This Space is Mine

Today we continue our week-long series Force of Failure with John Galliano, Natalie Portman and Vito Acconci in this week’s L.A. Expanded Column.

FORCE OF FAILURE: DailyServing’s latest week-long series

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

John Galliano, 2009.

John Galliano has a lavish-sounding last name (he shares it with an Italian liqueur), and lavish taste (“He knows, and we know, that no one would ever wear a 12-foot-wide crinoline over a baggy pair of printed drawers with, perhaps, a pair of plastic carrier bags on the feet,” wrote Sarah Mower for That he would also take a lavish approach to outbursts, uttering a line of anti-Semitic epitaphs instead of just one or two, isn’t that surprising. So when, days before Paris Fashion week began, Galliano, the first Brit to head a French couture house, let his God-complex spin out and became, at least according to certain headlines, a dissolute failure, his fall seemed more irksome than surprising.

What’s happened since has been predictable; it’s exactly what happens when someone who’s found a certain niche of notoriety takes an egregious misstep and everyone sees. Dior let Galliano go; Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss  urged him into rehab; then pregnant, pixie star, Natalie Portman, the antithesis of the punk designer in deportment and pedigree, became unwitting spokesperson against anti-Semitism in general and drunken fashion gurus in particular, refusing to stay on as face of Dior fragrance if Galliano stayed on, too.  (In an effort to defend Portman’s spokeswoman clout, articles keep noting that her great-grandparents died at Auschwitz, a serious fact that this fiasco almost trivializes.)

Rodarte, "The Black Collection," 2010. Courtesy MOCA.

It had been rumored, probably baselessly, that Portman would wear Galliano to the Oscars two weeks ago. Instead she wore simple plum Rodarte. Which is more or less where this string of who-did-whats has been heading: the work of the Rodarte sisters, whose somber idiosyncrasy recalls the Brontës, is the subject of a current exhibition at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center. Presented by Swarovski (yes, of the crystals) and curated by Rebecca Morse, Rodarte: States of Matter features a selection of dresses from the designers’ recent Fall and Spring collections and a few costumes designed for the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan.

MOCA PDC fares much better when it remembers that it is the satellite of an experimental contemporary arts institution and not a history of design museum. It rarely does, however, and it’s installations too often stray toward the pedantic. But Rodarte: States of Matter tries too hard to push the other way, going to great lengths to present the gowns as sculptural experiences and thus making it a battle to appreciate them as design at all.

Vito Acconci, "Claim Excerpts," still. Courtesy Whitney Museum.

Vito Acconci, still from "Claim Excerpts," 1971.

Downstairs, Rodarte’s Black Collection is darkly lit and hung in the center of a black painted room. You have to get close to see the the raw alpaca wool that climbs up a mannequin’s chest toward the shoulder and the tulle that twists in on itself like nautical netting after a storm. Upstairs, the lighting is at first severe and all-exposing, but then it flashes black and the dresses from the White Collection glow like they would in a bowling alley.  This theatricality doesn’t give the clothes the credit they deserve–after all, they’re gorgeously crafted objects, with a pre-Raphaelite gentility that butts up against a DIY scavengery—or doesn’t credit viewers with the ability to understand Rodarte’s drama without the help of special effects.

But as with Galliano, the MOCA exhibition fails only in stark contrast to success–it fails because it could have succeeded. That’s the most common, prominent kind of failure. It’s also the dullest, the kind that can be explained away and potentially remedied.

The last time I was in a room as dark as the one that now holds Rodarte’s Black Collection, I was at Emma Gray Headquarters, a tiny, narrow, bird’s nest of a space perched above the corner of La Cienega and Venice. Performance artist and photographer Dawn Kasper was re-inhabiting Vito Acconci’s 1971 work Claim, wearing a black hoodie, wielding a pipe and sitting blindfolded in a candle-encircled corner.

During the original Claim, Acconci, also blindfolded, sat at the bottom of a stairwell in the basement of a New York gallery with a crowbar, two pipes and and relentless tongue at his disposal, “claiming the space.” Any time steps approached, he’d swing his pipe, and threaten to kill. “I’ll stop anybody from coming down here in the basement with me,” he’d say, his outburst far less viscous but more ominous than any iteration of Galliano’s. “This space is mine.”

Kasper sat at the same level as her audience, not below. And her piece, more about wondering what could have compelled or propelled a performer like Acconci, lasted an hour to Acconci’s three. Carol Cheh of Another Righteous Transfer recorded pieces of Kasper’s intermittent monologue:

I want to be aggressive, I want to be convincing, I want to claim this space . . .  I am alone in this space . . . but I don’t really want this space . . . I don’t want to be him, I am a woman, I am claiming my own space, my own honesty.

“My work was about getting to a place that you couldn’t get to,” Acconci said recently, looking back on earlier performances. In that sense, Kasper’s Claim succeeded by failing–failing to get somewhere she never could have gotten anyway.