Undermining Codes

By Zellen, Jody | Afterimage, March-April 2010 | Go to article overview

Undermining Codes


Zellen, Jody, Afterimage


The Third International Center for Photography (ICP) Triennial is a survey exhibition that attempts to redefine how die idea of fashion is interpreted. Entitled "Dress Codes," the exhibition is a culmination of a year of fashion-related shows at ICP that included such historical and contemporary exhibitions as "Avedon Fashion 1944 2000," "Edward Steichen: In High Fashion," "The Conde Nast Years 1923-1937," and "Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now." "Dress Codes'' is also ICP's third triennial exhibition their way of bringing together a diverse group of international artists under one specific theme. Unlike other venues that try to include multiple mediums in biennials (e.g., the Whitney or Venice), ICP limits the type of work shown to photography and video. That definition must now include the catch-all "multi-media/new-media" terminology and in "Dress Codes" new media is represented through a project by Cao Fei that takes place in Second Life. It is evident that there are historical precedents or all the artists chosen, making it necessary to identify a common trajectory through time in order to make connections between old and new. While the critique of an exhibition is not necessary about tracing influence, no one work in a vacuum. The political nature of much of the work is one of the most daring and striking aspects of the exhibition, To favor content over aestheties is rare, and the curators of this exhibition were adamant that much work speak in the political and social issues of nations while perhaps using the guise of "fashion" to do so. The range of work is as expansive as the uses of the mediums. One challenge with a large group exhibition is how to allot space and how to justify the discrepancy of the number of works shown by each artist. Some artists are given whole rooms or walls, while others are represented by a single work. How is it possible to evaluate a single piece by an artist like Barbara Kruger or Stan Douglas when it is seen in relation to a suite of works by artists including Valerie Belin, Olga Chernysheva, or Miyako Ishiuchi? Nonetheless, the organizers of the exhibition should be commended for the diversity of their choices. Citing statistics does not change the quality of the work on view; however, it is important to note that there are more women than men among the thirty-four artists, and eighteen countries are represented.

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The exhibition catalog begin, with a selection of fashion photographers artists who are not, but could be, in the show, selling the tone that the works are all situated in history. Among the older artists in the show--all of whom are women--are Silvia Kolbowski, Kruger, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons. Why these artists? Most are associated with the "Pictures" generation and, Other than Sherman, fashion is not typically associated with their work. Using their oeuvres as a point of departure, however, it is possible to forge connections with the rest of the exhibition. Although many of these relationships are obtuse, it becomes an interesting exercise in identifying influence. Breaking the work down categorically by influence, appropriationist strategies are the most, prevalent in the still works. Kruger and Rosler have influenced generations of artists who have taken montage of found images and text as a point of departure, It is a pleasure to see these artists in conjunction with works by Wangechi Mutu, Kota Ezawa, and Hank Willis Thomas. Mutu juxtaposes images of African women from a postcard book entitled Women of the African Ark (2002) with images taken from fashion, pornography, and other printed documents found in popular culture to discuss issues around women's sexuality and its representation. Ezawa begins with images from the IKEA catalog and reduces the originals to blocks of bright color. His works comment on the desire for mass-produced products and the ease with which these objects can be reduced to basic forms.

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