In order to begin my web-blog I think it is necessary for me to explain my reasons for being at the V&A. My role here is as Joint V&A/London College of Fashion Designer in Residence, a position which began in January 2006. My aim is to seek out things that are unknown, misunderstood, misconstrued or forgotten through time. The working title for the project is ‘Le Strange Fruit’.
The origin of the concept began with curiosity about the work of Albert Eckhout, a painter whose work sparked a curiosity about the arrival of exotic exports in the West. I was interested in that nervous excitement or scared curiosity when you discover something for the first time. In trying to understand the idea of such new arrivals, I inadvertently began to question other first encounters, such as the first time that tribal natives had spotted the strangely dressed conquerors from another place. Such a point of view has seldom been documented.
The motivation for my research became clear: I needed to seek out strange elements lurking within the V&A archives and offer a different stance, to uncover elements within the archives that might otherwise never be seen and satisfy the public with things unknown and curious; to challenge popular history textbook-led perception and acceptance, to provide a devil’s advocacy for new views of history: history taken from a totally opposing angle or assumed from an undocumented angle. A cultural resurgence in curators and selection panels in prevalent talent competitions led to a line of questioning about arbiters of taste: Who are justified to select cultural indicators to sum up a time? What if the cultural indicators and all the precedent that we know were different? Who will be considered the cultural indicators of our time in a hundred years from now and who has the right to label them just that? What if Gertrude Stein had never collected Picasso… whom would she have hung on her walls instead?
In seeking to answer some of these questions, the aim is to uncover originators and true creators: their drive and instinct to produce, the obsessive maker or craftsperson and their creations. The work of the Morton Bartlett comes to mind: a producer strangely self-excluded from society; a hermit producing beautifully crafted mannequins of maintained and costumed children disturbingly photographed in moody settings. His ‘secret hobby’, lifetime obsession and artistic ‘importance’ only discovered after a house clearance after his death. Usually misunderstood, cast aside or forgotten, their avant-garde attitude to creation is often discovered too late, misunderstood, suppressed or watered down to facilitate wider-spread taste.
In a similar way, this residency is a positive form of social exclusion driven by my obsession to create. ‘Le Strange Fruit’ is one of the many possible outcomes that can be made from accessing museum archives; I would need to curate my own research elements, cultivate my curiosity for strange objects or stories and reassign them into my own view of fashion.
My residency takes place during a time where the importance of the archives is being questioned by the government. On Tuesday 14 June 2005 The Guardian correspondent Maev Kennedy, wrote that British museums “are being challenged to get their collections on view and in use or to get rid of them…” They question the value of an object in storage for years that is “perhaps uncatalogued, with nobody seeing it, and nobody working on it… at the end of the line, disposal may be the way to go.” How could these archives be deaccessioned when they offer so much? Residency programmes stimulate greater use of these archives and propel design into a new intellectual arena where it belongs and demonstrate the importance of the archives in relation to the development of Art and Fashion. A chance to access entire archives is a designer’s dream and should stimulate depth of research which goes far beyond a pile of photocopies or magazine clippings which is a common approach in fashion education and the industry alike.
This project will seek out things of interest to the label’s philosophy: forgotten things, views or ideas that have changed meaning or relevance over the course of time, a curiosity about strange things which are lost, unrecognisable or uncatalogued. The Claude Glass is one such example: “… these instruments are virtually unknown, even by art historians… only England seems to have retained a few traces of these mirrors. And yet we know that Claude mirrors were widespread… toward the end of the eighteenth century and even more in the nineteenth… How is it that all trace of this instrument has disappeared – or almost? … They are no doubt somewhere in the depths of these collections, buried in boxes, left behind by the vicissitudes of history, curatorial fashions, and the personal historical tastes of the curators, and kept there, quite simply, because of a total ignorance of this instrument… curators, quite embarrassed, label them “‘mirrors’ of unknown use”… The lack of knowledge is sometimes compounded by prohibitions that prevent these objects from being exhibited.” (pp. 27/28 ‘Problems of Naming’, “The Claude Glass Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art” by Arnaud Maillet translated by Jeff Fort, published by Zone Books, New York, 2004.) So far in the residency I have been fortunate to encounter several things whose origins are unknown.
A further interest is the idea of lost language exemplified by Polari which developed through second and third hand accounts of a language, terms of Macaronic value, mixing language to create a new one; copies of copies of copies evolving in meaning, developing its new breeds, the Chinese whisper.
‘Le Strange Fruit’ is interested in society’s outcasts. For example, I seek Leigh Bowery the originator to expose his motivations rather than his public personae, in a way that Patrick Süskind exposed Grenouille the outcast in “Perfume” - a man motivated by his strange drive to find perfection. My interests in designers’ work goes beyond surface interest: I am interested in their motivations and surroundings, things that inspired them daily, the things that caused them to create.
I also wish to add that I am not a theorist and that the outcomes from the residency are products that have grown out my desire to create, my studio. By this explanation, the artist and studio yield a ‘strange fruit’ which mutate as they take on a wearer who in turn becomes a ‘strange fruit’. There is a constant germination of ideas, which grows and mutates back into ‘strange fruit’. The emphasis is on the process: the process itself is one of constant renewal.