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#embodiment #performance #fashion #commerce #beauty #ReiKawakubo

Given their constant presence in our lives, we think surprisingly little about our bodies. When we do, we are often thinking of ways to make them less body, more commodity. For women in particular, the body is the site of our social acceptability and our abjection. Fashion is how we navigate that landscape. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has proposed that the true challenge of the present cosmopolitan landscape, in which many disparate groups must adjust to living together, is not in navigating “difference” but in negotiating disagreements around the relative importance of a set of values in relation to one another: “Even if we share a value language, and even if we agree on how to apply it to a particular case, we can disagree about the weight to give to different values.” [1] If, as described, the prevailing values of fashion idealize and commoditize the female body, Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo emphasizes material and formal investigation, interaction with the body through movement, and building self-esteem. She takes this commercial, aesthetic medium and uses it sculpturally, advancing difficult ideas about beauty, embodiment, and access. Kawakubo’s radical reshuffling of clothing’s function, purpose, and form is the work of an artist, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition, Art of the In-Between, demonstrates.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Gallery View, Clothes/Not Clothes: War/Peace. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo. Clothes/Not Clothes: War/Peace; installation view, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, 2017. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beauty, for women, is a devil’s bargain. Little can be accomplished without it, given that society values women’s bodies most as decorative objects and least as active agents of consciousness. Though few women can conform to the strict social expectations of beauty, all are consistently encouraged to spend significant resources of money and time on beauty products, rituals, clothing, and accessories. Enter Kawakubo, whose creations show that rethinking the values that traditionally govern fashion and commerce can produce subversive results. Her clothes operate in the reified realm of desire as couture objects while making the female body “ugly” in every way imaginable. They quote copiously, and hilariously, from the history of aristocratic fashion, annihilating conventions of idealized physical form to instead dwell on the extreme, unexpected, and grotesque. If the expected relationship between the body and fashion requires both to submit to a regime of commodity fetishization, the relationship between the body and Comme des Garçons is one of symbiotic augmentation, two parts that make a greater whole.

16. Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Gallery View, Self/Other: East/West. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo. Self/Other: East/West; installation view, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kawakubo gives little weight to the usually prominent values of comfort and flattery. Many of her outfits restrict the body, particularly the arms. A hooded, armless black sweater invokes a massive shroud but also makes the wearer resemble a grade-schooler pulling her head and arms inside her shirt. Jokes about craft are tucked in throughout the show. Billowing gowns are made from materials usually used for blocking and lining, such as craft paper and unbleached cotton ducking. A skirt that looks like an inversion of a suit is mostly cotton ducking with a bit of blue serge wool showing through at the seam. In other collections, layers of richly embroidered and printed fabrics juxtapose contemporary and historical textiles, drapings, and silhouettes. The infamous 1990s gingham dresses with large tumescent protrusions are featured along with a video of Merce Cunningham’s dancers performing Scenario, a dance choreographed to be performed in the clothes, in which the dancers’ angular movements contrast with the rounded forms.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Gallery View, (from left) High/Low, Model/Multiple, Fashion/Antifashion, Design/Not Design.  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo. From left: High/Low, Model/Multiple, Fashion/Antifashion, Design/Not Design; installation view, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shrouding of the head and shoulders is an ongoing interest in Kawakubo’s work. The famously private designer invites her wearer to literally disappear into many of her creations. Arms, legs, heads, torsos—these specificities no longer matter. “You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit,” say Deleuze and Guattari.[2] The Deleuzian turn in Kawakubo’s work resides in her lack of interest in consistency of a conventional sort, either historical or material, while maintaining what the French philosophers called “the plane of consistency specific to desire” [3] that characterizes the Body without Organs. Unlike the “organism” that represents an organized system, such as a shirt with one hole for the head and two for the arms, the Body without Organs “constitutes the ontological unity of substance.” When a consciousness is fully integrated—when we make ourselves a Body without Organs—the layers or strata that make up a personality such as upbringing, cultural background, race, class, and education can no longer be picked apart and individually analyzed. The internal and external givens of the body, such as limbs, torso, genitals, intestines, lungs, blood, heart, brain, are not experienced by embodied human beings as a collection of discrete parts. The body is an integrated unit, a mind–body totality, moving through the world as a sometimes-incongruous thing that simply is.

17. Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Gallery View, Object/Subject. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo. Object/Subect; installation view, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The female body is regularly objectified in fashion (as in every other sphere of social relations). Women often forego comfort for beauty, for example wearing towering heels or enduring scorching hair and skin treatments. Deleuze and Guattari: “The masochist’s suffering is the price he must pay, not to achieve pleasure, but to untie the pseudo-bond between desire and pleasure as an extrinsic measure.” [4] Kawakubo’s lack of interest in flattery should not be mistaken for an aversion to sexuality, or to suffering, as some of the clothes render the body alluring in surprising and potentially painful ways. Crucially, desire is decoupled from external validation, freed from the approval or disapproval of others. A bloomer and bondage-straps getup is topped with a Peter Pan collar, recasting Victorian repression and reverence for childhood as a costume for a modern, flirty woman. The history of aesthetics is likewise rewritten to make explicit the imperial violence carried within. In this, her work parallels other forms of midcentury popular Japanese art such as manga, in which restrictive and sexually problematic social mores are rewritten to accommodate liberatory female desire. Bright red “blood” spatters, heaps of black mourning lace, embedded with children’s organza dresses, lumps of felt, and massive swaths of fur—all challenge the distinction between organic and inorganic, between living and dead, between a caress and a violation.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Gallery View, Clothes/Not Clothes: Form/Function. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo. Clothes/Not Clothes: Form/Function; installation view, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Deleuze and Guattari challenge the reader to invent a Body without Organs made of desire and intensity, a social body in which intentionality and self-awareness seamlessly produce new forms of being, disentangled from the imposed order of old histories and old hierarchies. Once you have made yourself over in this way, you are in control of what you embody and what you enact in the world you inhabit. The ideal Body without Organs manifests “immanence,” a kind of embodied spirituality that is rooted in the unified self, and can be felt as a powerful energy by others. Kawakubo shows what that ideal Body without Organs might look like. It could be strange, seductive, awkward, and effusive. It might be a dress for two, or a coat that swallows your head. Freedom for the body might even, for the uninitiated, resemble bondage.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 4, 2017.

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