Disobedient Bodies @ Hepworth, Wakefield

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Elongated arms reach below the ankles, faces are covered in fabric and costumes cling to one another in a bid to become one. The fashion on display at Jonathan Anderson’s Disobedient Bodies exhibition at the Hepworth in Wakefield do not conform to what we would usually expect to see in an exhibition. Where mannequins are often stiff and rigid, Anderson’s dummies are often hunched over and contorted in strange positions. They don’t adhere to any standard ‘rules’ or ‘notions’ to display or decorum.

Jonathan Anderson has been quoted as saying: “art is looking at fashion, fashion is looking at art.” Anderson, a fashion designer for both his eponymous label JW Anderson, and Spanish house Loewe, is the first to curate an exhibition in a series of upcoming shows at the Hepworth in Wakefield, which will be directed by individuals who work outside of the fine art discipline. Anderson’s starting point when working on his show began, with inspiration from Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore to help ask whether fashion is art. Over two years, Anderson selected pieces from the museum’s own collection of modern British art to create a dialogue with his own personal collection of artwork and fashion to produce a conversation between the two art forms. The resulting exhibition has resulted in an immersive display of over 100 items of fashion, sculpture, textiles and video that wonderfully bump into and away from each other, so that the viewer has no idea where fashion ends and art begins, and vice versa.

We are welcomed into Anderson’s exhibition by Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, 1936. The wooden sculpture is surrounded by a series of photographs by Jamie Hawkesworth. One of Hawkesworth’s images almost perfectly mirrors the hunched pose of Moore’s figure, though the sitter before Hawkesworth’s lens is clothed, where Moore’s subject is nude. The subjects in the photographs all appear to be positioned in awkward stances in unusual outfits, which comprise multiple layers of textures and prints. The unconventional stature and sartorial style captured in these photographs, runs throughout the exhibition, with Giacometti sculptures on show beside designs by Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen.

It seems clear to me, that the ‘disobedient bodies’ on display have been placed under the control of the garments that they have been clothed in. In Lamentation, a remarkable colour video from 1935, Martha Graham moves her body hypnotically within a tube of vibrant purple fabric, although the material restricts her movements, forcing her fluidity to become rigid and somewhat inflexible. Elsewhere on display, pieces from Comme des Garcons appear as flat displays of red, blue and black like cardboard, one could hardly imagine the possibility of anyone wearing them. These flattened pieces of clothing surround a giant steel face in the form of Head No. 2, 1916 by Naum Garbo. The sculpture looks as though it has been slotted together in several pieces, much like an item of flat-packed furniture or origami.

The Japanese influence displayed through the presentation of Comme des Garcons is also on show with the inclusion of designs by Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. In fact Miyake’s famous pleats have even made their way into the pieces of fabric that hang from the ceiling to section off different parts of the exhibition in place of the usual gallery walls. Designed by 6a architects, the exhibition space at the Hepworth has been divided by fabrics from he JW Anderson archive to allow the space to feel more like a home than a museum. The textiles that dissect the exhibition also enables the material aspect of the display to be as unrestrictive as the poses that the clothes have been put in, freeing themselves from the mannequin and escaping to walls and furniture.

While sprinklings of Jonathan Anderson’s own designs run through the exhibition in his clear, plastic Loewe designs and bright knits, they are not at all the focus. In fact, they play homage to the designer’s biggest influences and have been allowed to stand modestly behind Sarah Lucas’ Bunny works of stuffed tights and Kawakubo’s knotted, padded, fabric monsters. The only constant is the banishment of the body; none of the mannequins have heads. Perhaps the human figure was so unruly, that it has been barred from the exhibition altogether. Or maybe, the removal of the face was intentional to draw more focus to the limbs.

In one space, JW Anderson designs hang from ceiling to floor in the form of 28 elongated jumpers. The dangling arms have been allowed to entwine themselves, as the viewer is encouraged to interact and touch the exhibits. Behind these sweaters are more photographs by Jamie Hawkesworth. This time they depict local children from Wakefield dressed in the garments on display in the exhibition: “ultimately, clothing is to be worn, there is a physicality to it and that’s what I want people to feel – the colour and the motion”, says Anderson. Thus visitors have repositioned the clothing so that the knitwear is holding hands. This was my personal favourite part of the exhibition. It appears that the audience at the Hepworth is rather affectionate. When I visited this particular part of the installation was radiating warmth, at one point, the stretched jumpers appeared to be so in love, that even their waists were wrapped around each other.

Away from London and into Yorkshire, Northern Irish Anderson has made the exhibition accessible to a different audience. This unrestricted engagement with the fashion on display also moved into other parts of the show, where viewers are allowed to sit on chairs designed by Eileen Gray and Gerrit Rietveld. There are no labels or wall text, so the visitor spends more time looking at the objects as opposed to reading about them. While the exhibits are numbered, with explanations provided in an accompanying leaflet, Ben Nicholson is able to merge into Christian Dior without any overcomplicated lecturing, resulting in a free display with no answers, but prompt plenty of questions, as Anderson has said: “I’m not here to give anyone a history lesson…these are just objects that send me crazy.”

Disobedient Bodies is an immersive display of colour, texture and distortion. Blurring the lines between art and fashion, Jonathan Anderson has created a wonderful display that throws out all the rules and allows the audience to create new ones. I would urge anyone able to get to Wakefield to visit the exhibition as soon as they can.

Disobedient Bodies is on display at The Hepworth, Wakefield until 18 June

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and also writes for After Nyne, Ibraaz and Reorient.

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