very exciting to see a Picasso because it’s worth £100m, for example. The financial value of a work is nearly as important as the creative merit, because we decided culturally that was what would happen. So it will be interesting to see how the art world and fashion world perceive themselves through Disobedient Bodies. Is Helmut Lang’s vest as important and invaluable as a Giacometti sculpture?

How does the display work in terms of that?
Well, every item comes with a different stipulation. A Dior dress has to have a certain wattage of bulb and a plinth in a glass case at a particular temperature. Then you have a Giacometti and it needs a plinth with a barrier. It’s incredibly frustrating and complicated because people can’t touch things. So you have to give other aspects to the exhibition so that people can become part of it. All of the chairs in the exhibition – such as Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-Zag chair and a Transat chair by Eileen Gray – can be sat on, however. I thought it would be nice if people could sit and digest or become part of the exhibition. It’s a return to the idea of creating a level playing field around the exhibits. How do you feel when confronted by something, whether that’s someone wearing a garment or a sculpture?