A Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, represents the integration of different artistic expressions, such as painting, sculpture and architecture, into one single artwork. Echoes of this idea, developed in the 19th Century by Richard Wagner and notably employed by the Viennese Secession at the turn of the 20th, resonate in Rick Owens. Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman, an exhibition presented at the Triennale di Milano, in Milan, until 25th March. The designers clothes, accessories, and furniture are the core of the show, along with publications and graphics selected by Owens himself from more than twenty years of his career. Its crowning glory, however, isCurva, animpressive coal-black sculpture made of concrete, lilies, Adriatic sand and the designer’s own hair, and is suspended above the entire exhibition through the Triennale’s vast curving gallery.
The entrance and the exit to the exhibition are dark halls: in the former, the viewer crosses an arch of lights, while in the latter videos of recent Owens runway shows play to an intense soundtrack. Between these two extremes, that also mark the points where the black sculpture begins and ends, we are given a glorious glimpse into the designer’s own world and aesthetic, that he himself describes as a “black and white, Art Deco, Cecil B. DeMille lurid bible epic”. Coats and dresses are displayed alongside duvets, tunics, and bodybags that positively shroud the mannequins, some of which tower high above the viewer, just below the bare concrete ceiling of the gallery. Next to them, between the camelhair-covered stools designed by Michele Lamy, Owens’ wife and creative partner, rows of iron and glass cases display a wide arrangement of accessories and objects: gloves, belts and tableware of Owens’ own design are set up next to skulls, feathers and photographs from the brands look-books. The range of materials and fabrics is impressive: silk, lambskin, bronze, bone – as is the tonal variety of blacks, whites, and earth tones. “Whistler’s warm greys, twilight greys, restrained greys, voluptuous greys, and quietly aloof greys” as Owens calls them, are sometimes, although rarely, breached by solitary splashes of pale blue, vivid orange, or metallic rust.
The exhibition is accompanied by a limited edition box set catalogue composed of textbooks, photographs, a sample of an unreleased perfume, and a relic from the giant earthwork: a real-life metaphor for Owens’ ambition to blur the rigid parameters of what is considered beautiful and aesthetically acceptable in today’s society.
Rick Owens. Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman runs through 25th March at the Triennale di Milano, Viale Alemagna, 6, 20121, Milano.
Text and Photography by Filippo M. Galbiati.