It generally goes without saying that, when successful, performance art has several intentions. Whether it be to visually convey a story, argue a point or act as a social commentary, the real defining element of performance art is that it has a purpose. It is true that the same cannot be said of fashion – sometimes, collections are designed purely for commercial reasons, with no underlying intention. However, if the clothes are the paintings then the runways are the gallery; it is here that designers can free their inhibitions and utilise every medium at their disposal to create surroundings which represent their collection. Some designers (thankfully) use their creative minds to build sets and props which visually reference their clothing, resulting in interactive experiences which challenge our perceptions in the same way that art does. This season, there were two designers that combined their set with their surroundings to fantastic effect, reiterating the idea that fashion shows are still one of the most powerful mediums for self-expression.
The first of these two designers was, unsurprisingly, Karl Lagerfeld. Never a man to skimp on set design (in 2012 he built a life-sized oyster to house a performance by Florence Welch), this season he referenced the infamous Pop Art experiment – ‘The Pop-Up Supermarket’. In a stroke of genius, the models eschewed the runway in favour of a Chanel supermarket, stocked high with canned goods, frozen foods and cleaning items all emblazoned with the legendary intertwining C’s. The clothes themselves were standard Chanel – from the bedazzled sneakers that made their debut on the Couture runway through to the iconic tailored tweed suits, the looks were an exercise in juxtaposing the ‘new’ luxury with the ‘old’ luxury, resulting in a collection which was interesting but, ultimately, expected. However, the real chaos commenced at the show’s climax; as a (presumably sexy) French man announced that the supermarket was ‘open to customers’, fashion editors raced from their seats to stuff onions and cloves of garlic into their designer handbags. Journalists took gleeful selfies with bottles of household detergent, and everybody clamoured to steal some mundane memento of the show’s magic home to their kitchen – a stroke of genius which was further highlighted by the security guards outside that frisked the show’s attendees for ‘stolen goods’. The show appeared to be a commentary on a social obsession with branding, yet it also challenged our ideals of luxury. For example, the lucky few that managed to escape with show memorabilia could, hypothetically, sell their memorabilia on eBay for an eye-watering figure. In essence, a bottle of lemonade could fetch thousands of pounds purely for its association with the Chanel brand – a concept which is, at best, laughable and, at worst, tragic.
At the other end of the spectrum, avant-garde darling Iris van Herpen chose to disgust her audience via a series of graphic human installations. In a collection entitled ‘Biopiracy’, van Herpen honed in on several aspects of propriety with a series of garments designed to showcase the wonders of 3D printing. Her sculptural dresses appeared to be built around the proportions of the human body, designed as high-fashion exoskeleton – adorned with feathers, as if to soften the overall aesthetic. However, it was the suspended shrink-wrapped models that caused the biggest commotion, with many claiming to feel uncomfortable or disturbed by the women that had been encased and, apparently, suffocated. Of course this wasn’t the case – the women were held in mid-air as an accompaniment to the message of the collection, which questioned the extent to which we are the sole proprietors of our bodies. The installations have been labelled everything from ethereal to grotesque; the main point is that they have been discussed, signifying that performance art can send a powerful message when utilised well.
Incidentally, controversy is one of the most habitual outcomes of anything that visually represents a message. It is to be expected; art is subjective, therefore meanings can be misconstrued and, at worst, demonised. This week, for example, Lady Gaga and ‘vomit painter’ Millie Brown led performance art firmly into the mainstream with a performance at Austin festival SXSW. As a dreadlocked Gaga furiously bashed away with her neon drumsticks, Millie was busy regurgitating two bottles of neon-coloured paint onto the singer’s body. Shocking? Not in context; the song accompanying the performance was entitled ‘Swine’ and written about the feeling of disgust which precedes the act of being raped. In this sense, the performance art could have had several meanings – it could have been a metaphorical purging of rage or a literal depiction of disgust. However, media outlets (and, bizarrely, Demi Lovato) have been quick to dismiss the performance as a ‘glamorisation of bulimia – apparently insinuating that a legion of devoted Monsters would be quick to jump on the bandwagon and subsequently make a habit of regurgitating meals. Although Millie has defended herself, arguing that there was nothing glamorous about the performance and that she couldn’t censor her art to appease the public. Gaga, however, has given only vague comments on how the performance was designed to cause a reaction to the performance art – a motive which makes sense, considering her latest album is entitled ‘ARTPOP’. This extreme reaction is, in some ways, brilliant; whilst some are claiming the performance was nothing more than a desperate cry for intention, others are looking to decipher the words behind the vomit. It may never be loved universally, but the market for performance art in the mainstream world is steadily increasing –it could be just the tool that the fashion industry needs to propel social commentary.