why contemporary art is embracing the radical potential of sportswear
From Anne Imhof to Bjarne Melgaard, FKA Twigs to Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, a generation of artists and performers are embracing sportswear's 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 reflecting the contemporary state of mind as accurately as Anne Imhof's Angst II. Staged at a vast, fog-drowned hall in Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, the second half of her opera was orchestrated for drones, hawks, and a gang of performers. Drifting through the audience, these performers were distant and beautiful. They engaged in a pattern of choreography, touch, and detachment only known to them. The sight is hard to forget, and not only because of the work's grand scale and innovative artistic language. Because the performers were so disturbingly relatable. They were just like us — in a haze of a crumbling world, only mobile phone signals available for guidance.
Clothes played a key part in creating this feeling of familiarity. Amongst the rubble of sleeping bags, Pepsi cans, and bongs, the performers were mainly wearing sweatpants and T-shirts, unbranded sportswear (occasional dotted with an adidas trefoil or Nike swoosh), and 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, Baczynski-Jenkins's performers explored mundane queer activities and social choreographies while wearing old T-shirts, sweatpants, and sneakers 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.
Imhof and Baczynski-Jenkins's work might involuntarily trigger memories. Each of us has probably owned a pair of Huaraches or an Adidas Firebird jacket. Or maybe we once happened fall in love with someone wearing these items; or our best friends wore them. Or, at the very least, 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. These artists, however, haven't chosen purely athletic workout clothes. In their performances, we find the loose, comfy, and worn garments that work equally well at a rave and at home, at art college, or at a gallery opening. The work is 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 cities we live in are covered in the billboards of globally dominant sportswear companies. 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, sportswear 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.
That obsession is at the center of Bjarne Melgaard's The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment — a recent exhibition born from the intersection of luxury, streetwear, and the ever-changing desires of hypebeasts. We're all familiar with 72-hour lines 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 proclaimed he was giving away $500,000 of clothes from his personal collection of streetwear. It, of course, created a massive line and total havoc. Melgaard also created new garments satirizing 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 explains. "The product developed out of the simple observation that many people wear sweatpants, especially in Athens, and also from a favorite pair of sweatpants that we own, after realizing that this pair was produced in Greece in the 90s before Nike left Greece to produce in countries with cheaper labor 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 neighborhood. 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 globalization become empowering weapons of unity and resistance. "We quickly recognized 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 sneakers 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