1.5 / Review

Dress Codes: the Third ICP Triennial

By Renny Pritikin December 16, 2009

It is a commonplace joke that the ostensible theme of international art fairs bears little meaningful connection to the work on view. The four curators of New York’s International Center of Photography’s triennial exhibition, "Dress Codes," state, “These artists variously explore fashion—whether in everyday dress, haute couture, street fashion, or uniforms—as a celebration of individuality, personal identity, and self-expression, and as cultural, religious, social, and political statements.” The visitor quickly realizes that, in the case of this show, the organizers were not kidding.

The exhibition is truly international (half of the artists live abroad). Even better, the thematic connections are often made from unanticipated and complex angles, as in Yto Barrada’s The Belt, Step 1 to 9, from the series The Smugglers, Tangier, 2006. When first engaging with this series of nine photographs depicting a grandmotherly Moroccan woman disrobing, what might be a predictable essay on the aging female body or clothing’s relation to the social requirements of identity turns out to be a demonstration of how she smuggles fabric into the country under her robes. The work nails the subject’s particularity and sociopolitical reality with a playfulness that defeated this viewer’s jaded assumptions.

Juxtaposed next to this is another of the exhibition’s highlights, the multi-screen video work Tagged (2003) by Julika Rudelius, which also depicts Arabic people—in this case handsome, fit young men living in Holland—taking off their clothing. Somehow the artist convinced these guys to bring their wardrobes to her and try it all on for her camera, while relating their thoughts about the clothes. There is so much going on it’s almost more than can be taken in: our voyeurism in these matter-of-fact stripteases; the casual sexual tension between the boys and the artist, just barely old enough to be their mother; the self-regard as the guys check themselves out in the mirror; their expertise in assembling expensive designer sports clothing just right for their bodies; the willingness to pay many times their weekly salary for these consumer items; the simultaneous generosity and political awkwardness of these poor immigrant kids modeling their lives for an eventual art world audience.

An instant classic, the video by Zhou Tao of China, 1-2-3-4 (2007‑2008), seems to have popped up everywhere recently. It depicts multiple instances of Shanghai young people in corporate uniforms being trained, often on the street, to conform to rigorous group discipline, reminiscent of the recent Olympic opening ceremonies. Some viewers may celebrate the subversion of ego into group identity this behavior demands; others may be put off by inferences of totalitarian discipline. The sight, in one section, of slightly chubby young women in miniskirts and high heels being expected to jog in unison is more tragicomic than sinister.

Two familiar figures, Stan Douglas and Cindy Sherman, have possibly the two most moving and sophisticated works on view. Douglas’ large photograph, Hastings Park, 16 July 1955 (2008), depicts a seated crowd at a racetrack ostensibly on that date. Some three dozen actors, predominantly men, are dressed in exquisitely colored and designed period clothing.

Yto Barrada. The Belt, Step 1 to 9, from the series The Smugglers, Tangier, 2006. 
© Yto Barrada. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Polaris, Paris.

Stan Douglas. Hastings Park, 16 July 1955, 2008. © Stan Douglas. Courtesy of the Artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York.

The photograph is effectively a collaboration between the artist and Hollywood cinematographers and costume designers of a half-century ago. The image’s emotional impact is wrenching; its uncanny fakeness mimics the way those of us old enough to have lived through that era re-create our memory of youth.

Sherman has, of course, for decades now, been documenting a mediated recollection of cultural life using clothing, makeup, props, and her body. What is particularly striking about her work now though is the widening of roles she can, or is willing to, play as she approaches 60. Through the camera, she is still capable of convincing us she is a young fashionista, but also a matronly grande dame. A rich form of sublimated autobiography emerges.

What’s the tipping point when a themed exhibition can be said to misrepresent an artist’s intention by emphasizing tangential aspects of the work in order to make the case for inclusion? In the work of Olga Chernysheva’s On Duty (2007), we see Russian civil servants in uniform and on the job. They’re bored, dreamy, even melancholy; we could come up with a dozen themes of what the photographs are about before we would select their clothing. While the show-stopping young woman’s clothing depicted in Richard Learoyd’s mammoth-scaled Agnes, Red Dress (2008) is stunning in its saturated color and remarkable detail (accomplished through a unique double-roomed camera obscura technique), the work is arguably much more about portraiture and color than any traits of the dress and its use per se.

Kimsooja. Mumbai: A Laundry Field, 2007–2008. © Kimsooja. Courtesy of the Artist.

There are many other works in the show—notably pieces by two Bay Area favorites, Hank Willis Thomas and Kota Ezawa, neither represented by their strongest work—but the piece that is the greatest gift from the curators is (one-named) Korean artist Kimsooja’s Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007‑2008). This four-channel video, presented on each wall of a separate room, is a tour de force of artful travelogue that brings home the exhibition’s intentions. A train comes toward us in bright sunshine, the colorful clothing of the travelers (who are clinging to the outside of the cars) flapping in the breeze. We creep along a dark, narrow alley that happens to be a launderer’s neighborhood, discovering on occasion a child or adult for whom this is home. The camera finds people slapping clothing in water to cleanse it, as has been done for millennia. Without interference by a spoken soundtrack, we infer the give-and-take of a pauper’s industry based on the centrality of the things we wear.

“Dress Codes” is on view at the International Center of Photography in New York, through January 17, 2010.

Renny Pritikin is the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis. He was the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1992 until 2004. In 2009 he has written catalogue essays about Cornelia Schulz (for Patricia Sweetow Gallery), Dave Lane, "Merch Art: The Banka/Gordon Collection" (both for the Nelson), and upcoming, on Julia Couzens (for the CSU Stanislaus gallery).

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