GRANDEUR CAN BE A CURSE by Aoife Rosenmeyer

Grayson Perry Artist's Robe, 2004 © The Artist

6 Burlington Gardens is a stately building from the latter part of the 19th century, built for the University of London. Later the British Museum adopted the space, their Museum of Mankind was in situ from 1970 to 1997. At the beginning of the last decade the Royal Academy, whose galleries and school flank the building, took over. In truth, it’s not a particularly large or easy space to work in and the RA doesn’t enjoy state funding, so budgeting is a thorny issue.
One of the first exhibitions under the Royal Academy banner was Giorgio Armani: A Retrospective, which may have been well funded but would have been more at home in an Omotesando store; later came a show of paintings from the Saatchi collection. In 2008 title sponsorship of a contemporary ‘season’ by GSK was unveiled, and in 2009 Haunch of Venison gallery opened up shop in one wing, both of which augured some stability. Yet the need to bring in the public in order to make ends meet still hangs over the building.
In this context, Aware: Art Fashion Identity sounds a safe bet, aiming to be both critical yet popular enough to divert teenagers from the queue into Abercrombie & Fitch opposite. The exhibition ‘focuses on … clothing as a mechanism to communicate and reveal elements of our identity’ with chapters entitled Storytelling, Building, Belonging and Confronting and Performance. Which is interesting, but also boundless, and this show badly needs bounds. Its unwieldy scope ranges from an early Cindy Sherman video work about restrictive fashion (a work by Martha Rosler would have been more apt); to Azra Aksamija’s Nomadic Mosque, 2001; to the thin-film technology of Helen Storey’s soluble dress. There are some great pieces, a twin-necked jumper by Rosemarie Trockel being at once sinister and endearing, her incisive gesture throwing down the gauntlet to the woolly dogma preached by a cluster of Andrea Zittel’s dresses. But the lack of focus draws attention to other failings: Hussein Chalayan’s new commission for the show is poorly realized while Yinka Shonibare’s new work becomes merely decorative. (In comparison, the current exhibition of Shonibare’s work at the New National Museum Monaco is a taut web woven between costume, theatre and colonial history, alive with tensions and ideas.) Despite the identity in the title, the majority of figures here are dumb intermediaries, clothes that wear the wearer and stifle expression. Which is a shame, when there is so much to be said on these subjects.

Helen Storey Say Goodbye, 2010 © The Artist

Andrea Zittel A-Z Fiber Form Uniform, 2003 – 2006 © The Artist

Yinka Shonibare Little Rich Girls, 2010 © The Artist

Susie MacMurray Widow, 2009 © The Artist

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