In Aesthetic Theory (1970) Theodor Adorno noted that ‘great artists since Baudelaire were in conspiracy with fashion’. As a significant feature of many modernists and early avant-garde movements, costume has long offered space for critical collision between fashion, adornment, performance, theatre and art.
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The work of more than 50 women artists connected to Glasgow School of Art is the focus of an illuminating exhibition.
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There is an increasingly accepted story that is wheeled out whenever one discusses Glasgow’s art scene: it’s titled the ‘Glasgow Miracle’. It generally relays the inordinate number of (mostly male) Turner Prize nominees and winners the city produces…
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Glasgow-based artists Sophie Macpherson and Clare Stephenson talk to Steven Cairns about their recent collaboration and how theatrical contexts have shaped it.
Steven Cairns: You are collaborating on Shoplifters, Shopgirls, a project that exists within the parameters of theatre, rather than a gallery. How does it relate to your work as individuals, and how have your interests merged?
Clare Stephenson: We both make work that has theatrical connotations, but it has always been specific to the gallery. It wouldn’t operate in the same way if we simply transferred the existing elements to the theatre, so we focused more on the actions of the artist as producer, consumer and performer, among other things.
These are the possibilities of Man as Dancer, transformed through costume and moving in space. Yet there is no costume which can suspend the primary limitation of the human form: the law of gravity, to which it is subject. A step is not much longer than a yard, a leap not much higher than two. The center of gravity can be abandoned only momentarily. And only for a second can it endure in a position essentially alien to its natural one, such as a horizontal hovering and soaring.”
In a small studio, hardly big enough to swing a coat, the artist dreams of dancing. Because the space is restricted, she consoles herself by dressing up in richly patterned, theatrical garb (a faded drndyl skirt of boiled tailor’s canvas, stencilled with a pattern borrowed from Bakst and Diaghilev). She sits on the floor cutting pictures from magazines with a kitchen knife, making templates for future works (sculptures as pictures and back again). Around her stand the heavy, grey limbs of an übermarionette, built up of sections and interlocking 2D planes.
Disembodied, inanimate legs in elegant heeled boots wait to take the stage, but when the time comes they will move slowly, carefully choreographed players. Rising up to the rafters, past wainscoted walls in tongue and groove, the glossy grey boots will hang, precariously suspended. Endlessly elegant, yet somehow absurd, the boots are Esther Williams fractured and abstracted, out-of-synch in the water, up not down. These props are embedded with a distinctly aphoristic quality, an economy, but not an absence, of narrative.
Back in the studio the artist is conflicted: what to wear next? What to draw? A peasant dress like Augustus John’s Dorelia, or something more urbane? Isadora Duncan in a long red scarf? A readymade sportswear outfit – Marie Chabelska in Parade? A herringbone suit teamed with a wavy hat? She must look the part for her performance, a simultaneous poetry piece by a West Country girl dressed as Zurich Dada.
In the theatre, a Modernist Teatro Olimpico, ply and cardboard give way to concrete – an unwieldy, permanent and porous beauty. Packing crates from the Hôtel Biron are stacked in the orchestra pit, boxes and platforms flank walls bearing empty heraldic symbols – Japanese mons with no meaning, decorated sheds with duplicitous facades. Through the proscenium arch, the artist ‘becomes a space-bewitched creature… each gesture or motion is translated in meaningful terms into a unique sphere of activity.’
She is Margaret Morris in Missoni, Moira Shearer in concrete boots, each movement a Merz tableau, each step a lamp-lit polka, in time to Satie.
Oskar Schlemmer, ‘Man and Art Figure’, The Theater of the Bauhaus, Munich, 1925, p.28 (1961 Baltimore edition)
Oskar Schlemmer, ‘Theater’, The Theater of the Bauhaus, Munich, 1925, p.92 (1961 Baltimore edition)
In a Glaswegian salon the head stylist held a wigged dummie head in front of his customer and snipped her own matching hair into shape. Human head and dummie head had exactly the same cut now.
“There is something in the clear smooth surface of mirror and chromium which makes them a perfect background for those careful and scientific processes that lie at the root of modern beauty,” his customer read aloud to him. Looking at her in the mirror he nodded and sighed and teased the hair, peering closely at his work.
And as he teased he daydreamed of a world more beautiful and more macabre.
Follow the scientist not the science.
Follow the lips not the kiss.
Follow the lover not the love.
A flicker of colour appeared. He looked up and blinked against the piercing light to make out advancing figures. Five girls in a chorus line practiced kick step in hooded jewelled jumpsuits. As perfect as yellow stitching down dark blue jeans. Fit, dash and line. Amberina wore her coin dress and shook her wavy hair. The grace at which she moved remained a vivid memory. He looked into the mirror and saw handsome beauty go by. She glided through the place fixed on her destination, her canvas slippers squeaking on the polished floor.
There was a picture of the Baronness as she posed in profile wearing a neat black helmet, black and white zebra body patterned costume, one arm flung back for emphasis. She stood for the future, for passion, for dancing, for her cult, for pleasure.
Follow the science not the scientist.
Follow the kiss not the lips.
Follow the love not the lover.
Into the dream a guy appeared, blond hair, dressed in pale blue denim. He smiled and introduced himself. “Come on” he said, “Come on, lets go watch Dan Graham videos in the Neue Gesellschaft fur Bildende Kunst library.”
written for Sophie Macpherson, Solo exhibition at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, 2004