Walking the high streets, a woman glances at shopfronts left and right. Suddenly, a laced gown catches her eye in the window of a store called ‘Bride to Be’. She presses her nose up against the glass and imagines herself in that dress, walking down a glamorous staircase with her hand looped inside her father’s arm. All eyes are on her. She enters the store and tries the gown on.
If the wedding dress in the shop was designed by a well known designer of the likes of Elie Saab and Vera Wang, can we then consider it a work of art? Or does the fact that the dress is designed for a specific purpose (the wedding) make it less of an artwork? This sort of question evokes the debates pinning a purely aesthetic engagement with art against one focused on the conditions of its production. Should an artist’s work be interpreted as an object independently of its usefulness or should it be contextualized within its history and culture?
Like many of Ghada Amer’s works, La Belle au bois dormant (1995) uses embroidery to make a feminist statement. But unlike her paintings, fixed canvases hanging on a wall, La Belle au bois dormant is an installation, dynamic and multisensory. It consists of a rotating headless mannequin wearing a white wedding gown with the entirety of the French tale Sleeping Beauty embroidered in thread and an old phonograph playing “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss. We see the dress, hear the music, and read the thread (even if we cannot fully decipher the carefully embroidered text). Our visual and auditory senses are engaged as we ponder the work’s association with childhood and the performance of femininity.
Displayed in this way, embroidery as the femine craft par excellence seems removed from its primary utilitarian function – embellishing garments – and also from its function as a favored pastime for women indoors. Could we say that with this sculpture, embroidery has become art?
Unlike the laced dress in the shop window, adorning a mannequin only until it catches a bride’s eye and fulfills its function, the dress in Sleeping Beauty can be perceived differently by virtue of its place in the installation and in an exhibition space. Karin E. Peterson calls this kind of perception the “modernist eye,” a perspective that values art insofar as it is distanced from worldly concerns, and is instead appreciated for its formalism (how it looks), its artistic autonomy (from its context) and originality. This, she notes, is institutionalized in museums and exhibitions whereby visitors are encouraged to appreciate a work of art from a distance. The lighting, display cases, and architecture of the so-called “white cube” of exhibition spaces (Brian O’Doherty) elevate artworks. On the flip side, more functional cultural products that may be considered crafts, or “lower arts,” such as the quilting tradition, are excluded from artistic consideration. Is this the case with Amer’s fairytale wedding dress? Like the quilt, does embroidery only become an artform once it is relocated to an exhibition space?
Maybe not. There is a third element in this installation that brings us into closer contact with this artwork and by extension subverts the notion of a distant, modernist eye that might be at play here. On the day of the show’s opening, Ghada Amer wore a red dress she had stitched herself. It is actually the dress pattern of the white gown on the mannequin. After roaming around the gallery in the red gown, the artist changes into another outfit and places the red dress on a wooden chair alongside the other elements.
In stark contrast to the mannequin in white, stuck in an endless loop as though in a child’s music box, the red dress and its embroidery traverse the space. Bringing the audience in proximity to the artwork, it blurs the lines between the dress’s function as clothing and its artistry as part of the installation. And, because it is the pattern of the other gown, it is akin to the dress rehearsal before a wedding or the opening of a show.
Clearly, this performance differs immensely from that of the woman on the high street. While the latter imagines playing the role of a beautiful bride, admired by spectators, Ghada Amer questions the performativity of the show altogether. Her audience is granted access to the installation in the making, allowing them to experience the artwork more vividly. They can admire the dress as an outfit, pause to decipher the threaded tale, maybe even accidentally touch the fabric if they are near the artist, and eventually marvel at the duplicity of the performance.
One does not passively observe Ghada Amer’s La Belle au bois dormant but rather one witnesses it. Viewers must engage with it: approach the installation, peer closely to attempt a reading of the text on the gown, listen to the music repeated on a loop, and sync with its repetitive rhythm. Above all, they recognize the familiar sight and function of a dress laid out as though it has just been removed, or one that hangs waiting to be seen, admired, touched and finally donned.
More so, Ghada Amer’s performance in the red dress forces viewers to tread the line that usually separates spectators from artwork. Though successive exhibition visitors would not have the privilege of experiencing the installation performed in this way, the dress’s presence on the wooden chair acts as a relic of the ephemeral performance, reminding us of what once was: the breaking of the white cube’s fourth wall.
Ghada Amer’s installation elevates embroidery from the level of craft to the status of high art not by distancing us from it through an isolated display, but rather by bringing us into the tactile, auditory and visual world of the feminine craft. Like the woman on the high street, we too are invited to look beyond the glass and into the imagined show that a bit of thread can put on.
References:Peterson, Karin E. “How the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary: The Modern Eye and the Quilt as Art Form.” In Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, edited by Maria Elena Buszek, 99-114. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.