K8 Hardy’s “Untitled Runway Show” at the Whitney Biennial (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fashion as a basis for genuine artistic work may be dead. Even when it’s properly approached and used, as in Cindy Sherman’s fashion editorial series or the early installations of artists-cum-couturiers Zowie Broach and Brian Kirkby under the Boudicca label, I tend to find that the medium isn’t being mined for all its potential. Photographer K8 Hardy’sUntitled Runway Show,” a performance piece mounted on May 20 as part of her work in the Whitney Biennial, seems to have proven that in the hands of popular contemporary artists, fashion in a museum can be as nauseating as the debauchery on display at Fashion’s Night Out.

When I arrived, I was told in a horribly pretentious manner (though what can one really expect from the Whitney at prime Biennial time?) that the show had “sold out” (tickets were free) two hours before it began, and I was invited to wait for a coveted spot in the standby line in the dim, stuffy stairwell. After 30 minutes of warding off heat strokes, I was ushered in — in a group of twenty — to standing room in the vast, empty fourth-floor gallery.

K8 Hardy, “Untitled Runway Show” (click to enlarge)

Perhaps it was part of the art, to unnecessarily make people wait to enter a space large enough to hold a Boeing 787 and to begin the performance nearly a half hour after it was scheduled, as is customary at Lincoln Center. But the hurdles were enough to at least expect a decent show. Instead, what viewers witnessed was 20 minutes of a couture show as seen through the eyes of a hyperactive five year old, or a really bad episode of Project Runway.

Legitimate models walked in affected Svengali trances (fashion controls us!), some in makeup halfheartedly referencing blackface (fashion forces standards of beauty! and maybe hipster racism!), all clad in piles of mismatched bras or cut-up dresses (fashion looks silly!). Balancing fright wigs drenched in hairspray on Jeffrey Campbell shoes while music arranged by Venus X thumped, the models (performers? living mannequins?) were unfortunate canvases for poorly composed clothing collages that blared exhaustive commentary on the fashion world as seen through the eyes of the thrift-happy Hardy.

Each look, the raw materials for which Hardy found in various thrift stores, were mostly disparate pieces thrown together or oddly tailored — a seafoam green dress tacked up in random places with assless pants in a Brady Bunch-esque floral print, for example. Some didn’t even possess that much craft: a white gown paired with botas picudas mexicanas, or normal hipster-wear with the bra on the outside. That would’ve been shocking and thought provoking — 30 years ago. A lot of the work did show potential, especially the pieces I assumed she made, or at least put more effort into creating: white sack dresses made to resemble an artist’s palette with colored patches decorating the edges. A little gimmicky and obvious, sure, but they were the beginning of more interesting ideas she could’ve transposed to the rest of the collection.

K8 Hardy, “Untitled Runway Show”

Conceptually, does a subversive “runway installation” that’s meant to fuck with our perception of the semiotics of fashion sound strong? Sure. And the set, designed by Hardy in collaboration with fellow Biennial-er Oscar Tuazon, felt industrial, imposing and polished. But it seems Hardy didn’t think beyond the elevator speech. What could have been an intriguing, thought-provoking project collapsed due to flaccid execution, unimaginative compositions and weak theoretical foundations.

K8 Hardy, “Untitled Runway Show” (click to enlarge)

Fashion is a system that can (and should) be criticized and questioned. We should be free to comment on the ridiculousness that pervades the industry and the culture, and in theory, such a critique offers the perfect foundation for creative work. But maybe, just maybe, if you’re going to comment on these problems through your art, it might be wise to see the forest for the trees and avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes of the art world in the process.

K8 Hardy was given an entire floor of one of the most influential museums in America for her performance (which I’m sure had absolutely, positively nothing to do at all with the fact that she graduated from the Whitney Independent Study Program). She should have brought it, especially with such a solid concept. What she ended up with was a Zoolander approach to her raw material, creating works that were crude caricatures rather than compelling criticisms.

K8 Hardy’s “Untitled Runway Show, 2012” took place on Sunday, May 20, 4pm, at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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Alexander Cavaluzzo

Alexander Cavaluzzo is a Pop Poet, Cultural Critic and Sartorial Scholar. He received his BS in Art History from FIT and his MA in Arts Politics at NYU. His interests focus on the intersection of fashion,...