Contemporary art Fairs Books Switzerland

From catwalk to ecology

Art’s foray into fashion and environmentalism

Nimbus D'Aspremont, 2012, by Berndnaut Smilde, from Art and Ecology Now. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

These recent survey books deal with artistic developments that have contrasting problems: art addressing the environment, however noble its intentions, can lead to a deadly worthiness, and art’s liaisons with fashion to a crashing inanity. Both make bold attempts to address these preconceptions.

The co-authors of Art/Fashion in the 21st Century are aware of the orthodox view of the disparity between fashion and art: the one “fickle, transient and largely driven by popular culture”, as they put it; the other “timeless, considered and elitist”. But now, they argue, the two disciplines “have become co-conspirators and creative collaborators”. Though Mitchell Oakley Smith is a fashion writer and editor and Alison Kubler a curator, the balance is skewed firmly towards Oakley Smith’s arena. His interviews throughout the book are with designers sitting on the cusp of the art world rather than artists within it. And the book is more confident in discussing fashion and its history than art, which on occasion is dealt with rather shakily: Jean Cocteau is referred to as a Surrealist (André Breton would turn in his grave) and contentions such as “it has proven difficult for art to move outside the ‘white cube’ of the gallery space” reflect an uneven grasp of the art scene. Contemporary art is seeping into all corners of cities and the countryside, shaking off the shackles of the bricks-and-mortar art space.

Despite its flaws, there is much to recommend this beautifully designed book. It argues persuasively for couture, that most extreme and creative of fashion genres, as a noble art. It also shows how broadly the two fields have interlaced, from the inspiration of art on designers such as Alexander McQueen, to collaborations between fashion houses and artists.

As the authors suggest, fashion has more to gain, being lent “a much-needed cerebral element that is otherwise lost in fashion’s interminable transience and lack of a formal, intellectual critical framework”. The book begins to employ such a framework, but one wonders if the authors could have taken a stronger critical standpoint on the increased commerciality in certain quarters of the art world. Is fashion’s burgeoning interest in art driven by the fact that it is “so wholly absorbed into the capitalist model that it now enjoys the status of a luxury item”, as the authors put it, as much as it is by perceived avant-garde edginess? How much is creativity and how much commerce?

Art and Ecology Now also reflects the changing scope of new art. As Andrew Brown argues, “there has been a growing tendency in contemporary art to consider the natural world not only as a source of inspiration or subject to represent but also as a realm to influence directly—a sphere of action to transform and improve through creative means”. Again, crucial to this are the expansive media available to the artist. As Brown shows, the impetus for environmental art has grown out of conceptual and post-minimal art in the late 1960s, of the more lyrical kind practised by Richard Long in the UK and the more aggressive, disruptive approach of artists such as Michael Heizer in the US. The rise of photography as a fine-art medium has also broadened artists’ scope, and is a key element in the book. This toppling of the rigid categories of painting and sculpture has allowed artists to take on the more direct engagement with the environment that much of the book captures.

The sheer diversity of the resulting work is impressive. Brown’s selection of artists, though dominated by those in the West, is genuinely global, and their status is hugely varied, from art world darlings Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla to more obscure figures working on the fringes of art and community action.

What emerges from the pages is a dilemma, described by the collaborative duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. “With art you want to respect complexity,” they say, “you want to be truthful, and art has to have a ‘ricochet effect’. It has to keep bouncing around in your head… How you keep that ricochet going while still being productive in the [environmental] discourse—that’s the thing we’ve been trying to figure out.” Artists’ desire to confront the urgency of the ecological crisis is admirable, but making effective art about it, as this book reflects, is far from easy.

Art/Fashion in the 21st Century, Mitchell Oakley Smith and Alison Kubler, Thames and Hudson, 320pp, £32 (hb) and Art and Ecology Now, Andrew Brown, Thames and Hudson, 256pp, £29.95 (pb)

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