On Oct. 31, 1999, race driver Mika Hakkinen finished first at the Suzuka Speedway to win the Japan GP and that year’s F-1 Driver’s Championship. It was a close and dramatic victory for the likeable Finn, and among his delirious fans on that day was the French artist Sylvie Fleury. Soon afterward, when clothing designer Hugo Boss asked Fleury to design a limited-edition outfit as part of a German exhibition they were sponsoring, she decided to make the garment a tribute to Hakkinen.
The result was “Formula One Dress” — a hand-tailored dress in Formula One fabric with logos and a two-way zipper, in an edition of 50. One of the dresses is hanging in the window at the Gallery Side 2, and is the first thing you see as you approach the Akasaka art space where Fleury, 42, is currently holding an exhibition of her work.
“Formula One Dress” is a variation on a standard McLaren-Mercedes F-1 one-piece driver’s suit. Although this may not be immediately evident, the lower half is tailored not with a pair of legs, but as a long, tight dress, accented with a race-car flame motif on a field of black. On a wall beyond the dress, Fleury has painted the same orange-and-red flame pattern. The piece is, the artist explains, a satire on the idea that car racing is “a man’s world.”
Also visible from outside Side 2 is, on the far wall, a 2004 work in orange neon measuring more than 3 meters across, which reads “Boots & Lipgloss.” The exterior view also takes in “Here Comes Santa,” a 2003 video piece playing on a monitor on the floor, which sees the artist’s feet stomping on and smashing up hundreds of silver reflective Christmas tree decorations.
Silver balls and red flames and bright neon lights and a race-car driver’s dress are all visible through the first-floor gallery’s big front window. So it’s a funny thing, but when I stepped inside, the show started to make me feel sad.
My gut feeling that there was something missing was explained when one of Fleury’s associates told me about the centerpiece originally intended for the exhibition. It seems that there was to have been a square-shape, 2-meter-high plexiglass well housing a fake, coiled snake, but the construction of the piece was botched and so it was nixed at the last moment.
The sense of “something missing” runs deeper, however, than an absent snake. In some way, it reaffirms Fleury’s long-running themes of consumerism, feminism and politics, and lends this show a particular poignancy.
Fleury is an unusually prolific artist, having done several hundred solo and group shows since the early 1990s. Her brand of ironic feminism could be likened to that of postmodern Americans, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. There is, of course, a Euro slant in her choice of subject matter — F-1 is not popular in the United States; an American artist might have produced a woman’s NFL uniform. The Euro-tinge is also evidenced in Fleury’s exoticization of things American — a car freak, she owns several Detroit gas guzzlers, among them a Caprice Classic that appears in one of the photographs in this show, with a pair of women’s feet shod in high heels protruding from its half-open trunk.
Another of Fleury’s distinguishing characteristics is her frequent use of what Marcel Duchamp called “readymades” — consumer goods which, in Fleury’s case, are frequently appropriated from the world of high fashion and brand-name goods.
“I am interested in consumerism, and even more so in the notions of superficiality and identity, and in subcultures and the way that people become specialized into a certain very peculiar field and push it to the extreme, where it approaches the abstract,” Fleury explains. “I am interested in unveiling the mechanisms of what is going on, I want to bring things into a different environment so people can look at them as they are.
“When I did my first installation, which was shopping bags, I wanted to go one step further than Duchamp and not even show what was inside, dealing also with the notions of the inside and the outside.”
As I said above, this show made me somewhat sad, a feeling which, on reflection, suggested a dichotomy: Fleury has lent Gallery Side 2 something of the appearance of an incomplete boutique of dreams, a place that is missing more than simply a snake in a plexiglass centerpiece. I asked myself, am I so conditioned by a culture of consumerism as to feel ill at ease when confronted by empty shelves? Or was it the other way round — had the creations here, in flirting the line dividing art and irony, fallen inward upon themselves to the sad point where they only satirized satire?
Whatever the answer, Fleury’s work is cause for thought, and that is always good.
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