N° 28 Le Regard Noir

Viktor & Rolf

5 April - 18 May 1997

Striving artists and assiduous designers have sought, especially since the 1980s, to discover a common ground between the supposed antipodes of art and fashion. The cause bas become clamorous, convening around the body and important issues of identity in body articutation. Yet, for these artists and designers and--now, in their wake--art critics and historians, the assumption is always that art and fashion are two opposed visual forces that can only be occasionally reconciled when a woman artist addresses apparel as a metaphor of her body or an autobiographical artist rnakes suits out of the same felt he uses to fashion others sculptures because the material implies warmth and protection.

Viktor & Rolf launch their work from another premise. They do not assume the bifurcated world, but choose to function in the axiom that art and fashion are similar if not identical impulses. The candor, criticality, and originality of their work begin in a principle of synthesis and harmony. Seldom does the spectator even inquire as to whether the work is art or fashion, as likewise the Wagner watcher will not ask if it is music or theater. The underlying principle of consonance among the visual arts is evident in the work of Viktor & Rolf. In their pursuit in concept and in practice, this creative team makes us believe, as they do, in an art without embarrassing hierarchies or demeaning classifications, but filled with contemporary visuality.

The collaboration, since 1993, is even more a hybrid of creativity and criticality than it is of art and fashion. Viktor & Rolf evince an indomitable optimism. Artists such as Victor Burgin, Sylvie Fleury, and Judith Shea have sought to reproach fashion for its oppressions. In freeing themselves of the hierarchy, Viktor & Rolf have also freed themselves from fashion's meanest puritanical guilt, a penitence that might also deny us all of the pleasures of painting and sculpture if Savonarola had prevailed. Describing their work as "experiments", Viktor & Rolf affect a rational and scientific objectivity even to the consumerism that surrounds fashion. For example, ‘Viktor & Rolf, le parfum’ (1996) not only provides an elegant and wholly plausible--except for the notable lack of scent-- fragrance bottle packaged with the finesse of modern marketing and inculcation of desire and the accompanying elements of promotion, including slick, desiring photography, an advertising campaign, and press release. Viktor Rolf deceive us in the absence of scent, but they are fundamentally honest. They know that advertising allure is readily simulated and images easily manipulated; they know that a commerce exists in "evanescence" and a seduction "more appealing than the answer." It is most refreshing that Viktor & Rolf do not show a distant, lofty haughtiness about things and especially about fashion. Art, which is also bought and sold and exists within a highly privileged and rarefied milieu, has been known to disdain fashion, but Viktor & Rolf seize fashion with the same kind of unabashed enthusiasm we associatie with the generation of artists of the 1950s and 1960s who appropriated popular culture and its vivid imagery into Pop Art. Anthropologically, we never should have expected to leave the 1990s without a reckoning with the powerful and ubiquitous advertising for that intangible, but yearned for, commodity of fragrance. Creatively, we are only fulfilled when the banal beauty of fragrance advertising is given artistic reflection by artists such as Viktor & Rolf.

Another brilliant, if more modest, production by Viktor & Rolf is their numbered, timited edition (2,500) plastic shopping bag. Not only does a concept make fashion and art coincide in this gesture, but there is also in this uncomplicated work a purity and simplicity characteristic of Viktor & Rolf. Similarly, the recent installation ‘Launch’ (1996) at Torch Gallery, Amsterdam identifies Viktor & Rolf's identification with the full spectrum of fashion. The artists describe of the installation, "For one instant, we create a dreamy situation where everything is forced to our will." To see this white-cube installation, we know that art and fashion share the ideal of the "dreamy," controlled, and perfected world. Art no less than fashion, certainly in such examples as the deliberate installations of Russian Constructivism or the modern design of 20th century abstraction and its receiving- rooms in galleries and museums, demands the pure space of dreaming. Viktor & Rolf set up a sequence of fashion's system, including a runway or catwalk, sketching and draping session, and photo shoot with seamless paper behind. In this clarified space, Viktor & Rolf presented the process of fashion, all parts familiar, but the whole seldom seen in an art gallery. But the artists achieve not the process, but the visible integrity of fashion, its comprehensive vision as a creative endeavor. The elements that we see unfold over time, from the design of the dress to its presentation on the runway, are here condensed into one moment and fashion becomes a distilled and powerful image. Typical of Viktor & Rolf, the condensation of all the elements of fashion into one place makes them both more critical and more glamorous. In no way are fashion's aura and magnetism diminished. On the contrary, this installation demonstrates fashion's power, its transcendence, its presence to be "art" in the awesome sense and "art" in the common-sense of late twentieth-century culture. The mechanism of fashion has been part of Viktor & Rolf's work since their first collection shown at the competition ‘Salon Européen des Jeunes Stylistes’ (1993). To present art as a collection, as opposed to the high-bred supposition of individual works of art, is immediately to accept a contemporary convention for our seeing. Culturally, we want to see thematically and often in terms larger than one. Viktor & Rolf used pre-existing fragments as the collage medium to create new clothing. Referring, of course, to the prevailing interest in deconstruction in fashion and the visual arts in 1993, Viktor & Rolf insisted in their intermediate world between art and fashion on the collage aspect of their work. The effect is to see, as in early Picasso collages, a new order emerging from the familiar pieces of old style. Fashion, which has in modern times avoided the distressed or the recycled, reverted to its own tradition in being ready to accommodate pastiche and its accompanying senses of memory and ambiguity.

Viktor & Rolf's ‘Collection #2' (1994, for fall-winter 1994-95) made of Malevich's experimentation a modiste's exercise. Viktor & Rolf offered a suite of variations on a white dress, accepting fashion as a site of infinite variations and permutations. Viktor & Rolf's virtuoso transfigurations of the white dress varied from high-waisted gowns that might have been ivory ballgowns for an ‘ancient régime’ court, while others seemed more like the amorphous forms of Comme des Garcons dresses. ‘Collection #3' (1994, for summer 1995) focused on the theme of radical modernism. The ‘Black Square Dress’ (1994) from the Collection squares off the shoulders to create an abstraction, but one that is always modified by the presence of the model who wears the clothing. Abstraction's presence is evident in this and in the earlier collection, but Viktor & Rolf's insistent referencing to the human body and to the fashion presentation makes the abstraction seem more humane and less intransigent. The collections have continued, most recently with ‘Collection #7' (1996, for summer 1997), a series of compositions softer and more curvilinear than before in wrapping the body with a transmutable white dress worn over a gray bodysuit. ‘Winter of love’ (1994), presented at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and later at P.S.1, the avant-garde performance space in New York, began a series of reflective doppelgängers for Viktor & Rolf. Wondrous white dresses could seem to have stepped out of a Second Empire ballroom, but they come ghost-like into our contemporary gallery setting or, in New York, an installation including silver garment templates as well. Other fashion manifestations include the winter 1995-96 ‘Pret-a- Porter Catalogue’ (1995), a series of blue PVC modules in pants and bodysuits accompanied with white cotton, silk organza, and black wool jackets. The effect is both robotic and hypnotic, offering basic modules in complicated variations. Other works have been presented both as collections and as gallery installation.

‘Collection #5: L'apparence du Vide’ (1995) was presented at Galerie Patricia Dorfmann in Paris. Five suspended gold garments of several different silhouettes might have initially seemed to be a marionette homage to the rich and ostentatious. But Viktor & Rolf never offer fashion as a mere convention. lnstead, they interpret and involve the fashion that we might otherwise take to be superficial. One wall surrounding the clothing types was printed in gold letters with the MTV-familiar names of top contemporary "supermodels." A sound system played the models' names spoken in repeated incantation in the voices of young girls. In the middle of this mantra of celebrity supermodels and their adulation, the glittering gold of these mannequin-surrogates is haunting, but even more so by the shadows they cast on the gallery floor. Viktor & Rolf created black "shadow-silhouettes" to articulate the floor of the gallery. Though prone and in that state wholly flat, the shadow pieces were each capable of being worn independently. These more sinister doppelgangers to the shining effigies remind us of fashion's essence in silhouette and life's counterpart in the shadow of mortality. Shadows remind us of the sun and of mortality; Viktor & Rolf give fashion both stories, illumination and transience. Sweet indulgence, fashion's accustomed image, is invariably complemented by Viktor & Rolf's shadows and metaphorical shadows. Their ‘Shadowdress’ (1995) is the living, three- dimensional form of what had appeared on the floor in ‘Collection #5'. This dark, translucent dress is in the nature of fashion's transparency and works as a viable fashion postulation. Yet it is also for Viktor & Rolf a component of their vacillation between feasible fashion and narrative, judgmental art. Likewise, ‘Shadow (Cape)’ (1996) assumes the powerful silhouette of an 1890s torso, but in fragile silk organza, a figment of one fin-de-siècle that appears at the next fin-de-siècle. if this garment is in any way a shroud and yet wholly in the realm of fashion visualization, it should be a sign that fashion can be complex and configured. In fact, we have always known the power of the textile that constitutes the primary medium of fashion. Viktor & Rolf have treated textiles as well as fashion. In an installation at the Arnhem Art Academy, (1995) students worked in a fabricated textile isolation, each in a chamber (1 x 1 metre) for four days, thus experiencing both the cocoon of textile and the isolation of individual workspaces. lronically, this isolation imposed on 25 students was introduced by two artists who have chosen to work in collaboration.

Both art and fashion have been inimical to sustained cooperation. In a century in which some of the best ideas have happened in instances of collaboration between Salvador Dali and Schiaparelli and Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, both arts continue to feel powered by the model of the singular, isolated romantic artist. Keith Varty and Alan Cleaver were anomalous as a fashion pair working for Byblos from 1981-1996. Gilbert and George and McDermott and McGough are equally unusual as art collaborators. Two artists of a single identity defy our conventions of artistic authority just as much as they rnock facile expectations about the twins of fashion and art.

Viktor & Rolf have a profound sense of history. Like many fashion designers, the two display a vivid sensibility for fashion history, often playing the effects of an ‘abimé’ garment of rnodern kind against the decay of a Miss Havisham fantasy and the acknowledgment of pre-twentieth-century dress. One could argue that contemporary fashion has a greater affiliation with its pre- modern traditions than does recent art with pre-modern painting and sculpture. Viktor & Rolf act in the manner of a contemporary fashion designer when they juxtapose historical silhouette against modern planes and historical fashion against modern art's amnesia. Art critic Olivier Zahm plays the partisan when in the December 1995 issue of ‘Artforum’ (New York) he declares Viktor & Rolf the "best" in style in 1995, proclaims, "their fashion, or better 'meta-fashion', amounts to a conceptual exercise in 'reconstruction'. As such, it is a stunning commentary on the ostentatious ambitions of fashion, involving an impassioned quest for novelty even as it acknowledges the radical impossibility of this undertaking." But, is not the work of Viktor & Rolf as much a "meta- art" as a "meta-fashion"? The hybrid of art and fashion that Viktor & Rolf so distinctively--so uniquely--make cannot be measured against art or fashion alone, but must be measured against something larger and more important than either privileged discourse or either outreach to the rich and elect. In refusing to accept the putative conceptual detachment of art or the supposed superficiality of fashion, Viktor & Rolf offer us a product of consumption and delectation, concept and contemplation. lf we cannot narrowly call the work of Viktor & Rolf either "art" or "fashion," then we have an exciting challenge. We must see our visual culture with innocent freshness and without categories or hierarchy, as Viktor & Rolf do.

Richard Martin