I have had a number of clippings from Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2009 campaign hanging up since the ads came out nearly two years ago. They’ve been haunting me, or it feels more like I’ve been haunting them; I have been returning to the method of these ads. These documents, with ease, nod to the past with a forward glance along with the subtlety of a present voice. I find myself vacillating and waffling to find a precedence to them from Surrealism to Hollywood Art Deco to Phillip K Dick to Memphis Design to Marc Camille Chaimowicz to Minimalism. And of course, Balenciaga definitely has their own aesthetic agenda, so it’s not like these ads are merely a melting pot of styles. Rather, these ads have located a specific moment to harmonize with very flamboyant yet reticent aesthetic voices from the past in order to crystallize a present with a forward gesture. It’s safe to say these are the most alive images around.
The machinist style of Francis Picabia occurred simultaneously to the general movement of Art Deco during the 1920s and 1930s. Picabia’s drawings during this time celebrate the acceleration of industry and the mechanization of everyday life in the uniquely Picabian way of thoughtful perversion. Yet, and this is the magic of Picabia, his works themselves can’t be read as solely satirical/critical nor can they be read as solely celebratory of their content. Picabia’s attitude of non-negotiable presence, in the sense that both critical and celebratory views are held in unison, a move Warhol would perfect and then bankroll a few decades later, mutates the read of these drawings beyond a diagrammatic study. That is, we aren’t presented with a functional schematic drawing for any machine whatsoever in these drawings. There is nothing functional that these drawings refer to. But, they remark on the cultural production of what was beginning to trump all modalities of life at the time: utilitarian reason. Picabia engulfs the language of the instructional drawing as it emerged in the fast paced industrial expansion in the early 20th century with considered absurdity. So, quickly, these drawings emit an attitude about a language that had just evolved. And of course, everyone can have an attitude. But rarely do artists look at the right thing that will define a moment for the future and then craft a unique voice around it. And in these ads, there not only exists a likeness to the conceptual maneuvers of Picabia’s drawings, but a formal relation as well. It’s almost as if the Balenciaga models’ poses complicate the ubiquitous language of the posing model with unnecessary rigidity and vacuity. They have stopped to witness something just off camera, and are unflinchingly emulating a mechanical drawl.
Memphis design is no doubt through and through these ads. Yet, the props aren’t as functionless-looking as Memphis. Rather, a horizon line glows and is at times jagged as it emerges from behind the model, suggesting the haze of a beyond just over the stylized showcase “steps.” The works of Memphis implode into themselves with each piece. The Balenciaga ads refract and reflect; they tangle the Memphis style with Minimalist barrenness and hint to the beyond. What this beyond is still is to be determined, but that’s not the point, the point is that Balenciaga indeed has located the beyond and is letting you know.
The fashion itself, with the Tron-like dashes cum Art Deco flourishes on the leggings and shoes, the colors that are like electronic abalone in milk, and the non-urgency of the cuts no doubt would sing in any environment or pose they’re shot. However, because of the very considered approach to the pictures, the typical placebo of the common languages of fashion are avoided: the tired algorithms of emotion, fierceness, catharsis, or regurgitated classicism. A threshold has been located, a uniquely new combination has been selected, and they are, finally, only alive as advertisements, and not as artworks.