PRINT October 1996


Darryl Turner talks with Ingrid Sischy and Germano Celant

FOUR YEARS SHORT OF THE millennium we are perhaps accustomed, if not quite inured, to the mongrelization of culture. Is there anyone who still bats an eye at a Vermeer in Vanity Fair, an Issey Miyake gown in a museum, parliamentary porn stars turned icons, or talking turtles christened Michelangelo?

In an attempt to evoke just this cultural climate, the artistic directors of the Firenze Biennale—Germano Celant, curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim Soho, Luigi Settembrini, marketing entrepreneur, and Ingrid Sischy, editor of Interview—hope to create a forum for investigations centered on our ever-mutating perceptions of the body: the varied guises it assumes when seen through the filters of virtual reality, Deleuzian philosophy, and gender-bending.

Addressing the theme of “time and fashion,” this biennial posits that fashion, as a semipopulist laboratory, can reveal the rifts and destabilizations in our self-regard, and increasingly serve as a lexicon rich in possibilities for an alternate envisioning of physicality. Since the opening on September 21, 22 sites situated throughout Florence have housed the efforts of some eighty participants, drawn from various spheres of cultural production. Collaborations between artists and high-profile designers, such as Jenny Holzer and Helmut Lang, Damien Hirst and Miuccia Prada, vie for analysis and attention not only with environments created by over a dozen individual artists and designers—and even dedicated to a pop star or two (David Bowie, an obvious exemplar of such investigations, Elton John’s Glamrock sartorial vision taking over the Regie Poste)— but with exhibition spaces built or transformed by architects like Arata Isozaki and Denis Santachiara. The preexisting collections of the host institutions provide additional contrast and context. Envision Giorgio Armani in the Uffizi, Dolce&Gabbana in the Museo Nazionale di Antropologia e Etnologia, Jean Paul Gaultier amidst the world-class anatomical waxworks of “La Specola.” If the seven thematic divisions that serve as the conceptual armature for the Biennale seem puzzle pieces ill-suited for assembly, in the following interview (held in anticipation of the show), Sischy and Celant explore why this eclectic survey may provide an appropriate handle on our evolving visual culture.


DARRYL TURNER: How did you select the participants in “Il Tempo e la Moda” (Time and Fashion)? Are you trying to illustrate particular connections between art and fashion? Or did you just pick work you’re interested in?

INGRID SISCHY: First, I want to emphasize that we’re not illustrating anything. Ultimately, this exhibition is oriented toward discovering things about fashion and art, and even questioning preconceptions. It would be very boring to do an exhibition to prove a point. What we’re doing is putting certain fashion, certain objects, certain ideas, certain systems, including history, on display. Ideally, that will give rise to a whole series of observations and questions. At the same time, we’re creating environments for people in the arenas of art and fashion who have parallel interests, or who clash rather sharply, to have a dialogue through work.

DT: So you’re inviting people not objects.

IS: We’re creating an atmosphere for those who are interested in thinking about fashion and art and identity, and all sorts of related issues, to spend a little time focusing on these subjects.

DT: So most of the art will be created for this exhibition?

IS: Some of it. I think our role here is nonacademic—although parts of the exhibition are curated by fashion historians and art historians—Germano being one of them. Me absolutely not being one of them. There are guest curators; there are historians; there are writers; there are artists; there are fashion designers; there are architects. There’s a huge combination of people here. Our role is primarily that of artistic directors.

GERMANO CELANT: Being a team of two, really three directors, including Luigi Settembrini who is our liaison with the city of Florence, is good. I’m handling the curatorial aspects. I know how to deal with museums; Ingrid knows how to deal with creative people.

DT: Given the variety of sites, how do you think that the context provided by the Uffizi or, say, the Museo Zoologico “La Specola,” with its anatomical replicas, will affect the reading of the new works?

IS: The exhibition is divided into seven main sections. One takes advantage of the preexisting collections of the venues we selected—which include the Uffizi, the Museo Nazionale di Antropologia e Etnologia, as well as the Museo Civico di Prato—where there will be installations by designers such as Armani, Dolce&Gabbana, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, Todd Oldham, Donna Karan, John Galliano, Richard Tyler, and others. Another exhibition involves pinning down what is happening now in art and fashion and what has happened before. Inside the Forte Belvedere there will be a large historic show that demonstrates the rich history of art and fashion. Outside there will be seven new pavilions, designed by Arata Isozaki; each of these pavilions will feature a collaboration between an artist and a designer. This exhibition is divided into two parts: a historical one and one that is meant to generate a dialogue about what is going on today. The collaborations involve a variety of combinations, such as Jenny Holzer and Helmut Lang, Damien Hirst and Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander and Mario Merz, Gianni Versace and Roy Lichtenstein. Then there’s an exhibition at the Pitti Palace devoted to Emilio Pucci, a native Florentine, who transformed fashion with his signature prints, which have enjoyed something of a renaissance of late. The fifth is an exhibition of Bruce Weber’s photographs, which is to be an anthology of his work. Another exhibition will be in the Stazione Leopolda. That one’s called “New Persona/New Universe.” For this exhibition we have invited designers to create their own galaxies, as it were. Each galaxy is intended to represent the essence of their vision. Interspersed among these galaxies will be art that represents the idea of a “new persona,” by which I mean the contemporary self, the stuff that deals with gender issues, sex, race, stereotypes, psychology, history, etc. Finally, there’s a show involving Elton John, and an exhibition titled “Habitus, Abito, Abitare” linked to the Center for Contemporary Art.

Our third artistic director, Luigi, has worked in Florence a long time—it’s very much thanks to his relationship with the city that we actually have the chance to use all these museums. The reason we were so interested in the museums is that one of the drawbacks to contemporary fashion is that it comes out on that runway: boom, bang, it’s over. It’s only after everybody’s dead and gone that they schlep out the Balenciagas and put them in a museum. Lord knows, the mechanism for showing contemporary art isn’t much better but it usually stays on the wall longer than 35 minutes. At least you can step back and take a real look at it. It seemed that simply in order to provide the opportunity to look at fashion, without presuming to defend or worship it, we needed to set up this sort of situation. These museums seemed the very place to create the kind of atmosphere we’re talking about. They are not sterile spaces. There’s an uncanny contemporaneity to some of these places. Take the “Specola” museum. The flayed wax figures in its collection really speak to our contemporary consciousness, our obsession with looking into the body—whether we’re talking about Damien Hirst or about AIDS. It’s the most contemporary place I’ve been in for quite some time.

DT: So you’re talking about different ways of looking at the body?

IS: A lot of the time, right. In addition to so much contemporary art seeming to want to touch or parody or critique fashion, there are specific designers who are actually taking on issues of the body, who aren’t being discussed in that manner in the fashion world. While fashion editors talk about black being in or out, or hemlines, or skirts versus pants, someone like Jean Paul Gaultier may not give a damn about all that. Instead what he may really be trying to deal with is the effect of AIDS on pleasure; or, let’s say, the new liberations that are possible. So he puts skirts on boys, but not to push skirts, to push boys. When you see the fashion and museum section of the biennial, there are very specific placements that curator Franca Sozzani (editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue) has made, and then some that have the spontaneity of a John Cage installation.

DT: Will there be video? Will you relate photography to fashion? There is so much you leave out if a dress is presented on a mannequin behind glass. How do you address the social and performative dimensions that are completely integral to fashion and may be utterly extrinsic to painting or sculpture?

GC: How do you do an exhibition that not only deals with the garment but with the philosophy of fashion? It was to address that question that we decided to do this biennial. In many ways, fashion has to fight against the same prejudices that photography came up against one hundred years ago. First we had to assert that fashion is a serious, creative language, which is a question of representation, right? You can’t do it simply by showing a dress. It is the same problem as with photography: How do you get beyond the documentary, illustrational aspect?

IS: The garment can be beautiful, but that is not all that fashion is. Fashion is the experience.

GC: We don’t want to say art is fashion or fashion is art—that’s not the case. But how can we push the exhibition to express philosophies, languages, cultural systems, ways of thinking, ways of acting, ways of succeeding, ways of influencing, ways of cross-pollinating? To give it a historical framework, we said, Okay, since Futurism art has been dealing with the garment; take Dalí, Sonia Delaunay, and Man Ray—they show fashion but not in a traditional way. That history shows that fashion is a part of contemporary language. Top couturiers—Paul Poiret, Mainbocherwere always buying de Chirico, supporting the avant-garde. This affinity is what we wish to examine, not just the product that goes on the catwalk, but how fashion designers create, how they think.

IS: Germano quite rightly said that fashion hasn’t really been looked at as a living, serious language. The Met will, once in a while, do something in the basement. But you know, c’mon, right? These subjects deserve the same kind of serious explorations that other contemporary forms of expression get—and by the way, we’re embracing the idea that some of it is a nonserious language. The last thing in the world that we’re trying to do here is put leaden feet on it by becoming defenders of fashion. What we’re interested in is freeing up these issues so that they can be thought about with more liberty. Fashion puts things together with enormous liberty. Just look at a press release for a show.

DT: What they think they’re describing or being inspired by?

IS: It’s the wildest experience imaginable. Talk about intellectual collage. There’s a piece of this, a piece of that; there’s a reference to this historic figure, to that culture. Very mixed-up, very contemporary. This freedom to mix, and to get things wrong, was one of the things that intrigued Germano and me about Japan. We were both at Artforum and after we put Issey Miyake’s part bamboo, part “armor,” part cowgirl dress on the cover, we made our first trip to Japan. In the West people were obsessed with the same old way of looking at issues. With all the appropriation going on the debate was still stuck on this old notion of originality. The thing that was so amazing for us to see in Japan—in a living, nonacademic way—was a contemporary culture that didn’t have that problem; there was a freedom to put things together in a way that opened up new vistas. You don’t have a fixation on originality if you don’t have Judeo-Christian culture beaten into your head and with it the idea that one God is supposed to have been the original creator of everything.

DT: It seems to me that one of the issues very germane to your project is the way in which non-Western cultures do not make the same distinction between fine and applied arts as we do.

IS: Precisely.

GC: Another point is that after Warhol, after Pop, everything was suddenly on the same level. So what we’re seeing at the end of the millennium is the conclusion of a certain way of thinking and living. Curiously, if you look back to the beginning of the century, it was exactly the same. So that’s why you can have two perspectives in this show. One is, naturally, from past to present; the other, vice versa. This sense of many things being on the same plane is reinforced by using venues throughout the city, underscoring urban dispersal, which is a physical reflection of an intellectual eclecticism.

DT: One of the most salient things about the parallels between art and fashion is the way in which an object is accorded value. A Yohji Yamamoto T-shirt is perceived differently from a Gap T How interested are you in how particular objects become imbued with a rarefied aura, with potentially specious value?

IS: Those questions are addressed by the nature of the system we’ve chosen. In fashion’s natural environment one is always dealing with this label system. Here, each designer who’s involved is making something for the exhibition. So they are choosing to present what they consider the essence of their vision. They might make an object, they might deal with language, or they might do something that is fashion. Sometimes if you look from rack to rack there is a lot of overlap from one designer to another. But if you really have an overview—20 years or so—or an intensified view, you can differentiate among various designers.

DT: Speaking of fashion and its environment, what about the nature of the relationship between fashion and pop music? Why did you choose to devote an exhibition to Elton John at the Regie Poste?

IS: He is a public figure who exemplifies the relationships among identity, image, clothes, performance, social politics.

DT: This brings us back to the arena of appropriation. How is a Sherrie Levine Rodchenko different from a similar flea market photo? How do knockoffs in the fashion industry affect the perception of value? How does “street style” nurture or intrude? Issues of scarcity and authorship are inherent to both systems.

IS: Perhaps such questions will be part of the biennial. But truthfully, they haven’t really been the areas that we’ve perceived as the most interesting in terms of what’s going on.

GC: I think I can attempt to answer some of what Darryl’s asking. In the case of art, you know to look for something beyond the painting: Cézanne is doing volume, or de Chirico is doing this strange kind of metaphysics. What I think we tried to do here is reveal fashion’s symbolic layer, the method. So if somebody is a “minimalist,” maybe he’ll show only a roomful of light—like a James Turrell. We try to bring out what lies between the languages of art and fashion.

DT: What about street style? When you’re walking through Washington Square Park and you look at what people are wearing you see all kinds of style gestures that later turn up on the runway. Will the biennial address this part of fashion directly or only as it is filtered through more or less high-end designers?

IS: What you’re saying is of course true. But I’m not sure there’s much to discover from putting it on display in an exhibition. The world has been laboring under all these clichés of what fashion is, of what art is, when there is in fact so much underneath and behind these imaginations that has truly changed the visual landscape that surrounds us. It’s going to be really interesting to see where there are overlaps between the two systems that one wouldn’t have expected.

DT: How much of this kind of hope on your part was expressed directly to the participants?

IS: We articulated the general idea, the general goals, and the general themes. Beyond that, we just left it open. If someone wanted to make something and hadn’t had experience with a certain material or fabrication, we offered our resources to help them realize their idea.

GC: We described our conception of the relationship between fashion and the historical avant-garde; the ideas within “New Persona/New Universe”; the interest in experimentation; the hope that people would feel really free to create something; the reasons we were organizing collaborations. We encouraged people to take off from our ideas in any way they wanted to. As a little bit of an indication, I might say, Please don’t do a boutique.

IS: But we didn’t want to overdetermine what they might do.

GC: No, we’d say, you have this amount of physical space, for instance. The idea was not simply to go and see another dress, but to get at, for example, what Armani’s vision is.

IS: He’s in the “New Persona” section. Twenty years ago he made it possible for women to go to work and not feel like they were tarted up as if they were in bimbo drag. He changed everything for professional women. In terms of the cultural stuff we’re looking at, that really matters.

GC: In “New Persona” it will be interesting to see that, in the end, the body can be said to belong to the artist, and the vision to the fashion designer, or the other way around. In a sense, the artist will furnish the body, and fashion—which functions as a second skin—a philosophical layer.

DT: It seems that one of the things you’re doing with this structure is respecting those who work with the vocabulary of fashion as artists, rather than regarding the product as art. You’re allowing the product to take any form.

IS: We’re not trying to be conclusive; we’re not able to include everyone we respect; we’ve isolated a few subjects that we think are particularly dynamic at the moment. We’ve pursued this biennial without feeling like it has to be definitive, defensive, or overdetermined.

The Biennale di Firenze runs until 15 December.

Darryl Turner is a New York-based conceptual artist and photographer.