Nothing seems more foreign to contemporary art than a vision of airiness, grace, play, and delight. But it can still be found today, especially beyond the pale of the galleries. It exists in the buildings of Frank Gehry, for example, the architect with such a soaring, quirky spirit. And it lives in the designs of Issey Miyake, the playful visionary whose métier is making clothes. Currently the subject of a museum exhibition at the Ace Gallery, Miyake, in particular, may be the most joyful artist since Calder. What should attract serious interest, however, is that his optimism – while childlike – is not childish. It does not stem from naïveté or an ostrichlike hiding from the world. In Miyake’s work, some of the great divisions in contemporary culture are confronted and reconciled. When he makes a dress, he knits up seams in society.
Issey Miyake Making Things – organized by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris – focuses upon the Japanese designer’s creations of the past ten years. The show itself, however, is more an evocation of his vision than a historical accounting of his work. (The first thing you come upon is a vast, sparkling wall of peeling tin foil.) One room contains what’s called “The Laboratory,” where Miyake illustrates, partly through videos projected onto the floor, the different processes he uses in “making things” – turning two-dimensional pieces of cloth into a three-dimensional piece of clothing. He uses everything from chemicals to computers to achieve his effects; but his processes really seem a kind of alchemy or magical transformation, awakening swaths of cloth to the play of the body. One piece of fabric begins as a shape splayed upon the wall; when treated with a certain solution, it shrinks down around a human form. Another becomes a kind of rippling accordion of flying-saucer shapes. The making of a dress is a kind of birth.
Miyake understands the herd appeal of a common style and loves the idea of blue jeans and T-shirts. But he also recognizes the tyranny of collective style in our culture: the cookie-cutter imposition upon individual taste. One Miyake response is to “craft” a mass style that individuals can then customize. A series of generalized shapes – an alphabet of dress – is impressed into long bolts of cloth; individuals can then scissor them into many different versions. (Some might want to snip a playful fringe onto a bikini bottom, for example, while others will prefer a plainer style.) In one of Miyake’s most startling images – a juxtaposition of the many and the one – he sets up a great unbroken roll of cloth that unwinds like a carpet onto the floor. The cloth rises up and down, clothing several interconnected figures all cut from the same piece, like paper dolls – yet each a little different.
Miyake’s tin foil also reconciles and restores. Tin foil is itself a characteristic modern product with a gloriously cheap, pop radiance. Miyake uses the foil – which is typically employed to keep things fresh – to recycle old clothes. Using a heat process, he sandwiches shirts, pants, and so on between sheets of foil. (The wall of tin foil in the exhibition is actually a collection of rectangles, each of which contains an article of clothing.) Individuals then rip away some strips of foil while leaving others, creating a garment that is raggedly fresh and glittery; the worn-out is resurrected. With this process, a pair of tired overalls looks unique; an old duffel coat turns into something a samurai might have worn. In the real world, of course, few people will walk about in such garments. Which is irrelevant. Miyake dreams of what might be. His elegance is at heart democratic.
The centerpiece of the show is informally called “the jumping room.” Determined to convey the movement of clothes – but unable to use live models and unwilling to rely upon video – Miyake developed a machine that pulls garments up and down from a line attached to the ceiling. This gives the shimmer of life to his celebrated pleats and emphasizes the moving, willowy strength of his designs. But the installation also has a strange life of its own. The space is motionless until a person enters. Then the clothing awakens, like the toys in The Nutcracker. First, a family of garments – a man, a woman, a child – rise up from the floor. Then the other pieces of clothing begin to jerk up and flutter down with an awkward, jack-in-the-box glee; children who visited the show in Paris loved this room. Among other things, the dance is a burlesque of the snobbish poses of fashion and the hard, exclusionary air of the Paris runways. But more important, the clothing appears alive – and whimsically free of the gravity of flesh. A dress can look as innocent as a newborn: Clothing is naked when it casts off the body.
Like many other Japanese artists, especially those touched by Zen, Miyake celebrates the momentary. He relishes rather than fears the constant transformation of his clothing by others, welcoming influence whenever and wherever it comes from. He considers himself an artist of neither East nor West and enjoys the constant crisscrossing of cultural boundaries in contemporary society. He also likes moving across time; his clothes look both premodern and postmodern, high-tech and handmade. For the exhibit, he invited four artists to collaborate with him. In one work, a fuse of the sort that leads to an explosion was lit on a long piece of cloth. Miyake made a print of the result – it looks something like the dragon of Asian art – and put it on a dress: You can now wear energy and explosive change. The most important collaboration, however, is between Miyake and the photographer Irving Penn, who has been photographing Miyake’s work for fourteen years without interference from the designer. (Irving Penn Regards the Work of Issey Miyake, just published by Bulfinch Press, isn’t actually part of the show.) Penn’s images seems to capture a sensibility in mid-dance, to stop a butterfly in flight. The stilled flux of fashion then develops, in his photographs, an air of ancient ritual. Miyake’s clothes represent a world where the people are finally free, even from the erotic edge that underlies most fashion. As the writer Mark Holborn suggests in his introduction to the Penn book, delight displaces desire in the designer’s work – another Buddhist inflection. It astonished me to learn that Miyake is a survivor of Hiroshima.