The Fabric of Felicity exhibition examines the unexpected roles that clothes play in the home, workplace and society at large
Why do you wear the clothes you do? A new show in Moscow explores just that
An installation made from the second-hand clothes worn by members of the Rohingya community and other minorities shares space with one assembled from garments in shades of blue to depict the waters that claimed the lives of refugees fleeing to Europe.
Elsewhere, a printed flag features the “autographs” of a Piedmont wool factory’s female workers, while a video shows students of a naval college marching through St Petersburg carrying miniature snow-white dresses. Welcome to the Fabric of Felicity.
The exhibition, which is taking place at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow until January 27, 2019 displays mixed-media works by 40 artists from five continents. The pieces were selected after research trips that stretched all the way from Sweden to Bangladesh, by way of Russia and Italy.
Members of the Soviet and Brazilian underground art scene are featured alongside contemporary creatives from Japan, Zimbabwe and the United States. The curators say they want to remind visitors that even the most powerless groups still have the ability to express themselves every day by choosing what they wear. The exhibits look at clothes as statements of personal and political intent, as uniforms and as symbols of mass movements. For example, Artist Yuichiro Tamura’s collection of baseball jackets decorated with traditional Japanese embroidery were commissioned by the US military during the 1950s Korean War, while Sharon Kivland’s installation of curiously clad foxes and deer interprets the dress codes of the French Revolution. Red ribbons symbolise what participants wore to “victims’ balls” – receptions held for the relatives of those guillotined.
The theme of attires of dissent is also explored by American artist Farrah Karapetian, who uses photograms of hoodies and sneakers in her Accessory to Protest series.
The uniform is a subject of many works in the exhibition, being as it is a prime example of equality and unity in attire – a rare combination outside the workplace. From military and medical personnel to the clergy, uniforms at once create clanship within a group’s members, which is a step towards equality. However, it can also lead to alienation from other groups. Whether or not that’s a good thing is left open to a viewer’s interpretation.
Another part of the show is dedicated to the birthday suit. Accordingly, the show includes a performance of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which the performer’s clothes are at the mercy of an audience equipped with a pair of scissors.
Nudity is also placed in the context of “vestimentary codes” through the works of three artists. The first, Mexican documentary photographer Pedro Valtierra, uses it as a synonym for poverty and honesty through his artwork Gold Miners from Pachuca de Soto. The piece captures the 50 miners who chose to undress in the middle of a strike in 1985, in protest at their barbaric working conditions. The second artist represented here is American Jimmy DeSana, a key figure in New York’s punk art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. According to DeSana, men and women become aware of their biological differences through dress codes symbolised by the commonplace coat hanger.
And finally, Soviet conceptual artists Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin’s 1977 photographs portray Adam and Eve wearing sackcloths that have the contours of the male and female body painted on them.
Cross-cultural references are also made through the loose pairings of some of the works. For example, Endless Sari, an Indian folk painting based on the epic Mahabharata is juxtaposed with Buried Treasure (1994), by American artist Beverly Semmes. The former references the humiliating disrobing of the princess Draupadi, while the latter features a figure in a black dress with a red X on its back – a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman is forced to wear an embroidered A (for adulteress) on her clothing.
Consequently, as one travels from the starting point of the show – the museum’s cloakroom to the main exhibition space, all the way to the Garage bookshop – it quickly becomes apparent that, despite the pointed meaning and message of each individual exhibit, paradox lies at the heart of this show. The dichotomy between work clothes and non-professional attire, for example, as exemplified by the uniforms on display. Or the role of clothing as an uplifting statement of self-expression as well as a tool for singling out or punishing perceived outsiders.
A personal favourite is South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Night of the Long Knives. Visually, the print shows a colourful, carnival-like scene, complete with a balloon-clad woman on a zebra. Symbolically, it refers to the labyrinths of identity after the end of apartheid. The balloon outfit is armour against the tales that right-wing politicians told to frighten South African citizens after Nelson Mandela’s death in December 2013, about the “night of long knives” that black people would allegedly organise against whites.
Fabric has been used as a metaphor for social life since the time of Plato, and the physical aspects of attire is put alongside its social meaning in this exhibition. Fabric of Felicity takes its name from a passage contained in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s 1789 book on ethics.
In it he posits the principle of utility that produces what he calls “the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law” – felicity in this case being the level of happiness in a given society. The modern-day Fabric of Felicity captures our yearning to be seen, heard and, indeed, happy and safe, right from the birth of civilisation to the selfie-ridden digital age.