What is it we see when we look at a costume for the body, a costume hanging on a rack to be worn or upon a mannequin? For me, I see the body that is not there. I see the person or the form that has worn or will wear the outfit that is before me. From a procession of horses in Jompet Kuswidananto’s work The Cortege of the Third Realm no. 2 (2012) currently being exhibited as part of Rally: Contemporary Indonesian Art at the NGV, to one’s beloved winter coat quietly waiting in the wardrobe on its padded coat hanger, it is not the absence of the body that is first noted. The eyes may register the absence but the heart registers a figure within and with that a memory of a figure. My heart registers longing for the snugness of a winter’s coat hanging in wait, with suggestion here enough to draw a whole. And by focusing on what is there rather than what is not, I see the horses in the artwork on display. They are perhaps all the more visible than had they actually been there in the gallery space. This impression of the horses saddled and ready is fashioned from leather, metal beads and buttons, hessian, drums, guitars, cotton, silk, metallic thread, rope, wood, polyester, horse hair, electrical cord, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, and the aid of digital sound and negative space. Just as my coat in the wardrobe of wool (80%) and silk (20%) conjures the leisure pursuits of my favourite season, winter, and becomes a sum greater than its parts. It is a coat to be worn. A coat to wear to the cinema, to the zoo, on crowded tram on way home from the theatre, on a long beach walk. It is a coat for adventure. Looking at my coat draws experiences had and experiences to come and it is from this footing that I approach the exhibition Ballet & Fashion currently on display in the Fashion & Textiles Gallery, (also) at the NGV.
These costumes have been worn and it is this knowledge read visually as much as known that makes us peer at them closer, trying to dissolve the space between us and them. Looking at these pieces, we think of the body, who it was who wore them, and how the costume moved. This is, for me, why costume displays, such as this, feel alive, the very opposite of static. Though removed from their stage environ they still speak of movement. Frozen, inert, lifeless, like a statue: this is not what I see when I look up close at the costumes built to quiver and fly by Toni Matičevski for BalletLab's Aviary: A Suite for the Bird (with millinery by Richard Nylon) and Vanessa Leyonhjelm’s Divergence tutus of industrial mesh. Nor is it what I see as I marvel at Rei Kawakubo’s lumps and bumps costumes for Scenario. Just as downstairs in the Contemporary Exhibitions space and in the foyer of the NGV, the figures of the musicians and horses are visible even without their being there, so too, the dancers in Ballet & Fashion.
Is it the memory of the body that tells us this? Seeing costumes on a mannequin in a display case that previously you have seen move and leap and bend on a stage, is it this memory of a performance that makes these costumes come alive? Perhaps it is. But it is also told to us by the art of sound and the moving footage projected on the wall. On the screen, Graeme Murphy’s Romeo & Juliet shows us how these costumes by Akira Isogawa encase the body, how the fabric reflects the lighting. We hear Prokofiev’s score and the scene is set. From footage to costume, our eyes piece it all together. This is how it is worn, how the skirt looks in movement or when the leg is extended. This is also what happened in the gallery downstairs with our horse parade and its accompanying audio. And in the neigbouring work, The Contingent (2012), with its 5 minutes of sound looped, and its suggestion of a knot of figures drawn by five hats, five pairs of white shoes, LED headlamps and electrical chord. In works such as The Contingent, and The Commoners (2012) playing their instruments in the foyer, on the small accompanying screen the costumes, the various accoutrements, those props particular, are shown on the body. A meld of costume, body, and sound. Look from screen to costume and back to screen and the image is complete. As with the theatrical costumes on display in Ballet & Fashion, the body isn’t missing, it just requires you to work, to imagine, and to recall. And indeed there is something rather eerie, as you look at these costumes almost ghostly. I can easily imagine the dancers in 2 Lips and Dancers and Space (for Nederlands Dans Theater III) at nighttime when the gallery is deserted, traveling, leaping, and climbing downstairs to meet up with the "playful yet unsettling marionettes" that are the musicians and horses in Rally. They appear to have a life of their own. They are both absent and present. They are like a phantasm. They are capable of movement when we observe them and when we turn our backs.
These costumes, from the sculptural reveal of Ralph Rucci to Giles Deacon’s fiercely beguiling, “beauty with bite” Black Swan, are there to tell a story, to enhance a character, to let us see the body. They are written in a language centuries old and easy to read. In a language made up of symbols and visual prompts. I think it is what they communicate, their chatter, that I like best of all. From Viktor&Rolf’s playful gold dunce caps by way of Christian Lacroix’s Can Can dancer with wonky Toulouse-Lautrec leanings to Romeo’s moulded pistol in leather and Lady Capulet’s shibori technique spiked shrug all exaggerated and assuming fantastical proportion, the character is unmistakable and we are only at the beginning.
These costumes, they are beautiful in their own right, but for me they are function and effect above all else. They must work in the story, make the wearer feel the character they are playing, and they must be sturdy and strong, able to withstand the rigors of performance and repeated wear. As I look at the details and await the hooped burqa to illuminate, Louise tells me of her morning at The Australian Ballet looking at the costumes being adjusted, restored, and replicated for the forthcoming production of Don Quixote. She tells me of fabrics being dyed to exact colour match. Of the fittings and precision. And of straps being replaced on the Swan Lake costumes for those offering a stronger hold. Yes, these costumes need to be robust. This is an understatement. They are to be worn, sweated in, spun about in. They will travel, be worn by many. They will be taken in. They will become a second skin, if only in the sense of how it appears to the audience. They are costumes to respond to stage lights. Necklaces appear on padded backing, but the audience does not see this. The orchestral buffer and the gloss and majesty of live performance ensure that this is not seen. For me, our eyes do not seek out the strings of a puppet and the same applies to the art of ballet costumes. Costumes for effect, to delight those in the seats night after night; they are a balance of durability and delicacy. Built to last but also fine, netted, and feathered. Built from traditional materials and others quite unexpected. And perhaps built to ride horses about the gallery at nighttime through the varied collections of international art.
+ Rally: Contemporary Indonesian Art, Jompet Kuswidananto & Eko Nugroho is on until the 1st of April, NGV International
+ Ballet & Fashion is on until the 19th of May, NGV International
+ Don Quixote opens in Melbourne on the 15th of March
+ Happy Birthday to you, dear Louise
+ The embroidered dance costumes of Jose Romussi
(Quotes X2 above plucked from the NGV's free Rally ebook and Ballet & Fashion catalogue.)