Rei Kawakubo, born 1942, Japan Comme des Garcons, founded 1969
Art of the In-Between
A retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, NY, Summer 2017
For Duncan Brittin, Vien Le Wood, Sam Valerio-Sacks and Jen Zimmerman for their outstanding style, verve, imagination and creative engagement in the world. Which I love.
Readying for Kawakubo shapes, our eyes picked up on the designs of Leon Bakst (1866-1924, Russian) for the Ballets Russes in a print-and-drawings gallery at the Metropolitan Museum where the Japanese designer is being honored with a rare retrospective in her lifetime.
Costume design for a eunuch in the ballet ‘Scheherazade’; gouache and graphite heightened with gold paint, c. 1910
Costume design for Vaslav Nijinsky in the role of Iksender in the ballet ‘La Peri’ (The Flower of Immortality); watercolour and gold and silver paint over graphite; 1922.
Costume for the Sultan Samarkand for the ballet ‘Scheherazade’; watercolour, graphite and gold paint, 1922
Rei Kawakubo’s work is framed in an all-white, sculptured space at ground level and above the heads of visitors.
Materials used in these creations include;
polyster felt, lycra, taffeta, rayon velvet, net, mesh, flannel, wadding, and organza;
polyurethane plain weave and tulle;
cotton knits, canvas, duck, poplin, lawn, lace, plain weave, twill and velveteen; brushed cotton, synthetic cotton lace;
silk satin, habotai, charmeuse, velvet, chiffon, knits and jersey;
wool jersey, mohair, twill, and knit jacquard; wool-nylon jersey and plain weave;
nylon tulle, stretch gingham; stretch nylon, chiffon and plain weave;
acrylic crochet, wool thread, felt, worsted and knit;
cupra organza, and cupra-rayon devore velvet;
glass beads; feathers; rubber; goose down; leather; tartan; elastic; PVC; elastic.
The designer comments that her clothes and the spaces they inhabit ‘are one and the same’.
I am not sure if we were being faced with a space paradox by design. The designed space did not seem to fit a large corner of an old museum floor.
Dead and uncomfortable spaces in the exhibition – little corridors going nowhere; blind, curved walls; claustrophobic space around certain creations so that alarm bells were constantly trilling with visitors overstepping the protective line; openings too small to accommodate the many trying to get a peek into a group of creations; lighting so insistent that it is difficult to clearly see clothes not at ground level.
These were all of a piece with the paradoxical quality of what the designer calls her ‘clothes’.
Perhaps this is not a paradox at all but part of the design to throw visitors somewhat off balance. Or as the designer might say the design/not design.
Presented as an in between of Design/Not Design
Presented in the grouping of the in between Design/Not Design
A part of the an in between grouping called Beautiful/Grotesque with the rubric ‘Holes’
A short corridor leading to the wall next to a presentation on the in between ‘Good Taste/Bad Taste’
This work – dating from the early 1980s to the present – is presented as exemplifying a state of ‘in-between’. The Museum’s notes talk of the designer’s aesthetic sensibility: unsettling, elusive and visually ambiguous.
A disruption of conventional norms of beauty and fashionableness.
Possibly as Zen koans devised to baffle and bemuse.
The Met’s notes make further reference to the designer’s incorporation of aesthetic principles rooted in Buddhism: fusion, imbalance, the unfinished, and design without design.
The work is shown in groupings of nine ‘in-between’ states:
The more recent creations are in additional illustrative groupings.
The second obviousness here is that the designer’s in between states are, of course, expressions of oppositions or of alternatives more than that of an ‘in-between’ ambiguity.
What is being shown here is what is not thought to be acceptable in fashion, fashionableness, body-shape, and body-weight.
Young people visiting the exhibition seemed very interested and some were exultant and excited. Women of all ages exultant and gratified. No anorexic models. No reference to pretty faces or heels to threaten your life.
Men also: very interested and focused.
One man – a Frenchman who is noted below – was not content. He called out a paradox of this work.
Thoughts surfaced then in my mind which I have to say I was evading in the general physical euphoria there.
Presented as an between state between Presence/Absence with rubrics which include ‘Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body’ and ‘Dimensions’
Presented as an in between of Design/Not Design with the rubric ‘The Future of Silhouette’
Among the many portentous statements of Rei Kawakubo documented in the Met’s notes was one in which she said that she dispensed with “all preconceived notions about Western and Eastern social mores and cultures, as all these things are irrelevant to my world”…..
This seems to be another paradox.
I do not think we found a dispensing of social mores. What we found was a certain melding, a certain anything-goes attitude as with the proto-wedding dresses below.
Visitors commented that white is the colour of mourning in Japan. These proto-wedding gowns were presented under the rubric ‘Birth/Marriage/Death’.
The Met notes the many interests of the designer: her interest in abstraction and in sculptural qualities; her dislike of the representational; her indifference to accepted standards of beauty; her fascination with the 19th century bustle; her defiance of and frustration with the status quo and her wish to ‘engage with the zeitgeist…..symbolically and conceptually.’
The designer has also said that she does not see herself as an intellectual but as someone who is expressing her feelings, fears.
A grouping presented as in between Self/Other with rubrics like ‘Lost Empire’, ‘Cubisme’ and ‘Inside Decoration’.
The Met’s notes talk of the designer’s early incorporation of ‘space’ and ’emptiness’; her incorporation of ‘high’ (ballet) and ‘low’ (bikers) style and of punk.
A High/Low in between with the rubric ‘Ballerina Motorbike’
Presented as an inbetween High/Low with a rubric of ‘Ballerina Motorbike’
Presented as in-between male/female
A Male/Female in between
Presented as an example of the in between state between Beautiful/Grotesque and with the additional rubric ‘Monster’
Presented as an in between Beautiful/Grotesque and with the additional rubric ‘Monster’
Mention is made of the designer’s engagement with the Japanese notion of ‘cuteness’.
Presented as an in between Self/Other with the rubric ‘Child/Adult’
Presented as a Self/Other in between. The rubric is ‘Child/Adult’
Presented with the rubric ‘Child/Adult’ as a Self/Other in between
Presented with the rubric ‘Good Taste/Bad Taste’ as an example of the in between High/Low
Presented as example of the in between state Abtraction/Representation and with the further rubric ‘Invisible Clothes’
A member of the in between group Abstraction/Representation
A member of the in between group Abstraction/Representation
Presented as an example of the in-between state between Form/Function
A woman noted how often she had wished for a gown like this below – presented as Life/Loss – and for the time to sit, immobile, wearing it.
Presented with in the in between grouping Life/Loss
Presented as an example of an in between Life/Loss
Presented as War/Peace in-betweens with a rubric of ‘Blood and Roses’
Presented as an in between state between War/Peace with the rubric Blood and Roses
Illustrating an in between of Life/Loss, this was presented with the rubric Ceremony of Separation
An illustration of an in between of Life/Loss presented with the rubric Ceremony of Separation
Presented in the grouping ‘Life/Loss’
Presented in the in between grouping Life/Loss
Presented in an in between state Then/Now; in a category devoted to Birth/Marriage/Death. It had a rubric called ‘Ceremony of Separation’
Presented as an in between state between Fact/Fiction and called ‘Blue Witch’
Presented as in between Fact/Fiction and with a rubric of ‘Blue Witch’
All within a Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body in between
Presented as an in between state between Order/Chaos and with rubrics such as ‘Adult Delinquent’ and ’18th Century Punk’
Presented as a Life/Loss in between
A man stood studying this creation for quite some minutes. I asked him what he was thinking.
There is no motion, he said. I am looking for movement.
Now that you have said that, I said to him, I can say that you have a point and are making me unhappy, I said.
Are you French? I asked.
Yes, he said.
Are you going back to France, I said, with your unhappy analyses?
He laughed. I live here, he said.
This visitor touched upon another paradox of this work.
The earliest creations in this retrospective are clothes and can be worn.
As the years wear on, Rei Kawakubo’s creations become more and more fantastic and quite unwearable. Her philosophical stance evolves.
Her recent work, the Met notes, has moved her to her ‘transgressive’ fusing of body and cloth and her obscuring the body altogether under layers and layers of cloth.
The designer’s creations illustrate her philosophical, artistic and artisanal evolution.
Presented as the in between state between Bound/Unbound with the rubric ‘The Future of Silhouette’
She evolves through textile creations using the human body as a loose organizing structure in order to present the ambiguity, constraints, frustrations hypocrisies of our worn lives.
Sculptural though they look, they lack one essential element of sculpture in the Western tradition (I can’t speak to Japan) they do not incorporate any movement and they do not suggest the slightest motion. They are take-it-or-leave-it statements.
And they are definitely not clothes: you cannot wear them. If you can get in them, you cannot move.
The museum’s notes explain that Rei Kawakubo established Comme des Garcons in 1973 with the sole aim of achieving personal autonomy. “Independence has always been of the greatest importance to me,” are her words.
She opened her first boutique in Tokyo in 1975 and the first in Paris in 1978.
This, I thought as the French visitor left, is haute couture as a journey both to establish her independence and to assimilate to a foreign civilization. To accommodate her two cultures in her life and work. Their values are not the same and they cannot be reduced one to the other.
It is the journey of one woman, born outside the Euro-American West, into Western ways of thinking and acting, of keeping herself productive and anchored both in her own traditional culture and in another which she has adopted. And, of course, of making money and gaining recognition.
That she achieved this double feat in her life and work successfully is a function of the liberties and encouragements and embedded meritocracy of our Western civilization. And of the discipline and openness of her native culture to Western ways, style.
That she wanted to do this is all honour to her courage and imagination and tenacity.
But there is nothing new to us in her philosophy: that we live with many paradoxical, artificial and hypocritical constraints.
The major paradox is that she states her contrarian philosophical position in textile language intimately related to her haute couture profession.
Rei Kawakubo has said that she does not care about function at all. Much of haute couture is for display purposes only.
This designer has gone further: she has let go of the body as the constraining principle of her sculptural work. Her work wraps the body and also smothers it. But she does not clothe the body.
While we can all hold contrarian views and make anarchic comments, it is only the privileged who can live lives of extravagant, and posturing display wearing clothes which may or may not severely limit their movement and efficacity.
Something that was not lost on some of the young people camping as an illustration of this point:
As fabulous as is haute couture on its own terms, as fabulous as Rei Kawakubo’s clothing and some of her sculptural creations are – some are just plain ugly, uninteresting, and shoddily made. Her ‘kilts’ are an abuse of glorious tartan. And her colours are sadly limited also – the language chosen here to illustrate a philosophical proposition of rejection of norms, of incorporating marginality, of near-revolution is completely inadequate to the task.
The privileged can and often do evade social constraints if they want to. Nor do they need to worry about the functionality of their clothes. Rei Kawakubo’s clothes are for their use exclusively.
I don’t think that any of us would carry her static, immobile sculptural statements into battle against the rich-getting-richer.
But as the entertainment and delectation of an afternoon, they are inviting.