The Shock of the Now Issue 57
Featured Text
(Don't) Explain Yourself!
5th October 2022

This past Sunday, the cream of the fashion crop crowded into Paris’ Parc des Expositions de Villepinte for Balenciaga’s Summer 23 Collection catwalk, entitled The Mud Show. The presentation consisted of post-apocalyptic posturing from a host of models - among them Ye, Bella Hadid and painter slash Anne Imhof muse Eliza Douglas - sporting make-up mock-up body modifications and blusher bruises, with the collection itself veering from tactical gear to evening wear, and accessories including crisp bag clutches, singed teddy bear backpacks and Ron Mueck-ian imitation infants.

Greeting each visitor on the seats that surrounded the muddied no man’s land-scape was a statement from Balenciaga’s creative director Demna. It opened “I hate boxes and I hate labels and I hate being labeled and placed in a box.”, before putting forth a one-page manifesto on identity, truth and the state of the fashion industry. It ended with Demna’s dramatic denouement “I’ve decided to no longer explain my collection and verbalize my designs, but to express a state of mind. Fashion is a visual art and all we need is for it to be seen through someone’s eyes. Fashion in its best case scenario should not need a story to be sold to someone. You either like it or not.”

That same afternoon, revered visual artist Tai Shani took to Twitter with a similar statement, saying “I really want to change the way I work, research based projects are not for me anymore not sure who they are for really apart from being helpful towards a flattening or an absolute quantification of practice. Often it’s a very thin veneer of intellectualism that covers awful art.”. After taking aim at art schools and lamenting ‘laughable research framework’, Shani concluded, “I had my first show in 2001, I’ve spent 22 yrs carefully architecting an ‘intuition’, 2023 is the yr I release it without justifications.”. 

It appears, therefore, that going forward we’ll be hearing, if not seeing, a lot less from Demna and Shani, although perhaps choosing conceptual silence is an easier option for artists who have already built successful, seemingly stable, creative careers previously sustained by plenty of ‘saying’. I first saw Shani’s tirade through the lens of many a shared Instagram story from other artists, expressing sympathy, solidarity and feelings of being ‘seen’, and I have since spoken to plenty of young artists who share the sentiment. However, it is of course much harder for emerging or early-career artists to stay quiet when it comes to their output. As, with a market increasingly investing in fresh talent and an overcrowded art scene as it is, many feel the pressure to perfectly package their practice from the outset and be able to articulate their ideas in succinct soundbites that best exemplify their intelligence, artistry and aptitude. This jump to immediate ‘justification’, as well as the rise of conceptual or research-driven art more generally, is actively encouraged by art schools, no doubt due to the evident economic benefits encountered by alleviating the cost of materials, workshops and equipment in favour of discussion or dialogue-led crits, where artists are demanded to defend their ideas and artworks ad infinitum. 

Balenciaga’s Mud Show, as well as Demna’s supporting show notes, purports to present a ‘metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth’, but the staging, collection and designer’s denial of any future dialogue appear to instead embrace nihilism and impending anarchy. It also comes at a time when Demna is under increasing scrutiny about how to reconcile fashion’s often crass commercialism with his own interest in advocacy and in particular his continued commentary on the current Russia-Ukraine war, supported by lived-experience as an adolescent refugee following his family’s feeling of Georgia during the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict of the early 1990s. It should be noted that the muddied setting was designed by much-censored Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, most infamous for a performance piece which saw four drug-addicted sex workers consent to having a 160cm line tattooed across their backs in return for a single shot of heroin each (documentation of the artworks currently resides within the Tate collection). In the past, Sierra has had a well-publicised penchant for anonymity, supposedly to avoid promoting the cult of ‘artist as personality’, but one can imagine it also allowed for the advantageous diminishing of responsibility and accountability.

The timing of Shani’s statement is similarly conspicuous, given that the artist is on the verge of her first ever commercial solo exhibition following years of financial supporting her practice through teaching and institutional plaudits such as winning, jointly, the 2019 Turner Prize. The upcoming exhibition will present the third instalment in her Neon Hieroglyph series -  moving-image works based upon research into the ergot fungi from which LSD is obtained -  alongside more sellable artworks such as wall-based sculptures and watercolour paintings. Meanwhile, someone who clearly feels that they have a lot of explaining, or justifying, to do it is Shani’s fledgeling gallerist Alex Flick, who in a recent interview with The Art Newspaper was open about the origins of his own financial position, revealing that he “comes from a family of wealthy German industrialists whose eponymous conglomerate used forced labour from Nazi concentration camps.”.

At their core, both Demna and Shani’s words echo an acceptance of the prevailing post-truth philosophy, that humans are now more likely to accept an argument (read 'artwork’) based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts. So while I support and agree with both statements from Sunday, and respect their right to speak as much or as little as they want about their artwork, I think such a stance is perhaps too easily taken from a position of, admittedly earned, privilege. I guess I hope that it might allow others the opportunity to engage in explanation or justification how they see fit; to when needed or wanted make art for art’s sake; and to operate within the art world in a way they feel comfortable.