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Disobedient Bodies @ The Hepworth, Wakefield
NR Magazine, Vol. 4

The Hepworth Wakefield casts a superb presence over the River Calder at the best of times. Combining David Chipperfield’s brutalist architecture with the namesake of the city’s most famous resident, Barbara Hepworth, the gallery has been a focal point of culture in the north since its opening in 2011. In an act that is certain to shake up the London-centricity of the British art world, The Hepworth Wakefield has set out a series of collaborations with influential individuals across the creative disciplines – aiming at celebrating Wakefield’s collection of modern British art. The first of these curators is none other than key British designer, Jonathan Anderson – a fan of the gallery, and an avid collector of modern art. The outcome of his collaboration with The Hepworth Wakefield is ‘Disobedient Bodies’ – an exhibition combining art and fashion over the last century, in an exploration of the representation of the human form.

On a nondescript, moody Friday evening, the harsh structure of The Hepworth Wakefield is especially striking against the waves of meandering crowds coming and going for the exhibition’s opening party. In collaboration with 6a architects, ‘Disobedient Bodies’ sees some of the large open rooms of the gallery converted into a series of intimate spaces, in which archive JW Anderson fabric hangs to form temporary walls. This enclosed tactility complements Anderson’s vision for creating a “cocktail party” atmosphere between the pieces on display.

Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure (1936) occupies the entrance of Disobedient Bodies. Though a relatively small structure, it’s an appropriately powerful opening piece for an exhibition aimed at celebrating art in Wakefield (being part of the Wakefield Permanent Art Collection) and exploring the human form. Given Moore and Hepworth’s association with Yorkshire, and their shared interest in abstract figurative forms, Anderson hits a prescient cord with Disobedient Bodies. Of course, neither Moore nor Hepworth are by any means undervalued British artists – but, by using their early works as a catalyst for the exhibition, Anderson sets up a suitable space for a serious contemplation of the serious value of modern art and fashion.

Take a left into the next room, and there, manipulated to mimic the form of Reclining Figure, is Jean Paul Gaultier’s Cone Dress (1983/84). It’s perhaps the show’s most obvious example of a correspondence between sculpture and fashion. The jersey dress takes the form of a figurative sculpture in its own right. Whilst the conical bra shape is easily recognisable as being the mastermind of Gaultier, the way in which it is presented by Anderson makes it equally possible the creation of a sculptor taking heed from the distorted human body as seen in Moore. This ambiguity is deliberately done - none of the pieces in the exhibition are explicitly labelled; instead, Anderson opts for subtle numbering in reference to the catalogue.

Of course, there are pieces that are obviously synonymous with their creator. Just as the conical dress is clearly Gaultier, it takes no expert to identify exhibit 7 as a Christian Dior dress (Patchouli ensemble, A/W 1952 Haute Couture collection), given its iconic New Look silhouette; or exhibit 41 as an Alberto Giacometti sculpture (Standing Woman, 1958-59), recognisable by its elongated, notched bronze figure. Equally, there are certain exhibits that, when it becomes clear to viewers whom they are by, generate a lot of attention; pieces 80-83, all from the Comme des Garçons ‘2D’ collection A/W 2012, are examples of such. Disobedient Bodies, as an exhibition in general, is incredibly photographable and, daresay, Instagrammable – but it is the 2D collection that proves especially so.

Nonetheless, Disobedient Bodies does succeed at isolating the work from its source – this is done especially touchingly by long-time JW Anderson collaborator, the photographer Jamie Hawkesworth. Hidden behind a jungle of JW Anderson jumpers hanging from the ceiling (an interactive installation that Anderson hopes viewers of all ages will physically engage with), Hawkesworth’s series ‘Wakefield Kids’ (2017) is a particular strength of the exhibition. The series features local schoolchildren wearing some of the items of clothing on display in Disobedient Bodies. This isn’t the first time Hawkesworth has photographed children in designer gear, but here it works as a way of emphasising the materiality of the exhibits. Wakefield Kids feels raw. In one photograph, three children wear vests by Elisabeth de Senneville (exhibits 68-70, ‘Nomade vest’, S/S 1977 womenswear collection). They’re captured in their youthful innocence and awkwardness; another photograph of a girl stood wearing a piece from the Comme des Garçons 2D collection – feels equally as awkward and authentic.

The approach Anderson takes in curating Disobedient Bodies is extremely rich and clearly thoroughly thought out; the show has been long in the running and that much is clear. The meticulous attention to detail and effective grouping of displays manages to convey the point it would seem Anderson is eager to get across. Works 6-23 are grouped under the theme “Disrupting classicism. The refined silhouette”; alongside the aforementioned Dior dress, two Hepworth sculptures of a very different ilk are incorporated here. Whilst the influence of the classical figurative form is clear in Torso (1929), the stylistic progression of Hepworth’s career is made glaringly obvious in comparison to Totem (1960-62). Here, the hollow form and smooth, fluid surfaces that Hepworth is best known for cuts a strikingly different silhouette. 

Veering past Totem into a small alcove-like space, Nick Knight and Alexander McQueen’s collaborative short film ‘Transformer: The Bridegroom Stripped Bare’ (2002) is played on loop. McQueen is filmed dissecting the suit, redressing the skin of the bridegroom in layers of paint. The process of deconstruction and transition works in correspondence with the transformation in style of the two Hepworth sculptures. It’s a subtle pairing, and perhaps not a particularly deliberate one – but it only goes to demonstrate the depth at play beyond the surface in Disobedient Bodies.

There is much that can be said for the exhibition that Anderson has gracefully curated for the Hepworth Wakefield, for there is much to be seen. The list of those whose work is on display in Disobedient Bodies is lengthy; from cutting-edge chairs by Irish designer Eileen Gray, to work by Young British Artist Sarah Lucas, to that of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – and garments by Rick Owens, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, Issey Miyake, Yves Saint Laurent, and, of course, amongst many others, Anderson’s own designs for JW Anderson and Loewe. Though fashion as art, and alongside art, do not make for the most likely of bedfellows, Disobedient Bodies is an exhibition that exceeds expectations.

Anderson manages to dismantle the cult of high regard with which art and fashion are often upheld by respectively; craftsmanship and creativity are celebrated in Disobedient Bodies, not for the labels associated with the pieces on display, but for the diverse and innovative ways in which the human body is distorted, depicted, and complemented.

April 2017