PRINT May 1992


FASHION IS A MYSTERIOUSLY MUTABLE PHENOMENON that nevertheless supplies the visual cues that indicate a society’s conceptions of taste, class, power, and gender. For Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, it is a singular preoccupation and a source of inspiration. Fleury is openly guided by the latest trends, reveling in the fascination that she and countless other women have with the artifacts of fashion, particularly clothing and its accessories. She lives her life much like that of a fashion victim, reading all the relevant magazines (Vogue, W, Elle, Glamour, etc.), shopping whenever possible, and never missing the seasonal couture shows in Paris. But rather than passively follow fashion dictates, Fleury turns her seeming victimization into a creative act that underscores the fact that, in our society, pursuing fashion is still the most acceptable form of creativity for women. While Fleury does acknowledge fashion’s contradictions— its simultaneous demands for conformity and encouragement of individuality—she prefers to focus on its overwhelming influence: “It affects everyone, whether you follow it or react against.”1

Shopping is the means by which one actualizes the continuously changing fashion ideal, and it is a process that has motivated some of Fleury’s most notable works. Fleury shops as a normal part of her life and then uses her purchases—as is—to make her art. As such, one can see her work in the context of Fluxus performance, but absent the anarchy.2 Her shopping also places her art at the center of recent feminist discourse that no longer denies gender difference and instead concentrates on taking control of the typically “feminine” activities that earlier feminists proscribed. Shopping, the stereotypical female pastime, which has been referred to as a “woman’s opiate,”3 is not repressive if, in fact, it gives women a sense of power and potency. In the hands of Fleury, it represents this form of empowerment, an action in direct opposition to the passive reception of visual images.

In her first installation, for a group exhibition in Lausanne in 1990, Fleury contributed the first of a series of “shopping bag” pieces. Its title, “C’est la vie!,” is taken from the Christian Lacroix bag that functions as its centerpiece. These bags, of different shapes, sizes, and colors, emblazoned with the logos of mostly upscale shops, were filled with the products purchased during one of Fleury’s shopping sprees and then arranged on the floor in a tight grouping.

On the surface, “C’est la vie!” might be read as a critique of capitalism, consumerism, and class; or these things might be the remnants of an exhausted shopper who has “shopped till she dropped” and left her purchases on the gallery floor for a cultural interlude. Without excluding the first reading, Fleury’s sense of humor and admitted attraction to the “realness of things” would suggest she prefers the latter. Shopping bags are, Fleury says, “fetishistic objects” that inherently mean “nothing but are made into something.” Like many of her post-Modern colleagues, she takes an empirical rather than a theoretical or critical approach to her art, letting fashion alone determine her artistic choices. She emphasizes that her work is “nonrestrictive” and, therefore, open to multiple interpretations, all of which she believes are legitimate.

Fleury’s influences are, however, heavily drawn, and with obvious intent, from the art of the past thirty years—particularly from Pop art and Minimalism. And, like that of many of her contemporaries, who similarly borrow from the recent past, Fleury’s art is part parody, part all-out cheekiness. As an exemplary student of the masters, she has understood the crucial elements of their language: the seductiveness of popular culture, the found object’s power to evoke a semblance of reality, an esthetic that deconstructs the aura of Modernism. But rejecting the mastery of the masters, Fleury takes what she has learned and throws it back in the face of high seriousness.

Fleury’s shopping bags recall, in process, the nonsites of Robert Smithson and, in imagery, the highly charged icons of Andy Warhol. Formally, their placement on the floor makes one think of Minimalist or arte povera installations. Her work also shares with arte povera a feeling for the spontaneous gesture that characterized so many of its early works, for example the rag piles from the late 1960s of Michelangelo Pistoletto. But Fleury’s accumulations of mass-produced or found materials are more literally an “arte ricca,” a rich art at the opposite end of the scale in value from that of her Italian predecessors.

In another bag piece, from 1991, Fleury took 40 Chanel shopping bags, filled them with bottles of the men’s cologne Egoïste (also the title of the work), and lined them up side by side on a cloth-covered table. On one level, Egoïste suggests that fashion victimization and the ability to be seduced may be, contrary to common opinion, genderless phenomena. More obvious, though, is the piece’s equation of Chanel’s package design with the elegance and formal purity of Minimalist sculpture. In making this connection, Fleury not only highlights the close relationship between fashion and art, but points to the male self-centeredness characteristic of both. As contemporary ideals of “femininity” have, in the main, been determined by male designers, so it was male artists who developed and defined Minimalism’s rhetoric of power.4

In Egoïste Fleury also plays on the notion of the signature, using Chanel as exemplary in its development of a signature style and logo to promote product recognition. Perceived as exclusive and expensive, the Chanel logo represents an elusive entity to be pursued; it gives value to the objects on which it appears and, by association, to those carrying or wearing them. This form of seduction is essential to the role of fashion and advertising as maker of signs—signs that first convince consumers of their lack and then promise to fill the void with the purchase of a particular product. Not unlike the work of Allan McCollum, which exposes these same tactics as applied to the consumption of art, Fleury’s art manifests, par excellence, the art object’s subsumption by a consumer-product mentality.

In another group of works, Fleury has shown how a location (a city, a street, a neighborhood) can, in combination with a signature, reinforce an object’s seductive power. People-watching in a hotel lobby one afternoon, Fleury noticed that the shopping bags carried by the passing throng prominently featured the location of the boutiques they advertised as well as the name or logo. This observation led to Vital Perfection, the first catalogue/artist’s book documenting several of the artist’s shopping-bag pieces, which was published in 1991 by Galerie Philomene Magers in Bonn. The cover, which simulates the style of Chanel packaging and advertising, is a bright but not fluorescent pink, with the title “Vital Perfection” and, on the bottom, “Milano Paris London” dropped out in white. Appropriating the title of her piece from the rhetoric of contemporary beauty—“Vital Perfection" is a line of Shiseido cosmetics5—Fleury exposes the impossibility of meeting fashion’s dictates. In reprising the names of the three European fashion capitals, in much the way Chanel does in its product design, she also reveals the ways in which such a marketing strategy capitalizes on the urban sophistication that these cities embody, encouraging the fantasy that the purchaser might share in it. And this aura of sophistication is more than skin-deep: activating a distancing mechanism that separates the haves from the have-nots, it reveals the unspoken system of codes underlying power relations in our capitalist society.

Fleury admittedly takes a humorous view of culture and this is often reflected in her choice of materials. She is particularly attracted to synthetic fur because it is used to make stuffed animals (“they are cuddly and sweet and a friend to advertisers”) and because it represents the fashion world’s nod to ecological concerns. In a 1991 installation titled Cuddly Paintings, Fleury made a group of rectangular shapes out of neutral shades of synthetic fur and mounted them on stretchers of differing sizes. Hung randomly on the blackened wall, the works, again, invoke some of the essentials of Minimalist practice—industrially produced materials used in serial repetition—in a parody of Minimalism’s moralistic purity.

If Fleury’s frequent use of luxury items raises questions of intent, one must see her art practice in the context of the fin-de-siècle malaise that characterizes much of the art being produced by her generation. Typified by their usurpation of the Duchampian ready-made, these artists are adamant about seeming noncommital; to them, content has become a dangerous thing. Her objects do make obvious references to class, but for Fleury, social position, including her own comfortable place within an upper-class social structure, is just one more subject to parody. Without an overt agenda, she is instead satisfied to keep up with fashion in a single-minded pursuit of what makes our consumer culture tick. And while one might be tempted to overemphasize Fleury’s detachment or lack of criticality, it is perhaps more interesting to look at the associative value of her work: the cord it strikes for women, both feminists and nonfeminists alike; and its evocation of the problematic, yet fascinating, relationship between art and life. As it is, life in the 1990s is for many a pretty uncomfortable fact. Fleury’s art may be just the perfect answer to the decade’s woes; after all, when times get tough, the tough go shopping.

Elizabeth Janus is a writer who lives in Geneva, Switzerland.



1. All following quotations of the artist are taken from a conversation with the author, January 1992.

2. “One might say that ultimately the purest form of Fluxus, and the most perfect realization of its goals, lies in performance or, rather, in events, gestures, and actions, especially since such Fluxus works are potentially the most integrated into life, the most social—or sometimes anti-social, the obverse of the same coin—and the most ephemeral.” Clive Phillpot, “Fluxus: Magazines, Manifestos, Multum in Parvo,” in Fluxus: Selections from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988, p. 13.

3. Susan Brownmiller, Femininity, New York: Ballantine Books, 1984, p. 99.

4. See Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64 no. 5, January 1990, pp. 44-63.

5. Interestingly, Shiseido’s latest line of cosmetics, for spring-summer 1992, is called “minimalisme.”