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5 things to know about Martin Margiela’s berserk new art exhibition

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Wigs, ageing, and anthropomorphic bus stops, the anonymous designer unveils over 20 artworks to the public

Fashion, as creative, challenging, and awe-inspiring as it can be, is not the same as fine art. If it were, Martin Margiela might not have ceremoniously retired from the runway in 2009, citing how “the system became suffocating”. “I needed a wider spectrum with total freedom in creative expression, and rediscovered my roots as a young boy in art school, enjoying pure creation without boundaries,” the elusive Belgian said earlier this month, reflecting on his sidestep into sculpture, collage, painting, and film. Despite producing wig jackets, porcelain waistcoats, and paper vests, and generally pushing the limits of the medium, throughout his fashion career, Margiela was loath to call his garments anything other than clothing. And now, the former designer is continuing to generate debate over what, exactly, constitutes art, with his first, berserk art exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris.

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Opening yesterday evening, the show is set to run until January 2, and comprises works based on human hair, dust, and blank spaces. It’s the result of two years worth of workshops and clandestine viewings, held for a handful of Europe’s glitter(art)i across private apartment shows. At Lafayette Anticipations, however, the general public are made to trundle in through a rear, emergency exit, while inside, the show has been curated in such a deliberately convoluted way that guests feel as though they are being heaved around a labyrinth of Margiela’s psychodramas – compounding all those fixations which he once exorcised on the catwalk – time, aging, deterioration, trompe l’oeil, the mundane. “It’s a form of metaphor,” said gallery director Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, “an analogy of the idea of an existential quest, the meaning of life”. Poetic as that may be, here are five things not to miss from Martin Margiela’s first solo exhibition.

THE SHOW IS UNTITLED

Much of this exhibition consists of nothing. Of course, there are moments of slack-jawed splendour – floor to ceiling acrylic nails, bus shelters that have been coated in a layer of faux fur – but deeper into the show’s maze-like layout, absence and silence dominate. Many of the artworks on display are hidden by covers and curtains, which are removed, at random, by attendants across the weekend. Though this seems to parody the artworld, upending its very practices, it’s an attempt to convey the void-like chapters in our lives, those periods of inertia which amount to nothing. Appropriately, the show remains without a title. 

IT WAS ABOUT TIME (LITERALLY)

Margiela’s obsession with the passage of time, and all its powers of regeneration and destruction, permeate his art. The aforementioned anthropomorphic bus stop, as well as huge, tarpaulin sheets with trompe l’oeil prints of buildings – like those which cover monuments under construction, and which decorated the walls of his former HQ – reflect back moments of liminality and transience. Elsewhere, five uncanny, skin-like spheres wear a progression of weaves, ranging from blonde, to brown, to grey, resembling the effects of time on the body.

HE RETURNED TO HIS ROOTS 

Having grown up in a family of hairdressers, Margiela spent much of his childhood in salons, apparently traumatised by all the perfectly-preened perms he saw bouncing through its doors. Here, much like his fashion shows, hair remains a recurring theme. Vintage magazine covers from the 60s and 70s line one wall, with shaggy hair obscuring the faces of stars like Catherine Deneuve and Monica Vitti. Otherwise, billboards flash with indecipherable images of pubic hair, while the artwork on an old box of beard dye has been recreated in oil paint – mocking our attempts to disguise the signs of ageing.

MARGIELA WILL NEVER BE IN ATTENDANCE

Martin Margiela has never given an in-person interview, never shown his face, and he’s certainly not about to break his anonymity now. In fact, it was the first thing that Lamarche-Vadel said on opening the exhibition to the press yesterday: “Martin Margiela is not here”. He’s steered clear of the public sphere since his namesake label’s inception in 1989 and only one, perhaps two, images of the man behind the mask exist online.

THE SHOW WILL GO ON TOUR

Not in Paris? No need to panic: the show may soon be coming to a city near you. Having now acquired formal representation with Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp, Margiela will be shipping his exhibition off on a worldwide tour, which will probably kick off in China. Then, the RMN-Grand Palais and the Louvre have commissioned an original work, and a show at Eenwerk Gallery in Amsterdam is planned for later this year.