“Wild women” are surrounded by skulls and bones, attired in skins and leather, crowned by stag horns, birds heads, and tokens of powerful animals, they look as their allies in the underworld. The music alternates between the marine sounds of whales with pounding breathing, while on top of this cavern the blue oval screen projects the image of a mermaid dressed in sequins and emeralds, floating on the water. She is a mystic figure, mother earth, nature: beauty and uncertainty.
This is one of the amazing rooms that compose the magnificent exhibition of Alexander MacQueen: Savage Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). The exhibition is ingeniously curated, by a talented team led by Senior Curator Claire Wilcox, weaving a sort of chronological approach with different “stories”, told through images, environments, dressed mannequins and music, creating a sensorial impact on the visitor. It shows the genius of this artist, whose life was prematurely cut by his suicide in 2010. Seeing all his work together, it makes me realise how he offered a complex vision of contemporary topics on female body, post-colonialism, spectacle and even climate change: From the industrial environment of cold concrete where exquisitely military embroidered dresses and jackets seem to march on a precise rhythm, to the regal representation of imperial Britain in bright red uniforms vibrating by golden candelabra, toward the most excessive aspects of armoured ladies, computer generated dresses or floating kimonos; this exhibition really takes you through the genius of this artist, that made of dress, fashion and performance a new form of art.
For this post I’d like to highlight Alexander MacQueen’s re-creation of three main topics on my own personal interpretation of eco-feminism: the notion of beauty; the perception of the natural world; and the gendered politics of the female body.
Alexander MacQueen said that his notion of beauty contradicts the common vision of “pretty”. For him, beauty is not about pleasing, but moving. His models indeed are actors in a theater of the raw emotions, and many times he just picked up models in the street just because they fit his aesthetics for a particular show. The shows were criticized because of the “raw” nature of emotions depicted: the sometimes cumbersome and oppressive masks, armours and cages used, but the use of these tools make sense when we examined the notion of the sublime, a central idea in the development of aesthetics in western philosophy. The “sublime” was first defined by Edward Burke in 1757 referring to the power of nature/events/beauty to “move”, to inspire “awe”, “ecstasy” and even “fear’. This is a powerful notion that influenced the development of aesthetics as a separate dimension of the philosophical questions about the nature of reality, our perceptions and the world surrounding us. This notions of sublime, can be appreciated -said Burke- through close encounters with the abysmal in life and nature: the might of a sea storm, and the subsequent crystalline calm; the raw fight for life in natural life; or the potential of death as inspiring certainty for living a full life.
The second big theme is the connection with the natural world as represented by a constant reference to nature, biological forms, fossils and the cycle of birth and death. His work constantly referred to the biological and the organic, the connections to a wild world and the risks of a predatory system of destruction and contamination. From his earlier works, he refers to the natural wisdom of powerful animals and totems, the vestiges of a battle where humans destroy all around them. But it is perhaps in his latest work -just before his untimely death in 2012- that he addresses the consequences of climate change in a direct fashion. In his latest work, Plato’s Atlantis, the artist referred to the mythical city of Atlantis, which according to Plato, was submerged following a volcanic eruption. The collection seems to embodied MacQueen preoccupations with the aquatic but also with issues such as climate change. For many, this is his most accomplished exhibition, mixing contemporary design, mastery craftsmanship and his ongoing passion for the aquatic. In this exhibition, shown at the Palais Omnisports de Paris in October 2009, the main motif was a film of a woman mutating into an aquatic creature: she lay prone in a sand filled box, and writhed in ecstasy as snakes slithered over her naked body” (Wilcox, 2015: 85)
There is something savage and primordial with this exhibition, and yet, it was realised through complex technology, individual printing of complex patterns and the show itself in which robotic cameras present the movements of the models while surveying the audience. I cannot avoid thinking on the resonances of what could be seen as a challenge to the “ecological modernization paradigm” which relies on the promise that “technology will sort out climate change” (e.g. electric car, solar energy equipment, drones, etc.). While it is possible that technology actually can provide some answers, the problems go beyond the devices, into questioning modes of production, consumption and the very concept of “development” as “growth”. It is perhaps time to come back to that awe of nature, and thus, the possibility of living with less?
This connection is particularly meaningful for my work in connecting art with sustainability, the need of creative ways of understanding pressing issues such as climate change, consumerism, waste and depletion of resources. Moreover, in the consideration of sustainability there is strong stream of work relating it with gender issues, in big themes like eco-feminism. This is indeed a contested concept, as many of their proponents disagree, but it is interesting for the discussion on sustainability in the sense of including social issues, cultural aspects and the consideration of power. For some eco-feminists -Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies and Evan Bondi-, the patriarchal context favours a culture of predation and consumption, that may be balanced with a more nurturing approach to the questions of development. This vision acquires a mystical connection as a Mother Earth view of nature, a recognition of the Wild Feminine and also a very activist approach, as many women artists have embraced what is called “eco-feminist art”… a fascinating topic for further exploration! In anycase, this thread on feminism is actually beautifully realised through MacQueen’s about the female body.
From his earliest shows, MacQueen questioned fashion as “feminine adornment” to take clothing into more complex territory of empowerment, vulnerability and politics. His early show about Jack the Ripper and wounded Victorianas, was criticised as a celebration of violence against women: the models were dressed in ripped clothes, dripping with blood and hanging para-genitals. As many, I too disagree with this statement. As the artist said many times that his approach to clothing was to empower women, to make them fearless and inspire fear to others. In many of his works, the models are armoured, covered in scales or tokens of power. Sometimes, they are vulnerable, too much as to denounce the oppression of the body: and hence revealing a prevailing “regulation” and “administration” of the female body: exerted by patriarchal values, capitalistic consumption or sexualised consumerism.
All of these issues may not be evident at a first sight, or by taking individual shows or clothing, but the opportunity to see his work in such a comprehensive way reveal the genius and contemporaneity of his vision. Perhaps he was truly ahead of his time, using new technologies, but referring to old structures, subverting the notion of spectacle, using fashion to denouncing, revealing, protesting against oppressive structures. And thus he managed to challenge and question it through a permanent assault in values and visions, done brilliantly from the very womb of the beast: the catwalk!
For excellent texts and further analysis of MacQueen work, please refer to the wonderful catalogue Alexander MacQueen, edited by Claire Wilcox.