Tara Subkoff wants to know where all the repair manuals have gone. The actor and founder of guerrilla fashion label/performance art experiment Imitation of Christ wants to fix her friend’s washing machine, but they don’t publish manuals anymore. “I really like repairing. My whole work is based on repair. In modern culture, you buy new. You throw away,” Subkoff said. Ideas of retrieval and reparation, a nostalgia for the human hand, and a distrust of new, high-gloss manufacture have been central to Imitation of Christ since its inception in 2000, when Subkoff and co-founder Matt Damhave sent a cohort of their artist-musician friends clad in reconstituted thrift store clothing up a subway escalator in Hollywood.
“Everything we’ve always done,” Subkoff told ARTINFO, involved “taking old things from Salvation Army and deconstructing and reconstructing them with a lot of drawings and text. My partner Mathew Damhave is very interested in Situationism,” the anti-capitalist ideology articulated in Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.” “We were talking about waste, throwing things away, and taking something that’s old and making it new again, putting the human hand back into a world that wreaks of manufacturing. It felt very appropriate to do that in 2000.”
She added, “When we started it was such a different time. You could talk about issues like globalization; you could talk about free trade. Then September 11th happened and the entire world changed. Everything became irrelevant. Everything we were saying and doing became so overshadowed by fear and false patriotism.”
In a way, Imitation of Christ’s indeterminate performances arrived both too early and too late to get the serious critical attention they deserve. The majority of IOC social experiments took place under the chill of Bush-era conservatism, before institutional validation of performance art in the art world proper, before James Franco attempted to self-consciously reframe his celebrity as performance, before Marina Abromovic became sanctified as a celebrity, and before the emergence of K8 Hardy (who interned for a time under Damhave) formalized fashion as social practice.
Imitation of Christ’s conundrum is a rare one: It is a DIY art collective misconstrued as a luxury fashion label, a misreading that has both financially sustained and plagued IOC since its beginnings. Named for Thomas a Kempis’s 1418 devotional text, the “fashion line” of deconstructed and upcycled thrift store finds has mystified and peeved the fashion press by staging fashion shows-cum-theatrical provocations. Following IOC’s New York debut in a funeral parlor, Subkoff and Damhave staged 2001’s Reverse Runway Show, wherein chagrined fashion critics were made to walk the catwalk while the models jotted down notes in the audience. Following Dahmave’s departure in 2001, Subkoff continued staging situational experiments, including an ersatz auction at Sotheby’s, a transvestite beauty pageant in Cuba, a retrospective produced by Jeffrey Deitch, a human-scale hamster wheel, and a 10-day party at the Carlton Festival of the Arts in Sao Paulo that slowly became saturated with its own waste.
Subkoff’s most recent performance, produced in collaboration with Damhave, her brother, artist Daniel Subkoff, and glass artist Ivan Mora took place at Bortolami Gallery in Chelsea on Saturday, during New York Fashion Week. In the antechamber, a girl’s choir outfitted in nude leotards sang a feverish rendition of “Carol of the Bells,” a slight at Yuletide consumerism. Beyond the human barricade of black-clad, iPad-wielding publicists, some 40 performers aging from 8 to 70 pruned and posed in front of antique mirrors lining the gallery walls, intermittently tossing their outfits onto crumpled piles on the floor. Over the course of three hours, the innocent game of dress-up degenerated into hysterical narcissism – the ancient, ongoing trauma of female self-image with its dovetailing emotions of vanity and self-loathing. One performer, riding a vintage stationary bicycle, let out a blood-curdling yelp, while the others continued primping and playing to their own reflections.
Titled “This is Not a Fashion Show” (an intentional pun on Magritte), Subkoff’s performance/installation tackled overdetermined ideals of beauty and femininity, and their enduring stranglehold over women. Subkoff shared this staggering statistic: “An average woman will subconsciously or consciously see over 3,000 ads every day and will spend three years of her life watching TV commercials.”
Perhaps no other IOC performance has tackled beauty and female identity more than “This Is Not a Fashion Show.” The reasons for this are both personal and political. In 2009, Subkoff, a former actress who was once stamped with that queasy title “It Girl,” was diagnosed with a brain tumor that left half of her face temporarily paralyzed. “I’m really lucky,” she said. “I have most of the movement back on the right side of my face. I was really monstrous-looking for about six months. I think I definitely started thinking about imperfection and beauty... How we’re valued and objectified. My thoughts about that culminated in this show. That’s why I wanted so many different body types and shapes and ages.”
In the back room, a phalanx of female performers wearing transparent glass masks and undergarments made sun salutations against backdrop of rapid-fire projections of advertisements and magazine covers — an apt metaphor for the soft violence that media and advertising enact onto the female body in the form of illusive, aspirational images. The masks and undergarments were made by Mora in conjunction with Venetian glass manufacturer Glasstress, run by Adriano Berengo (Mora also created a glass wedding dress for IOC’s spring 2012 collection).
“Ivan and I have these incredible arguments,” Subkoff said, “because he likes making things perfect. And I like to see threads. I like to see rips. I like tears. I like stains. I like cracks in glass. I like things that aren’t in prefect condition. I want to constantly celebrate that.”
This aesthetic of imperfection is easy to spot in the show’s cluttered piles of clothes, a delightfully haphazard potpurrí of up-cycled thrift-store salvages including diaphanous slips, lace gowns, and ragged fringe dresses. Under the auspices of a more conventional designer, it might be described as shabby chic. “I’m very interested in the idea of craft, and the pride someone took from it,” Subkoff explained. “I love working with things that already exist because I don’t believe that anything is new. I think that everything is an imitation, thus the name.”
A film featuring a nude and very pregnant Vanessa Beecroft — the queen mother of nude synchronized performance — played on the adjoining wall. In the video, Beecroft speaks about her past obsession with exercise, and about how becoming a mother fundamentally changed her relationship to her body. Despite the film’s affirming narrative, the back room was notably vacant at Saturday’s opening, while throngs ogled the changing performers in the light-filled first room.
“I thought that if I put that interview up there in that context nobody would pay attention to it. And I was right,” Subkoff said. “I think it’s very much a symptom of where we’re at, that things that are layered and not immediately gratifying are dismissed and unimportant. And what was considered important was the chaos and the narcissism happening in the first room.”
Fashion has always been something of a red herring in Subkoff’s practice. A commodity to support the performances, fashion is the Trojan horse that mimetically critiques commodity fetishism, collective narcissism, and alienated labor. Damhave included a quote from Frankfurt school theorist Herbert Marcuse in IOC’s anti-manifesto: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” IOC’s post-Marxist, punk-inflected provocations use the language of fashion against itself.
In Subkoff’s words, “This project sort of started out as a dare and as a practical joke to see how far we could take it. The idea was to take things that were completely unwanted and to install them at Barneys.” IOC’s ironic manipulation of advertising and hype worked better than they could have imagined. After their first show they were nominated for a CFDA award and courted by international luxury goods leviathan LVMH, and Madonna asked to buy their entire first collection.
Fashion audiences will know Subkoff’s partnership with Chloe Sevigny, the actress and sartorial antihero who has graced innumerable best and worst dressed lists. Rita Ackermann, Richard Phillips, Cecily Brown, Lily Ludlow, Nate Lowman, Neville Wakefield, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Antony Hegarty have also come in and out of Imitation of Christ’s revolving door though the years. “I’m a good ship captain,” Subkoff said. “I’m a good director, but many, many ideas are not mine. I always want this to be a platform for collaborations.”
She eschews the labels of “designer” and “artist,” preferring to call herself an engineer of social experiments. She is eager to shed her “fashion designer” guise once and for all, and hopes to never show during another fashion week. “I’ve been very recognized as a walking outfit for a long time, to my own determent probably. I would like to think more, be photographed less,” she said. She is currently in the planning stages of two concomitant performances for the Venice Biennale next June, partnering with Glasstress and curator James Putnam.
In the future, Subkoff is interested in exploring clothes as costumes for her performance without imbuing them with heightened importance. Whether it involves tattered party dresses or broken washing machines, Subkoff’s work will likely build on Imitation’s polemic against self-perpetuating waste and disposability, against a loss of place and history, against collective narcissism fed and exacerbated by advertising and social media.
“Everything is disposable. In fact, I think things are built in order to break,” Subkoff said. “The mentality that old isn’t good and you throw it away. That’s why it was so important to have women between the ages of 8 and 70,” she said, referring to her casting choices in “This is Not A Fashion Show.” “I don’t believe in throwaway people.”
Click on the slide show to see images from Imitation of Christ’s “This Is Not a Fashion Show.”
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