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Open to seduction

By Robyn Coffey

Perhaps the new exhibition at the Betty Rymer Gallery would be better served by a more descriptive name. Social Seduction, a collaborative effort commemorating the seventeenth anniversary of SAIC’s Fashion Resource Center (FRC), implies gauzy, clingy, revealing little dresses, rubber bondage gear, or racy performance art. But, in reality, the exhibition focuses not on titillation but on simple presentation. Created and curated by six graduate students from the school’s Art Administration program—Alycia Scott, Andrea Tapia-Alvarez, Damla Tokcan Faro, George Martin, Gill Power, and Mary Hirsh, with help from FRC director Gillion Carrera—the show features some 25 items from the FRC’s impressive collection, including shoes, hats, and garments by Andre Courrèges, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and Prada, plus installations, interactive performances, and video work.

SAIC’s Fashion Resource Center began in 1987 to provide a resource on the history, design, and construction of clothing to students of the school. Since then, the collection has outgrown several rooms and fills the one it now occupies to the brim. The collection comprises of three closets packed with: over 300 garments, accessories, and footwear, 1200 fashion-related books, new and vintage magazines and publications, scholarly texts, original illustrations, approximately 200 videotapes of runway shows, presentations and interviews. The collection also houses designer fabric swatches that starry-eyed fledgling designers can finger to their hearts’ content. Anyone who has ever gone in to ask a question and ended up staying the afternoon can attest to the value of the special collection.

The six curators began culling items from the tantalizing depths of the FRC closets months before Social Seduction opened. The mission statement on their website asserts that the show “highlights the Fashion Resource Center’s designer collection, linking fashion to the multi-sensory responses it provokes in society,” and that it “strives to capture fashion’s effect while spotlighting designer’s works that have contributed to its positive movements.”

While some of the clothing was enjoyable to look at—notably Comme des Garçons’ 1997 white “bump” dress and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s chartreuse wool dress from 2000 with boots attached to its back and a mannequin’s hand protruding from beneath its skirt—the true theme of the exhibition was captured more specifically in the performance and video pieces.

The art and fashion fans who attended the February 27 opening didn’t know quite what to make when performance artist Ho Yun Son drifted into the gallery. Son’s head and body were obscured by a handmade burlap garment festooned with zippers, which she proceeded to remove like an orange peel and let fall to the floor. People seemed uncertain how to react to “Social Shedding I,” either glancing uncomfortably at the silent figure slowly revealing herself and edging away to make room, or turning their backs to continue their conversations. Perhaps in this art-focused microcosm of society, it stands true that strangers care little for occurrences around them, especially those that do not directly influence their social or familiar sphere.

Katrina Fullman and “Tony” Denise Conca created the 8-minute video “Refuse and Refashion” by plundering the racks of the Brown Elephant thrift shop and filming themselves modeling sometimes stylish, sometimes ridiculous outfits in a subversive, comedic imitation of catwalk camp.

Two images that attracted long looks were a pair of large ink-jet prints by Sun Yun from 2002, entitled Male Suit on Female and Female Suit on Male. The photos are naked human beings trimmed to resemble articles of clothing. The man’s torso appears to be wearing a top made of paler skin with breasts, while the woman’s legs and hips are clad in trousers complete with hair and male genitalia. The photos lead one to ponder the meaning of physical and fashionable individuality, and which choices we are free to make, such as our outfits, as compared to those over which we have no control, like our gender. One gallery visitor was observed trying to block her friend’s five-year-old daughter’s view of these explicit images, perhaps concerned she’d want a man-suit for herself, only to be told by the mother that the girl was free to view any work of art she wished (though she seemed more interested in the shoes anyway).

Vincent Haq-Mastrionni’s untitled 2002 video, from which the image featured on posters and flyers for the exhibition was taken, received perhaps the strongest reaction from viewers. It is an excruciating 25 minutes of a close-up of his hands, sewing his own fingers together with thick black thread. People watched wide-eyed as the needle pushed into the skin, stretching it white until the point pierced through. Many of them left after only a few minutes, disturbed not only by the somewhat masochistic imagery, but also by its implications of using the basic tools of couture to enact physical pain.

Unfortunately, neither the catalog nor the exhibition itself offered any reasons for the decision to include each individual garment and accessories in the show. No explanations were given in the catalog for their relevancy to the theme of social seduction, beyond the vague motive that they illustrated the “diverse paths fashion takes entering the vocabulary of contemporary society.” The choices of featured pieces seemed somewhat arbitrary, as they didn’t span a huge range of styles or designers. There were clothes people would probably want to see, iconic dresses worn by Maddona and Jennifer Aniston; clothes designed by the SAIC community, such as an outfit by alumnus Lawrence Steele; and some clothes people might want to wear.

True, these accoutrements are a choice peek into the scope of the FRC’s historically and internationally mind-boggling collection, but if viewers expect the garments to comment on the role of fashion in human interaction or even what seduction has to do with it all (for nothing else in the show will), they might have to make it up for themselves.

Log on to the web-site for more information: www.artic.edu/webspaces/socialseduction





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