It appears that I am somehow unable to post my thoughts on an exhibition whilst it is still open, due to a stupendous combination of busyness, procrastination, and photo-distraction. Not only am I well overdue to write about the NGV's Ricky Swallow exhibition, but I have done the same thing with RMIT gallery's The Endless Garment: The new Craft of Machine Knitting which closed last week.
The exhibition, timed to coincide with Melbourne Fashion Week, was both a celebration and exploration of the creative possibilities created by computerised industrial knitting machines. That sentence in itself sounds a little dry, but the pieces exhibited were anything by dry. Many were deliciously colourful, some were futuristic and unusual, all were technically innovative and enjoyable to look at. Ok, so not the first thing you'd think to wear whilst snuggled up by the fire, but inspiring nonetheless.
With a mother who teaches design, who in turn had a mother who was a dressmaker, fashion has always been vaguely on my radar. I'm not so much interested in trends or specific designers, but more in the way an individual garment has been constructed, and the ideas which are expressed in the final product. In fact one of the very first times I went to an art gallery was as a nine year old, with both mother and grandmother, to see Worth to Dior at the Auckland Art Gallery. Now let me reassure you; I don't have a freakishly good memory. Google came to my aid on that one. But I do remember sitting in the gallery with a little sketchbook, drawing all the dresses. Fifteen years later, I wonder what adult-me would think of such an exhibition. I think that gallery and museum exhibitions of fashion can run the risk of removing the garments from their social and historical context to the point that they are stripped of meaning. Furthermore, the way in which a garment moves in response to the movements of its wearer are lost unless there is some form of video display.
I think the reason the Endless Garment worked for me was that the agressively contemporary nature of the garments combatted any historicising brought about by the gallery context. This was reiterated by the exhibition of experimental works created by the SHIMA SEIKI knitting machines, and of the machines themselves (they're rather funny looking beasts). The inclusion of the machines in the display creates a focus on process rather than fashion; ideas rather than trends. Far from historicising, the exhibition acts as a taste of the future and an instigator for further design innovation.
Another thing which struck me whilst at the exhibition was that the focus on computer aided design and knitting flies in the face of commonly held ideas regarding high-end fashion and the extent to which the artisan's hand should be present in the work. This triumphing of handmade, rustic, craft-based objects is big business at the moment. One only has to try to attend an exhibition opening at Craft Victoria to understand just how big the handmade-movement is in Melbourne. I am not trying to say that I don't like handmade objects. I do! I love Craft Victoria, and I was one of the fools who crammed their way into the afforementioned opening. But I think the handmade movement has a very loud voice, and in my mind, there exists alongside that loud voice, another, quieter voice, which is saying 'Actually, a deliberate pursuit of machines and their creative possibilities is just as interesting.' This is somewhat unsurprising, given that I am writing my thesis on the biggest machine-fanboys of the twentieth century, the Futurists. I could not help but think to myself, whilst watching the SHIMA SEIKI knit away, 'Clothes made purely by machines! Marinetti would have LOVED this!' Who are you calling a fangirl? Ok, maybe just a little. My point is that there are two oppositional threads running through art, fashion, design, even architecture, and I think that both are worthwhile, and the interaction between the two is perhaps the most worthwhile thing of all. And it took an exhibition of machine knitwear to remind me of that. I say good work, RMIT gallery!
PS: For an example of the machine-is-best thread in art, check out Daniel Crooks, seen above.
PPS: photography was not allowed in the gallery, so I don't have any images of the installation of the exhibition, but there are some good photos of it here.