why the contemporary art scene is embracing the radical and utilitarian potential of sportswear
From Anne Imhof to Bjarne Melgaard, FKA Twigs to Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, a generation of artists and performers are embracing sportswear ubiquity to critique and explore the world we live in.
Franziska Aigner and Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof's Angst II, Nationalgalerie at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, 2016 © Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski
There is hardly an artwork which would reflect the contemporary state of mind as accurate as Anne Imhof's Angst II. Performed at a vast fog-drowned hall of Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, it was the second half of her opera orchestrated for drones, hawks and a gang of performers. Drifting through the audience, they were distant and beautiful, engaged in a pattern of choreography, touch and detachment only known to them. The sight is hard to forget, not only because of its grand scale and innovative artistic language, but also because the performers were so disturbingly relatable. They were just like us, in a haze of a crumbling world, only signals of mobile phones available for guidance. In creating this feeling of familiarity clothes played a key part: amongst the rubble of sleeping bags, Pepsi cans and bongs, the performers were mainly wearing sweatpants and T-shirts, unbranded sportswear (with occasional trefoil of adidas and swoosh of Nike), a bit of camo or denim.
Anne Imhof is not the only artist tapping into the codes of sportswear as a way of reflecting on who we are and where are we going. Performers working under the guidance of Alex Baczynski-Jenkins -- who showed his project The tremble, the symptom, the swell and the hole together at the Chisenhale in March -- took similar aesthetic cues. Through dance, sound and gesture they explored mundane queer activities and social choreographies while wearing old T-shirts, sweatpants and trainers, alongside old ripped jeans and flannel shirts. Clothes to blend in, clothes you might not notice, clothes to erase the distance between the performer and the audience.
Both the works of Imhof and Baczynski-Jenkins might involuntarily trigger memories: each of us probably owns a pair of black Huaraches or a blue Adidas Firebird jacket, or maybe we happened to once fall in love with someone wearing these items, or our best friends wore them, or at the very least, the commercial images of these products have surrounded us.
One could argue that contemporary performance artists choose sportswear simply for the reasons that quite a lot of people also choose sportswear: it's comfortable, designed to help movement, and is very easy to find. What unites the fashion choices of these artists, however, is never the purely athletic work out clothes — it's the loose, comfy and worn garments that work equally well at a rave as they do at home, art college or a gallery opening. It's about the body in its relation to modernity, and therefore about urban youth, about us: about sex, dancing, the streets, morning runs, afternoons doing nothing lying motionless on your couch with a laptop on your knees.
Sportswear today is not only the most common everyday choice for young people in big cities, it's also the uniform of the late-capitalist world we live in. The city's we live in are covered in the billboards of globally dominant sportswear companies and our bodies — whether we're professional sportsmen or just ordinary lazy people — gradually become branded capitalist spaces too. We can choose to ignore it, feel consumerist guilt, go no logo, or get inspired, but like it or not it still inevitably influences our creative expression and mindset.
FKA Twigs's epic Nike tour-de-force campaign released at the start of the year has elevated the narrative of sportswear advertising to a spiritual battle. It suggests the visual language of sportswear advertising is not just about selling the product (although it is about selling the product) it's also about creativity and imagination, and maybe even empowerment, feminism, body-positivity and diversity. When capitalism appropriated the language of art and activism — the artist responded through appropriating brands, their aesthetics and the obsession they drive.
Exactly the obsessions and desires at the centre of Bjarne Melgaard's recent exhibition The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment, in New York. An exhibition born in the intersection of luxury, streetwear, and the ever-changing obsessions of the hypebeasts. We're all familiar with 72-hour queues to purchase the latest Yeezy sneakers, the intricate dynamics of sneakerhead culture and how competitive it can get seconds after the latest Supreme drop. For the opening of Bjarne's show, at Red Bull Arts New York in February, the artist organised to give away approximately $500,000 of clothes from his personal collection of streetwear. It of course created a massive queue and havoc. Melgaard also created new garments satirising the visual language of those same cult streetwear brands: emblazoned with slogans like "I'm a fashion designer now", "free from content" and "I hate Rihanna".
When sportswear becomes a new medium in art, there are different ways to engage with it. For LIFE SPORT, a collective based in Athens and Berlin, grey sweatpants have become an artwork, a way to engage with the local community and a source of funding. "We created a single product, a pair of grey sweatpants, as a token participation in the art market to help make money for artists and exhibitions," the collective explain. "The product developed out of the simple observation that many people wear sweatpants, especially in Athens, and also from a favourite pair of sweatpants that we own, after realising that this pair was produced in Greece in the 90s before Nike left Greece to produce in countries with cheaper labour costs. To work with local producers in Athens is much more inclusive and allows us to be part of the local landscape of shopkeepers in our neighbourhood. People don't need to be interested in our exhibitions to buy sweatpants."
The inclusive message goes even further, sweatpants are a garment that defies gender, age and social status. Through the work of LIFE SPORT, some of the worst aspects of globalisation become empowering weapons of unity and resistance. "We quickly recognised sweatpants as a garment of comfort, leisure, relaxation, but also as an item of resistance," they add. "Sweatpants can be angry. The critical element of sweatpants made in Greece is definitely integral to LIFE SPORT, but we keep studying and learning from sweatpants wearers everywhere."
In the end, most of the sweatpants and trainers we all own are pretty much the same — but when it comes to artistic resistance it's not about what you own, but what you do with it.
Text Anastasiia Fedorova