Fashion: between containment and chaos

Robert Cook

Maria Blaisse, Silverspheres, 1989

Maria Blaisse, Silverspheres, 1989

Remember when we dreamt of cyborgs and talked about “becoming” as if it all actually meant something? As if it was possible, this future of endless human plasticity? It seems naïve now that we’ve grown beyond the narcissistic phase of our social evolution and have a better grasp of the limits of our bodies. Now that we remember before bodies mutate they break, mash, incinerate, humiliate, decapitate. Humpty can’t be put back together again.

It’s because of this that I feel if I was looking at the work of Marie Blaisse at PICA, say, 5 years ago, I might have had a different reaction. Today I cannot help but respond with a sort of melancholy; that of the disenchanted futurist. Blaisse’s work was for me a phantom limb, missing but present, a reminder of a whole we once enjoyed, that we maybe took for granted, made too much of. As such, it is somehow more than just Lucy Orta for jazz ballet fans…as the faintly thrumming pain throughout this latently morose show gives it a kind of dignity I wouldn’t have thought possible.

Admittedly, these sombre reflections were far from my mind when I first dipped into the show. It did what I’d thought it would: reactivated all the striving playfulness of the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. The retro, brightly coloured foam costume pieces Blaisse is known for were strewn about the floor with a casual, licorice allsort quirkiness. A few dangled from the roof. The feel was Yazz meets Bananarama downtown at Mangoes for Shirley Temples—light, giddy, soft. This cutie harmlessness was amplified by the kids playing with the costumes, supervised by smiling, good-natured gallery staff. They placed tubes on their heads, slotted skinny arms through cymbal-like shapes. It was goofy good times and arty/fashiony merriment.

This feel was matched in the Paula Abdul video piece where dancing fascists in Blaisse-molded attire gleefully gyrate and hump and goosestep and jitterbug and arse-bounce. Foam-fattened cartoon frames for the Abdul stage show, they were more properly part of an extended extravaganza that had begun with Kiss or Bowie and led to Michael Jackson and worse and then worse still. Art or fashion (or whatever the hell Blaisse does) was a stadium act, just for a moment, but in the process was reduced to being simply part of the era’s dominant culture’s yearning for surface glitz. It’s worth comparing Blaisse’s work for Abdul with Cirque de Soleil’s efforts for New Order in the True Faith video. The French company used a similar aesthetic but to a more rabidly creative and compellingly artful end. Blaisse’s effort couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of the middle-of-the-road. It ended up as its road kill.

Naturally, this satisfied-with-itself escapade was the least interesting part of the show. The film work (produced in collaboration with dancers/models and filmmakers) was an altogether different experience, albeit one that revealed its intensity only on repeat visits. It took solid time and effort to clear away the surface froth to get at the fragile, haunted skeleton of this richly cold work. In one monitor-based work, for instance, we see a woman wrestling with gravity wearing a red, bud-shaped hoop around her waist. One moment she’s Kafka’s giant beetle who cannot right itself. Next she’s Minnie Mouse. Then a ladybug. Oh, metamorphosis is just so fucking hard.

The other works, tucked away in the screening room, took this dynamic to another level entirely. Immensely, awkwardly artful and fun—Godard for the Xanadu generation—they were full of unexplained, unexplainable jump-cuts, formal interruptions and visual and auditory non-sequiturs. Uniting this strange fruit was the fact that the otherwise graceful models who sport Blaisse’s works are forever struggling with the limitations of their new appendages. Blaisse’s bodily additives are definitely, defiantly prototypes. The films are test runs. The models are the fashion world’s equivalent to crash test dummies (which maybe they always are?). My favourites involved rollerskating women (precursors to the genius video for Cat Power’s Cross Bones Style?). One skate flick features a gal with elongated arms connected to her feet. She’s a bug bent on all fours, but not quite; suddenly the arms dislodge from the feet, and she doesn’t know what to do. Then she (or was it a man?) is spinning around, legs splayed thanks to a foam insert.

The rollerskates are significant here. Both skates and the foam body attachments extend and amplify bodily pleasures. Despite this, the logic of the films offers pleasure and then achingly hems it in: the performers are specimens acting out their limitations and possibilities in rooms of clinical clarity and texturelessness. Ultimately, this instills a sense of elegiac melancholy that overrides any overt playfulness and evokes more than a whiff of S&M (in the Freudian sense).

So when, as in the glorious images of a woman’s back turning into a dove, the body reaches a state of grace, it does so surprisingly, as a temporary release made all the more sweet because of its cloistered context. What is clear is that elegance is also a result of being frozen rigid. Indeed, in the still shots of Blaisse’s work on models, the body is pure graphic. The head appears severed from the body. Limbs protrude, a new being is created. The film works, though, show that this is merely an empty promise. The condition of human as graphic is an interlude, a fantasy, a projection of art.

Of course, Blaisse’s work activates these dynamics within a very precise context of sartorial modernism. Elements of futurism and surrealism fuse with 1960s design sensibilities of a Panton-gone-to-the-Moon flavour. There’s something retro-futuristic about Maria Blaisse’s work, but it has learnt from, and moved past, its inherited utopianism. Nevertheless, the thin margin for pleasure, within and against restraints, is obvious and locates her alongside designers such as Belgian Martin Margiela who continue to make fashion along the line between containment and chaos.

Curiously, the flaws in the show’s presentation, while initially annoying—the lack of labels, monitors running side-by-side with inaudible sound—aided the Blaisse effect. Blaisse’s work is best approached at a remove, as a memory trace, as a gesture that doesn’t hold. At its best it opens up the problem of being human, at its worst it is a distraction. It’s pleasure and pain, pop and philosophy, lycra and foam as existential fundament.

Marie Blaisse, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, April 1-May 9; part of The Space Between: Textiles_Art_Design_Fashion

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 46-

© Robert Cook; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004
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