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Bernhard Willhelm's Meditative Fashion Installations

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Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest.

Writing something overly serious about German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm's work would be a challenge, to say the least. The L.A.-based, risk-taking artist's new show at MOCA's Pacific Design Center is called"Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows the Danger Then Fashion is the Danger," and while he obviously designed it to appear over-the-top, Willhelm does admit that there's a dose of gravitas embedded within the boldly-colored, cartoonish collision of art and commerce that makes up the eye-popping, site-specific sculptural installation, which he created with his business partner Jutta Kraus. In fact, the more he explains the various elements, the more solemn it appears. But just when things are on the cusp of becoming too serious, Willhelm switches gears and discusses his favorite gay porn star (Cutler X) and his life-saving hair products (Kevin Murphy), both of which feature heavily in the exhibition and enable the viewer to move between intellectualizing and simply appreciating the entire display.

Among his many projects, he may be best known for making the costumes for Björk's Volta tour while also creating amusing and curious sculptures that explore the interstices between art and fashion.

Since launching his label in 1999, Willhelm says he always felt his designs explored the link between fashion and art. It somehow comes as no surprise that he hails the city of Ulm in Bavaria, the home of the Bauhaus movement, which was famous for the slogan "form follows function." For Willhelm, however, the motto could easily operate in reverse, with his clothes artistic first, then functional. In fact, Willhelm says he feels his work falls somewhere between the Bauhaus and post-Bauhaus ideologies, and he likens his style both to Helmut Lang's '90s philosophy "less is more" and Donatella Versace's theory "more is more." Willhelm explains, "In the end you don't know anymore where you stand, and eventually you can enjoy both. It's a little bit like being bisexual."

Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest
Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest.

Sex, race, celebrity, and conspicuous consumption are all themes that Willhelm explores in his newest work. The first thing visitors see is a large aquarium with a dummy suspended over it, dressed in coveralls with signature lattice pockets designed for explosive handlers, the inspiration for Willhelm's complete Fall/Winter 2015-16 fashion collection, which is featured in the exhibition. According to Willhelm, the aquarium functions as a cross-section of the complex layering of racial issues in American society. There's a copy of a book by ex-porn-star-turned-priest Bobby Blake, anchored at the bottom of the aquarium and serving as a symbol of the journey between degradation to redemption by the symbolic "lifting" of the book to the top.

Upstairs, a smattering of Kevin Murphy hair products punctuates the space between clothes, images, and micro-installations. Willhelm said he first discovered the products after dying his hair blonde, finding himself in need of some serious hydration. "It's so funny that these products have all very special names. It starts with 'Undressed' ... and then 'Young Again,' 'Born Again,' 'Damage Manager,' and then 'Shimmer and Shine.'" With the help of packaging, Willhelm explains, consumers find themselves buying the products just because of the names. He also says the colors of the Kevin Murphy packaging inspired the palette of his current collection.

Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest
Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest.

The artist's own image appears throughout the space, along with the cockatoo. In a series of photos mimicking Darwin's theory of evolution, a cockatoo appears before Cutler X's increasingly upright form. On the other side, Willhelm's figure devolves back to the cockatoo, which Willhelm describes as the "attitude adjuster." Meanwhile, on one side of the room, a giant blow-up figure with a video monitor features Cutler X "communicating" with Willhelm through sparkles and the sound of a gong, as Willhelm's image is housed in its own video monitor in another blow-up figure on the other side of the room.

A wall of collages includes children's wooden chairs, which double as stencils and props for photographs of designs from the collection. "Let's call it the interaction between object, space, and background," Willhelm says. Nearby, there's a showcase of "very good bad paintings," which Willhelm likens to a theme in fashion as well. He elaborates by pointing out a neighboring quotation: "'First you saw the dress as a joke, but it soon occurred to you that the dumbness which was meant ironically was actually the truth,' and that's a bit the same with bad painting," he says.

Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest
Installation view of "Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger," February 7-May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles | Photo: Brian Forrest.

The entire exhibition took about a week to install, and it seems to stand as a visual record of Willhelm's own creative process more than anything else. As such, it seems he shouldn't have to justify or explain the meaning behind things like the vintage magazine guides to California's erstwhile nude beaches, because even though they do have meaning (to remind us what we've lost), they are really there as part of Willhelm's playful, curious, and boundary-blurring aesthetic. The exercise is something Willhelm feels should be mirrored in the act of building a wardrobe for individuals as well: "Fashion is all about bringing visuals [together] with the mood with no guilt, because nobody can explain why you should buy every outfit in your wardrobe."

Like art, Willhelm feels fashion should also be about simple admiration. "It doesn't mean you have to wear it, but you can appreciate it," he says. It's something he feels people understand particularly in Los Angeles, where everyone has the freedom to live a different reality.

So back to the show: how serious is it, really?

"I think you can discover things which are serious and you can discover things which are playful, but I would most say it's about transformation. Also, turning something negative into something positive. And I think for me, it's more a meditative show than funny, because there is a certain mood, and this mood has to do with, eventually, what other people feel as well."


 

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