Stepping into the Akademie der Künste is a bit like walking into a corporate convention centre or government office. Its high ceilings and general lack of human personality feel as though it could just as easily host a G20 summit rather than the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art that it’s hosting now. But inside this unlikely art space a mini-exhibition curated by Centre for Style brings loudly lo-fi aesthetics and rebellious performance activations onto the site.
Founded in Melbourne by Matthew Linde, Centre for Style is a creative initiative that is brash in the way it pulls apart contemporary art and fashion presentation conventions. Centre for Style has functioned as a retail space, a gallery, a touring initiative and an organiser of gigs that has pushed with relentless energy a new wave of experimental art and fashion crossovers which includes the likes of Ecklaus Latta, Julien Ceccaldi and Susan Cianciolo. To my mind, I see in Centre for Style’s projects a revival of the obnoxious spirit in DIY punk fashion’s first wave a la Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex boutique, before the punk principles blurred into ‘80s excess. It’s experimental idealism that’s a little too untamed for the art world institution, but still self-conscious enough to talk the talk and invite a growing audience in to see the results.
This unapologetic attitude is precisely the reason that even with all the Akademie der Künste’s difficulties as a conventional gallery space, it is a fitting home to the anarchic “fashion runway-turned-backstage” environment of Centre for Style’s group exhibition. In a walkway space, the show’s artworks are all scattered around the floor or on chairs. The chair itself as a kind of stylistic prop is a consistent motif throughout the exhibition. Some pieces consciously toy with this iconography. Joshua Petherick for instance deconstructs (quite literally) the chair from functional design object into a stylised art object by slicing an IKEA chair in half and inverting the pieces.
The exhibition considers spectators’ relationship to the runway, and the busy nature of backstage as site for collaboration, turning these relationships inside out and making what is usually unseen highly visible. There’s a bit of an unfinished feeling throughout the show that’s both unpretentious and inviting for audience members.
No more was this deconstruction of presentation and process apparent than in the opening night runway performance by H.B. Peace, an unclassifiable label and creative collaboration between Hugh Egan Westland and Blake Barns. Any po-faced and polite art world mingling at the busy opening was rudely interrupted by the chest-thumping drums and electric guitar of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ blaring from a sound system at excruciating volume. The track cut abruptly, and what followed was a stop-start selection of music while models—some amateur, some also artists in the show—walked in H.B. Peace with a haphazard determination, charging through and around the crowd in a total inversion of typical catwalk spectatorship. Music during the performance—from Ariana Grande to Kylie Minogue—had the feeling of a drunkenly earnest home karaoke session.
The clothes in H.B. Peace’s collection for the show pick apart dominant perceptions of quality and control in fashion. Letting go of authorship in the crucial early stages of design, H.B. Peace asked a regular collaborator in India to interpret ten illustrations from the 1910s by famed fashion illustrator Erté for their collection, however setting the parameters of only using one fabric of the same colour. The result is a series of naïve, abstract and sincere dresses quite distinct from the original illustrations.
Centre for Style’s curated contribution to the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art cleverly plays around with the nature of collaborative practice and the fleeting unseen moments that feed into the making of style and culture behind the runway. At the same time, the exhibition adds a DIY disruption to the contemporary art glossiness of much of the other works shown alongside it at the Biennale. This is art meeting fashion with a new breed of self-aware anti-institutionalism.
Centre for Style’s project is not to be missed if visiting the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.