The politics of liberation are essentially corporeal. The struggle for free will—for subjecthood—is defined by the ease and unease of the body. The fear of hunger is physical; the wretched horror of deprivation is one of bodily need. All emotional despair is felt as corporeal absence or excess. If I am so wretchedly miserable that I can’t get out of bed, it’s my body that can’t get out of bed. To deny the power of the body is to deny the essential struggle of humanity. In Lacan’s Mirror stage, the infant panics when realizing that its psyche—fluid, polysexual and infinite space of complex desires and anxieties—is bound to a relatively stable and polygonal form. To have a body, and to know that you are in that body, is to feel alienated. In Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze saw an artist that diagnosed the essential condition of man as a struggle of meat. “Bacon does not say ‘Pity the beasts,’ but rather that every man who suffers is a piece of meat,” wrote Deleuze in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. “Meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernibility; it is a ‘fact,’ a state where the painter identifies with the objects of his horror and his compassion.” In our corporeal states, we suffer; in our suffering, we yield solidarity.
Bacon’s bodies—or should we say, Bacon’s meat—are anguished, afraid, and naked. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre said that the naked body “symbolizes our defenseless states as objects.” This is an interesting counterpoint to the work of Austrian contemporary artist Anna-Sophie Berger. Trained in fashion design, Berger explores how the application of garments to human bodies—to meat—emphasizes how bodies can be both protected by garments as bodies are entered into late capital systems, but also how the application of garments can liberate human bodies from those same systems and in some cases, allow the body to mutate beyond the state of meat itself into something else. Something more than meat and maybe even more than human. “Alongside the straightforward, almost stock forms of the physical works, Berger addresses the specificity that material and object have in their relationship to corporeality,” wrote Jack Gross for Frieze in 2014. “The most common distribution of clothes, after all, happens via the bodies that wear them.”
For an example of Berger’s concept around clothes and bodies, there’s a video of Marilyn Manson and his best friend/guitar player of the Spooky Kids Twiggy Ramirez at a John Norris (my favorite MTV VJ ever)-hosted MTV event sometime in the early 1990s before Manson would become a global success. Norris tracks down Manson in the audience—gawky, ugly, dejected, and adorned in tattered K-Mart clothes carrying the trappings of working class abjection—who tells Norris about his band and his dreams of success. It wouldn’t be more than two years later that Marilyn would cake his face in goth hooker makeup and fetish gear, and emerge as the Antichrist Superstar: fearless, triumphant, famous, beautiful, and certainly more than human. Maybe even more than meat. Manson’s clothes shielded him from societal ridicule and eventually allowed him to transcend ridicule.
But it’s not Berger’s artwork that should be discussed here. Instead, Berger has applied her peculiar notions of garment design to the curatorial practice in a sometimes fascinating and sometimes frustrating exhibition at the Swiss Institute. Entitled Life and Limbs, the exhibition attempts to address corporeality as a primary concern for design. Berger has selected objects that demonstrate garments and assorted pieces of designs as objects that can protect, stretch, alter, modify, adorn, replicate or destroy the human body.
When we put on clothes, we can become something other than meat, but not always something more than meat. When a man puts on his blue polo shirt and tan khakis, he has become a member of the Geek Squad: an overqualified and under-paid servant to corporate capital. The application of the garment removes his identity to an extent, turning him into a laborer. But this isn’t necessarily negative. The work uniform can allow us to compartmentalize our identities and our jobs. The uniform protects us from the ridicule that we endure as laborers, and to distinguish it from the ridicule we endure in our identities.
But clothes can also liberate us from oppressive structures. With clothing, we can become more than meat, more than a servant to capital, and more than human itself. We can become what Deleuze and Guattari called “the body without organs” in Anti-Oedipus: the untapped potential of unbridled expression. We can become glorious and powerful monsters: Manson, Leigh Bowery, Grace Jones, Cindy Sherman, and how many other artists have used dressing up as a means to the end of becoming something different? Our clothes can emphasize power as it tightens its grasp around us, and our clothes can empower us to break free of that grasp.
Cultural theorist Dick Hebdige (yes that “Dick” that Chris Kraus desired so in her iconic debut novel I Love Dick) agreed with philosopher Roland Barthes that literary analysis would prove effective at unraveling not only literary texts, but all of culture and life (from mass media entertainment to social interactions). For Hebdige, style is no less worthy of cultural critique than the writings of Kant or Nabokov. And Hebdige believed that style could be seen as a profound embodiment of how upper classes maintain their “hegemonic” (to use a term by the great 20th Century Italian Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci) power structures, but also how the lower classes use the expressiveness of style to puncture those structures. “We can now return to the meaning of subcultures, for the emergence of such groups has signalled in a spectacular fashion the breakdown of consensus in the post-war period,” wrote Hebdige. “However, the challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed, obliquely, in style.”
This radical truth about style and clothes is often what art snobs—put off by the obscene capitalism of the fashion industry—fail to address about fashion. The greatest fashion designers, your Raf Simons’, Alexander McQueen’s, and Miuccia Prada’s analyze the power of human style. In style is a class struggle. In clothes is the quest for liberation. Clothing, design and fashion are all topics rife for and pertinent to serious cultural discussion. This is what Berger explores in her work, and certainly what she is grasping for in this exhibition. In the objects assembled, the dichotomy of clothing is laid bare. Through dressing, we are controlled. Through dressing, we are protected. Through dressing, we are free.
The exhibition explores clothing’s relationship to bodies through four distinct garment-bodily reactions: how a garment can make a body consume, process, reach and become. Two designs for necklaces by 20th Century Swiss surrealist Meret Oppenheim are used by Berger as the conceptual genesis for the exhibition. One design features a baby’s legs wrapped around a neck, while the other depicts a grinning mouth full of foreboding teeth smoking a cigarette. The designs emphasize the multitudes that corporeally focused garments can entail: protection and vulnerability, conformity and transgression, “life and limbs.”
Numerous artworks focus on the concept of the garment as a protective layer between the body and the dangers of the world. The late great Austrian artist Birgit Jürgenssen, typically known for her more flagrantly transgressive self-portraits and drawings, has a painting of a swimming shoe with an inexplicable reptilian foot emerging from the shoe’s back. The artist fetishizes the functionality of the object and depicts its essence: a garment that allows a human body the qualities of the underwater reptilian body.
But the more fascinating elements of the exhibition manifest in the works that look at design as a way to go beyond human limits: to mutate, to actualize, to transcend. The late artist/architect couple, the American-born Madeline Arakawa Gins and the Japanese-born Arakawa (a student of Duchamp), together designed buildings that dealt with existential themes related to morality and “the nature of being,” according to writer Margalit Fox. Their work was carried through by a philosophy called Reversible Destiny that stated “we have decided not to die.” At the exhibition, the duo’s unrealized project Hotel Reverse Destiny is displayed via architectural plans.
I wanted to mention the duo’s fascinating architectural work as a testament to the often utopian concerns of all forms of corporeal design. Arakawa Gins sought to free mankind from its mortal coil. This extreme ambition is not totally rare in corporeally-minded design. The late Austrian sculptor and architect Walter Pichler, for example, also used design to push the human body beyond its own limits. His work is represented by three eerie high-contrast black-and-white photographs of his sculptural prototype for the Fingerspanner that serves as an example of Pichler’s interest in industrial objects as modifiers to basic human functions.
A small print by radical and iconic makeup artist Inge Grognard—best known for her work with Martin Margiela in the 1990s, and more recently, with Demna Gvasalia and his designs for both Balenciaga and Vetements—and the photographer Nathaniel Goldberg display a middle-aged woman in side profile and closeup with prominent white scar tissue lines running down from the arch of the model’s nose to the crack of the mouth. As with much of Grognard’s creations, the makeup artist accentuates bodily decay to a bizarrely glamorous extent, freeing humans from the confines of traditional beauty concerns and yet, ultimately finding an even purer beauty in death and the macabre.
Intriguingly, other art works don’t demonstrate the body-design relationship as one of positive transcendence, but as a constant struggle between the human body’s desire for this transcendence through design, but nevertheless still constricted by the body’s limits. There are four drawings by the late Viennese Aktionist Günter Brus that each depict an erect penis in some kind of an experiment with household objects: a hatchet, a match, a knife and a necklace. The images seem to render a midlife Castration Anxiety, as if the artist wants to rid himself of the burden of his sexuality, but cannot overcome the fear of severed organs. While Freud believed that the fear of losing sex organs was endemic to pre-Oedipal desires, Brus seems to theorize in these drawings that the fear of having sexuality is just as powerful. Brus possibly believed that if he could use these household designs to rid himself of his sex, then he could rid himself of any manner of pesky emotions such as self-doubt, anxiety, and overwhelming desire.
Similarly, drawings by Brooklyn-based contemporary artist Ebecho Muslimova and German-based contemporary artist Till Megerle also focus on design as an emphasis of sexual anxiety. In one of Muslimova’s drawings of her fictional character Fatebe (Fatebe is the star of all of Muslimova’s work), Fatebe has a long chain running through her anus and vagina as if using design to actually clog the pores of treacherous sexual desire. Megerle’s drawings and paintings have been described by writer Anke Dyes as “classically sex negative.” With two monochrome drawings on display at Life and Limbs—the larger entitled The Hussengut and the smaller The Thug Silhouette—one can see objects of design—from clothes to household furniture— generating a ricochet of kinetic social and sexual energy. The sexuality is unhinged and infinite, but the objects are limiting and finite.
German conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel’s charcoal drawing Replace Me depicts a woman’s mid-section in full frontal with a tarantula in the place of the woman’s pubice. In this piece, we see the adorning object framing female sexuality as a thing of allure, danger and power. This dichotomy between Trockel’s, and Muslimova’s or Megerle’s demonstrates that objects and garments both contain and accentuate human sexuality and desire. Furthermore, Marija Tavčar’s Marquis, a doll in the form of a classic jester, is a testament to the power of dressing up as a means of using sexuality and desire to transcend both social and substantial notions of what a human is and how a human should be presented. The jester, or the clown, is desire embodied as costume. The jester is fearless and free from our contempt. “Madmen, hunchbacks, amputees, and other abnormals were once considered natural clowns; they were elected to fulfill a comic role which could allow others to see them as ludicrous rather than as terrible reminders of the forces of disorder in the world,” wrote the horror writer and philosopher Thomas Ligotti.
In a 1983 New York Times critique of Barthes’ 1967 text on fashion and industry The Fashion System, the late literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote that Barthes, as a philosopher of language and signs, saw that if fashion is a language, then it must have a grammatical structure. “For those who are not sure what semiology is, it might be simply defined as the interpretation of a culture’s signs, remembering that just about everything may be taken as a sign,” wrote Broyard. “In this case, the sign – fashion – is so light and so fragile that the effect of the ponderous semiotic structure is often comical, if not grotesque.” What Broyard finds in Barthes’ text is that fashion—or clothing itself—is a particularly slippery semiotics full of potentialities, but light on direct meaning. In Life and Limbs, Berger locates in the relationship between bodies and garments or objects of design at large a dizzying number of textual associations. In our bodies’ interactions with clothing, we find our bodies reduced and constricted as often as we do liberated and transcended. One could argue that clothes, in ways both negative and positive, make us human.
Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.