Show Neon Fashion

From the most recent edition of the journal Left Curve (No 29)

Show Neon Fashions
Accompanying Exhibition/Catalogue Essay for: JOOYOUNG LEE (with CART The airport) Dec 2003 to Jan 2004. Art Space Hue, (Seoul)

Fashion! Turn to the left
Fashion! Turn to the right
Oooh, fashion!
We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town
Beep-beep (Bowie, Fashion)

Consider what it is to show fashion. The words have a hint of glamour, and a hint of guilt. Guilt and gilt. For many, including the egotist, the exhibitionist, the extrovert, there is always a mild embarrassment at having to show, having to attract attention, showing-off. And there is also a charge, a thrill in the dress-up razzle of performance, of exposure, of risk and sensation. Because the show must go on. Advance. (On with the show, more and more sensations).

It is often difficult to examine something right in front of you in an open honest way. And this is inversely related to the fragility of that close something. Exquisite objects in a room. A plethora of ideas. The show archives such a wide range of our anxieties that it must be significant.

Anxious feeling. Hesitation. Coy and Halting. The reservations of the self-declared publicist are sometimes a part of the act. Don’t be fooled by the bright lights. One mustn’t be too forward. Show by not showing that you are showing, there’s the trick. The display is ironic, the engagement contrived. Wink. Blink. To put on a show, to make a show of it, show and tell, knowingly. There is a well known injunction against secrecy – yes, on with the show, show-all, tell us true. The metaphorics of showing are well developed in English, as in other languages. We show, demonstrate, reveal, prove, illustrate, explain, confirm, display, parade, exhibit, act, flaunt, expose, bare, exemplify, at a fair, an event, the extravagance of it all.

Appearance itself, like show has multiple meanings – to put in an appearance is a representation that doubles. To appear as one is, and to appear as something else. To put in an appearance on the stage is an act, or not. We should not overlook how to show something may also be to show by proxy, to dissemble, to appear as something else. Crazy diamonds.

I remember something called ‘show and tell’ from school. Each student had to bring an item from home to display before the class and tell a story. I always brought pets. Cute, but pointless really. They may or may not have won me friends – a lizard, a rat, a snake – or told them anything about who I was or how I wanted to be (don’t judge me from this bestiary) but this was one way we learnt to show ourselves. This was a version of hide and seek, for audience and artists, and its no more sophisticated than what we are doing now – looking at material on show, and wondering if what is shown reveals itself and tells us something which may or may not be intended, may or may not tell us a story. This structures our cultural life – the lifelong elaboration of the old fort-da game the child plays with mummy. But we often have our hands over our eyes so we cannot see what we are missing.

Representation – are these works on show re-presented fashion by context or design? We would have to ask how they display (show or fashion) their previous presents, how they carry meanings, contexts, how they show the marks, how they fashion thought and views, of here, of elsewhere. Carry them with them to the new ever new fashion shows of our desire. In this fissure the works themselves show up the fissured character of show business, in showing. Fashioning means shaping, means creating – the fashionista has a distance from the fashioning of the works, and the workers, who are practiced at this art of showing, they have done it before, tried this over and over. Showtime.

So as everyone here knows – no business, no show – the movement of art and ideas from the rarified space of the gallery into some form of commercial space is not the first time the distinction between business and art has been questioned. This topic itself is really in fashion. And just as surely art has always been a ritual showcase of power of fashions – the idea that the galleries were somehow separate space was always an illusion. The logic of the administered society required illusionists, but it was fake nonetheless.

What does all this have to do with the appearance of certain works in a certain space. Each asks a question. Why are these works on show now? Why did they show up here? What are we intended to see? What is revealed? What hidden? What looks important, what not? Where to look so we see just what is supposed to show up with this show?

The participation of some artists in ‘art’ spaces adjacent to or within commercial spaces, with corporate sponsorship, continues an established mode of showing work, but it is one that reveals much. The corporate sponsorship of art is questioned at the moment when it is extended to hitherto unimagined levels of the integration of corporate interest and product placement in ‘art’. Of course commercial concerns have long wanted to be seen as, to show that they are good citizens supporting independent artists and ideas. The explicit critique of this has become boringly routine. Can we show it another way – cutting up the product for example, foregrounding product placement in another? Drawing the viewer into new relations with objects? With ideas? With spaces? With showing?

What of the multiple senses of fashion and show? Verity, to reveal something in its originality. Or copy, to represent by substitution. Or do we need to think through this show more or less laterally, stooping to draw the curtain to this show, to see there is nothing shown here, there is no substitution, no division, only the raw show, the show on display – only what s left exposed on the end of a fork, as William Burroughs had shown us in Naked Lunch? Nothing to see. No show. Neon residue.

But we know this is show business – the emphasis on the second word in this single phrase no longer merely reveals to us that art is a business. There is no show and no fashion without the entire apparatus of grants, funding, organization, contacts, galleries, venues, studios, schools, commentaries, cameras, critics, criticisms, articles, books, bookshops, libraries, footnotes, catalogues, history – an enormous institutionalized and globalising apparatus, a web of interconnections and archival depths, variously ordered. The fashion business is huge, convoluted and controlled. So we know something is going on here. We know we must make sense of the show, to extend it beyond the apparatus to meanings, to see what the business of showing shows.

Convulsed by rituals, the show pretends to separate itself from its context, from the apparatus, from the connection – but it does this at the same time that it stresses them, shows the connections, dines out on them. Makes them visible.

But all this remains philosophical if we do not examine how the fetish character is strong in showing. And we are deceived by the show that does not show more. The displacement of ideas onto objects reflects the fetish of both sexuality and of the market. Things stand in for their others, dissemblance rules, truths are illusions. But visibility leaves too little to the imagination, one needs to think in order to see. Blink. The monotonous stare of convention and compromise can only be cut, as with the razor that cuts the eye in Un Chein Andelou’s most provocative scene, only with a violent rupture. Power is so strong in vision it takes a great crisis to show something else. There are two possible exposures, or more. Let’s cut to these, to see what this show also exposes.

Showing through all this is a hypocrisy that will feed us art in the days of generalized terror. Auschwitz has been generalized for every occasion. And we are encouraged to look away, to know only the most minimal facts about the destruction of the Palestinian people, the direct effects of the bombing of Afghanistan (rubble sifted into sand), Iraq and the rape and death that attends today to Baghdad, the abandonment of the Kurds, the deaths in Turkish prisons, the detention camps in Australia (asylum seekers seen as invaders), the HIV holocaust in Southern Africa, the floods in Bangladesh (annual death tolls beyond calculation), the resource extraction that decimates Papua New Guinea, the demonization of North Korea (news for a week in the west, displaced by the next show), the dictatorship in Burma (not solved by offering Nobel prizes), the civil rights violations in Britain and the US (under guise of the new anti-terrorism bill we have detention without trial) and almost everywhere else (the internal security act in Malaysia, detention without trial) and so much more. Too many signs show there is a new totalitarianism abroad and we do not wish to see that it is also there amongst us, we do not want to be shown the horrors amidst which we live. Hidden in the light, we go about our business as if it wasn’t there, as if our complicity with all manner of new persecutions did not show us up as the storm troopers and camp commandants of world spectacle that we really are. We’d rather just go to a show. Its just fashion. The bright lights shine on you. Blink.

The world of spectacle under Empire – be it of Nero, or the Raj or of the Reich – is no less total because it offers 120 channels and luxury condominiums next to halls of culture. The branded injunction to enjoy the fashion show is the new sound byte of jackboots on your face. There has never not been a time when the choices not made and the examples not examined were simply omissions overlooked. There is so much kept deliberately out of focus, so much behind the scenes. Is it so ugly that we dare not see, or is it a fear of having nowhere left to look once the facade has been brushed away? Perhaps we Emperors are naked once and for all, exposed and cold – no-one cares to say, no-one moves toward the gate upon which the slogan declares that our work shows that we are free … blink. Fashion.

Inspirations for the above:
Adorno, T. The Culture Industry, and Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra

John Hutnyk