by Robert C. Morgan

Taking the A Train to Brooklyn one morning last week afforded me the opportunity to see lots of casual wear — over-size jeans, baseball caps, hooded sweatshirts, warm-up jackets, XXL T-shirts — all with a full array of prestigious designer labels, including Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and Hugo Boss. The quality of the attire was not stylish — at least not from a Wall Street perspective — nor did it appear particularly well-made (at least compared to Tommy Hilfiger who specializes in this kind of attire). So I began to ask: What was the purpose of these gargantuan logotypes emblazoned so tastelessly across the front of XXL T-shirts and other related sports attire?

The answer to my question came in the late afternoon upon my return from Brooklyn. At Fulton Street I changed from the A train to the number 5 Express going uptown. There I noticed a distinct difference in the clothing being worn by the passenger clientele. Instead of casual sports attire, there were blue pin-stripes under heavy woolen top coats and gray-breasted business suits all coming from the financial district in lower Manhattan. This official-looking crew of quasi-entrepreneurs were, in fact, wearing the attire that — dare I say? — the folks on the A train were advertising.

The official-looking crew on the number 5 Express represented what in semiotics might be called an implicit order of signs, while the folks on the A train were wearing signs of a more explicit order. This is to suggest that the system of fashion is based on a currency of agreement exclusive of taste, and that there is a certain unconscious reciprocity which is needed within the social structure in order for the system to exist. The means of promotion in the fashion industry occurs through a highly sophisticated set of signifiers which function in direct relation to the some of the more sensitive aspects of our social psychology. But, of course, the fashion system, like any other system, wants to survive, and, therefore, is interested in its own self-preservation.

By the time this article appears in the pages of REVIEW the $50,000 representing the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize will have been awarded to one of the six artists currently exhibiting their work on the top floor of the downtown Guggenheim. Promoted in the Press Release some weeks ago as The Short List, the six artists that were selected to be shown include the following:

1) Yasimasa Morimura — the Kabuki-inspired photographer who uses digital manipulation to construct, what in current theoretical discourse is called, masquerades by impersonating Hollywood movie actresses. Some observers have noted that Morimura is Japan’s answer to Cindy Sherman. If you miss the Guggenheim display, you can see some of the same large-scale prints at the current Luhring Augustine show, or vice versa.

2. Cai Guo Qiang — Probably the most interesting artist nominated, which means he is unlikely to get the award. His enormous room-size installation is called Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, 1996. Qiang has installed an ascension of bloated sheep skins, moving from floor to ceiling, using a set of three old Toyota car engines to suggest their transcendental propulsion into space. Undoubtedly there is an important, culturally-specific set of symbols here — a language with which I am not familiar — even so, the impact of the work is undeniable in its emotional presence.

3. Stan Douglas — I have seen this artist’s video installations before,and they have a lot to do with politics, history and the ideology of culture. The work seems intensely theoretical and, some would say, visual. At the Guggenheim, Douglas is presenting a video work called Nutka, 1996 in which overlays of image and text deal with man’s intervention into nature. He has another room of photographs related to the video.

4. Matthew Barney — Having seen the video/film Cremaster I, it was impossible not to recognize the related photographs, objects, and drawings in "self-lubricating" frames. Recognized in Germany, I am told, as the most popular American avant-garde artist, Barney has devised an ingenious way to extend his metaphors through multiples related to his famous film. Cremaster 1 is convincing to the extent that it projects a fixation of some type, a choreographed scatology, suggesting primal play with all its technological trappings, and stealthily symbolic, perhaps, as a clever arrangement of newly discovered feces. Everything looks rigidly clean and things keep dropping out of small (or ever-widening) apertures. I had never considered the displacement of a football as a turd before encountering the work of this artist. Some, however, interpret his work as a discourse on androgynous sex.

5) Janine Antoni — An artist known for cast busts made of chocolate and soap, Antoni has been weaving the silk from her nighties into a distended "blanket" of much coarser material. She has been working on this "concept" periodically over the past three years, sleeping in various prestigious museums in Europe and the United States, in order to record her REMs (Rapid Eye Movements) on an electroencephalograph in order to transpose these rhythms as the graphic design for the blanket.

6) Laurie Anderson — This famous recording artist has four ambitious electronic installations of various scales — all from 1996 (one being a re-make of an original from 1975). The biggest of the four is something called Dancing in the moonlight with her wigwam hair. It is an electronic, black and white installation with lots of pulsating movements, symbols and signs, typical of her work over the years, humorous, charming, yet also coy, smart, and cynical. Her music suggests a holding pattern, as in the airplane that circles around on a diagonal armature, with occasional bits of white dust falling over it, representing snow, one would gather. The message is a negative one, a sad one, a distanced expression seemingly mythically entranced with the effects of media and how media has determined or constructed who we are in spite of who we think we are. Again, it’s ambitious in form, but repetitive in content.

But what is the point of the Prize? Why is it necessary to name it after Hugo Boss, despite the fact that the funding for the prize is donated by him? It would seem to have something to do with the promotion of the fashion industry through contemporary art and, concomitantly, the promotion of art through fashion. It would seem to be about maintaining the status quo of the marketplace, of keeping certain artists within an exclusive range by creating an aura of exclusively. It is a prize that binds art to fashion as if to suggest that there is no distinction between the two. It is about the quick register, the electronic imprint, the logo that repeats, and then disappears.

If contemporary artists continue to use the fashion industry as their model — both formally and conceptually — as they has been doing under the aegis of such misleading terms as Neo-Conceptualism, they will eventually cease to have any status of their own. If art becomes stultified through the programming of change according to supply and demand, and if artists refuse to take a position which enhances intimate feelings in relation to ideas as communicated through a context, then we have lost something essential to understanding the richness of living in a truly multicultural world. Instead of visual art and the Fashion Industry, perhaps we should become naive again — naive enough to consider that art exists, that it has the potential to empower and liberate human consciousness; and through this deliberate and purposeful naiveté to say that instead of programmed obsolescence and business as usual, and the ultimate boredom of a universe of logotypes and empty signs, we have Art as a signifer of a better world, as a utopian sign that fosters the release of positive energy at a time when we so desperately need it.

Copyright ©1996 Robert C. Morgan & REVIEW All Rights Reserved

Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, artist, art historian, curator, and poet.
He is the author of Commentaries on the New Media Arts (Umbrella Associates, 1992), After the Deluge: Essays for Art in the Nineties (Red Bass Publications, 1993), Conceptual Art: An American Perspective (McFarland, 1994), and Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, forthcoming 1997). He is a Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Visiting Professor at Pratt Institute and the School of Visiting Arts in New York. Dr. Morgan lectures regularly and is a frequent panelist on a variety of contemporary issues in art.