Art Review | 'Dress Codes'
Beyond a Simple Fashion Statement
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By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: October 8, 2009
In David Rosetzky’s video portrait of Cate Blanchett in “Dress Codes” at the International Center of Photography, this Australian actress looks startlingly ordinary, if not frumpy. She wears clunky boots, unflattering slacks and a sagging black tank top. So attired, she moves around a raw, cavernous offstage space, picking up a chair, putting it down, sitting on it, getting up again, occasionally moving her hands in small, dancelike gestures. All the while we hear her talking intently, on the voice-over, about the craft of acting.
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Courtesy of Yto Barrada and Galerie Polaris, Paris
Dress Codes at the International Center of Photography includes this work, “The Belt, Step 1 to 9,” by Yto Barrada. More Photos »
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At one point Ms. Blanchett dons a loose, sleeveless dress; another top; and a well-worn bomber jacket, creating the impression of someone traveling without benefit of luggage, wearing all her clothes at once. She stretches out on the floor, then rises and sheds the added clothing. Finally, to tinkling vaudeville music, she does some nimble soft-shoe steps. This piece seemed pretty mousy for an exhibition about garments in recent photography and video. But then I realized that the lack of sartorial display was a kind of deprivation that made me embarrassingly aware of my own superficiality: I’m afraid I like famous movie stars, especially female ones, to dress the part.
“Dress Codes” is the third triennial mounted by the International Center of Photography. It is also the third and final phase of the center’s Year of Fashion, hence the theme. Perhaps predictably, this show isn’t as good as the previous Year of Fashion exhibitions: exhaustive surveys of the fashion work of Edward Steichen and Richard Avedon; the extraordinary “Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now”; and a display of works from the center’s collection called “This Is Not a Fashion Photograph.”
But triennials and biennials, being dedicated to new art, are harder to do well. “Dress Codes” is better than most shows of this kind; the good work outweighs the weaker.
The exhibition raises the question of whether biennials and triennials should have themes or just select the best work within their designated area of concern; its answer is to stretch its theme so thin that it all but disappears. You begin to feel that just about anyone working with a camera could have been included. After all, most images of people involve some form of dress, and where there is dress, there are dress codes.
Clothing is a language that we study carefully and read almost reflexively, like the expression on a person’s face. What we wear is an interface between our bodies (and our selves) and the world, a form of privacy and perfection as well as a public statement. In the catalog these points are illuminated with quotations isolated on pink pages.
From Oscar Wilde: “A history of dress would be a history of minds; for dress expresses a moral idea; it symbolizes the intellect and disposition of a nation.”
From Diane Arbus: “Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way, and that’s what people observe.”
And from the German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel, writing in 1908, comes a brilliant progression of observations on the human desire for recognition and esteem within one’s social environment (which dressing, nicely, partly reflects). This desire can transmute into a need for “attention that others do not receive,” then into the desire to be envied, and finally into the will to power. Nathalie Djurberg’s colorful clay animation “New Movements in Fashion,” from 2006, captures something of the violence that an obsession with clothes can cause, but it’s only the will to power as shared by five garment-grabbing women.
More seriously, “Tagged,” a 2003 three-channel video by Julika Rudelius, a German-born artist based in Amsterdam, documents young, Dutch-born Arab men discussing the importance of appearances while modeling the designer clothes that consume most of their — or their family’s — meager earnings.
“Dress Codes” confirms that the camera arts are alive and well and are being deployed by artists who alternately extend or subvert traditions of portraiture, still life, documentary and storytelling, often adding permutations to the surprisingly vital postmodern strategies of photo appropriation and setup photography. The important influence of the Pictures artists, who emerged in the early 1980s and were often women, is tacitly acknowledged by the inclusion of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, Laurie Simmons and Silvia Kolbowski. A few of these, especially Ms. Sherman, are doing some of their best work right now.
The inclusion of others feels reflexive and obligatory. Important as she is, Ms. Rosler, for example, should take a time-out and come up with fresh ideas; her incongruous juxtapositions via photo montage — here, men in Dolce & Gabbana suits inserted into a flaming Middle Eastern battlefield — have developed little since the 1970s.
But inclusions that feel obligatory are not limited to women: Stan Douglas — another ubiquitous presence in shows of this kind — is represented by a gorgeous, and seamless, composite photograph, “Hastings Park, 16 July 1955.” It shows a crowd of people in period dress and attests primarily to the skills of wardrobe, hair and makeup crews.