About The Cover

September – October 2009 About The Cover

BY Lyle Rexer, September 1, 2009

There is no type of photography more intensely real than fashion photography. That might sound strange given that fashion plays on the conventions of desire and routinely transgresses the borders of fantasy. But photography’s runway-related task is to convince us that the occasion of our desire is actual, and that the object of our longing is real and obtainable—if not by us then by someone, at least. So the encounter with fashion yields not the mere staging and manipulation of the photographic image but a revelation of its essential character: an ambiguous document whose power to convince springs from its mechanical relation to the world. No wonder, then, that the International Center of Photography has devoted the past year to the genre and is concluding with Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video. “We wanted to provide some distance on what has come before, to show not fashion photography per se but rather what artists are thinking about the phenomenon,” remarks Christopher Phillips, part of the curatorial team of four that assembled the exhibition. The 34 selected artists are thinking in ways that are deeply ambivalent, much more about the social codes and complexities of raiment than about fantasy. If there are ideological poles, one might be represented by the work on our cover, Tanya Marcuse’s image of a 19th-century corset. It is part of her series from 2002–04 titledUndergarments and Armor, which makes an obvious connection between male aggression and female subservience. Likewise Jacqueline Hassink’s video of an auto show with callow young execs, elegantly dressed female sales promoters, and a BMW makes explicit the connection between prostitution, luxury goods, and ideas of masculinity. If their stance is critical, Cao Fei’s is enthusiastically participatory, albeit in a virtual way. She specializes in creating an alternative fashion-oriented world in Second Life, the internet environment. The exhibition features the fashion shoot of her avatar, China Tracy, commissioned for a magazine in Second Life, which has allowed Cao Fei to become a fashion object. Phillips suggests younger artists may be much less critical of the fashion system. “Fashion has repositioned itself as more open-ended, more bottom up as a result of punk,” he adds, “and that has filtered in to contemporary art.” But it may be that artists have become more intensely aware of what is at stake in any form of self-presentation—and not every choice is simply a matter of aesthetic expression. In Yto Barrada’s The Belt: Step 1-9, a woman reveals that her layered clothing, common in North Africa, amounts to a smuggler’s carry-on for transit between Spain and Morocco. No one would dare to look below the surface and violate her dignity, and by agreement, the guards often let these women pass. They know that when it comes to clothes, it’s the person inside that counts.