Dozens of Ribbons

Swapnaa Tamhane talks to us about what it's like to dress like an artist

Most of Swpanaa Tamhane’s art happens in front of a crowd: she’s spent hours in a Plexiglas box with partner Aman Sandhu, performed “duration” drawings in empty retail spaces and installed dozens of ribbons in front of the MOCCA, inviting viewers to come up and tie knots for an evening. The artists puts a lot of thought in how she should dress for these performances — with this attention to detail often crossing over into her day-to-day attire. I sat down with Swapnaa to talk about the differences between performance art and fashion, what she wears to the studio, and her impeding move to Düsseldorf.

What’s the best fashion advice you ever got from your mom?
She taught me about being classic, elegant, and that nothing is more feminine than a sari. She also taught me to disdain vanity.

What did you dress like when you were younger?
In high school, I used to wear oversized concert t-shirts to cover myself. Understanding these bodacious curves took some time. In university it was black turtleneck, black sweater, and jeans. There was a sea of people who dressed like that – girls and guys – who all matched. So you’d come in for an 8am lecture and some girls were really done up and some were…just half asleep. But still everyone was in black, and then jeans and big boots and huge jackets.

How does being an artist inform your fashion choices?
I think most of this year I was wearing Blundstones, a pair of jeans and a big sweater. Who am I dressing up for to go to the studio? I’m going to be making a mess or building shit so I didn’t even think about it. And you almost loose your sense of pretty because then you’re just this human who’s working. So some mornings I really want to look nice just to socialize a little bit. But most of the year is just like this army jacket and boots.

For three of your most recent installation pieces, How to Draw a Drawing, Three, and We Don’t Know What this Conversation is Going to Make, you and your partner Aman Sandhu are active participants. How does dress come into play during these performances?
There always comes this moment of oh shit we have to decide what we’re going to be wearing. So we always end up going for something that’s totally non-descript. We would love to do something really theatrical, but does that effect the work? Those are the kind of conversations we have.

One of the first performances that we did at Summer Works, I made this nose jewelry piece that was sort of a Rajasthani nose ring. I took two earrings and just hung these five chains between them. I loved it, but I was looking back at the images later and thought, what’s the point? It looks way too decorative.

So why do you think you wore it?
We were treating ourselves almost as machines, thinking of ourselves as these kinds of warriors, so that’s why I had this idea of the nosepiece. We were thinking of decorative armbands and jewelry. It’s actually really uncomfortable to be in a performance, and considering “what to wear” is an aspect that I find myself hating to think about. I think it takes a certain personality as well that can be confident in wearing an outrageous outfit! I guess it depends on the artist you are or want to be, and of course, the kind of art you make.

Fashion and performance art are both very interactive art forms. How do you think they can overlap?
I’ve only started thinking about performance art in the last two years as an artist, otherwise I like to just hide away in my studio and make these very detailed drawings. So putting myself into the public eye is actually really disconcerting. It’s really a strange space because I’m still negotiating how those things go together.

I love looking at really performative fashion. I remember seeing these images when I was a teenager in a fashion magazine and I think it was the model Kristin McMenamy. She had this great big tree branch dress. I had never seen anything like that, and was like, that’s amazing. If you’ve ever been to a fashion show it’s very performative, that’s definitely one side of performance. The side that I’m on is almost thinking of myself as part of the mechanics of presenting something, presenting an idea. So in that role of performance there should be none of me. Hence the kind of black outfit, which is super boring, but I think it’s really important. There shouldn’t be any distraction.

What overlap is there between your approach to art and your approach to day-to-day dress?
I wore this shirt today. I got this over at Fawn. I love something like this. Very, very simple, doesn’t look fancy, I like really minimal but with little nuances. I might add big earrings, and then something slightly decorative or “Indian.” Just small little details, but nothing too heavy handed.

Definitely with performance art, but also with drawing, it is all about the details. I like to think about things as composition building, like building an image. I like to think about that with clothing also. That you can build colours or build a small little line or something that can be drawn back to something else that you’re doing.

You’re about to move to Düsseldorf, what item of clothing can you not leave without?
I have this really old ratty Dupatta that is like my safety blanket. It’s an army green that has this beautiful black design. I’ve had it for years, it’s tearing, but I love it.

photography // Brianne Burnell

10 Things About: Yayoi Kusama

I can’t begin to explain my fascination with Yayoi Kusama, nor do I believe she would want me to. Kusama is one of Japan’s most prolific artists, and is best known for her massive Infinity Net paintings, her sculptures, her performance art, and her installations. She is also a novelist, a poet, and a fashion designer. Kusama’s artwork is a constant exploration of the way she sees the world, and a meticulous examination of the “single dot” in the universe that is her own life. As Ali Smith wrote in Tate Etc., “For [Kusama], art is a fertile bleed, something which spreads on to the walls, the floor, out into the room, all over the self. Mindscape and landscape are the same in her work, a reminder that we are all where we live, that we make what surrounds us as much as it makes us.”

Kusama, now 82 years old, will be launching a collaboration with Louis Vuitton in July 2012. She is the first female artist to collaborate with the brand.

1. Yayoi Kusama’s childhood in rural Japan was “like a nightmare” (her words in issue 10 of Lula, not mine). Born in 1929 to an abusive mother, she experienced continual hallucinations throughout her childhood, and was prone to morbid obsessions. The first subjects to appear in Kusama’s earliest paintings from childhood were her mother, the sun, the moon, and clouds.

2. Kusama left Japan for New York City in 1958 and spent several years entrenched in the art scene; she exhibited with everyone from Donald Judd to Andy Warhol, and was friendly with Georgia O’Keeffe.

3. In the sixties, Kusama opened a boutique where she sold her own mod clothing designs, many of which were made from see-through materials. Nudity was common in much of her work at the time, and the shop included private studios where models would have their bodies painted and photographed.


(photography copyright © Harrie Verstappen, The Looniverse)
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Burqa Barbie Backlash

A recent exhibition in Italy that includes several burqa-wearing Barbies has unleashed, of course, a wave of scandal, much of which is precisely the sort of ill-informed knee-jerk backlash about Islamic women that makes my skin crawl. Typical is Barbara Kay’s assertion, in the National Post, that these are “travesties of multiculturalism” that “make a mockery of disempowered women who have been stripped of all human dignity, women with no means of challenging their forced depersonalization.” OK, so fierce rhetoric. But let’s unpack a little, shall we?

The Barbies in question are part of a 500-piece exhibition of Eliana Lorena-dressed dolls at the Salone del Cinquecento in Florence, backed by Mattel. These one-off dolls will be displayed, then auctioned off by Sotheby’s on behalf of a charity called Rewrite the Future, which benefits children affected by war. In addition to a few fluorescent burqa-clad Barbies, we find geisha Barbies, shalwar khameez Barbies, chador Barbies, and what can only be described as slutty co-ed Barbies. In short, the collection runs the gamut of cheesy feminine stereotypes, by region. So far, I’d say we’re pretty firmly on standard Barbie territory.

Kay writes plaintively that, with this exhibition, “Barbie has shed her cultural innocence.” It seems to me a thundering irony to accuse the burqa of having suddenly rendered Barbie anti-feminist, given that the doll is based on a German hooker called Lilli and has a—shall we say—fraught history as a model for women’s self-images.

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