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January 23 2009 6 23 /01 /January /2009 12:17

Soeur Emmanuelle, almost 100 years, recently awarded by the honorific Woman of the Year title (that’s probably moves her deeply, wherever she is) died few days ago. From this little nun, we’ll remember two things: a frank sympathy, and to be perfectly honest, a kind of dedication, and her clothes: a white wimple, a grey blouse and... sneakers! Let’s say that this plantar getup get successful since its launch at the end of the XIXth century. Athletic shoes or more commonly sneakers (to sneak) refer to comfortable shoes with rubber soles as at ease on playgrounds as on city streets. 

Following Keds, every sport brand tried to develop this fructuous market, creating techniques closer to art domain, or sci-fi, than simple technological concept. First Reebok shoes then Adidas at the beginning of the XXth century with long nails passing through soles remind us immediately the work Present by Man Ray, this iron scattered with nails. Then, the first Nike pair with the sole melt down on a waffle iron (a “cook” as Michel Blazy probably began like that), the Nike Air evolution (air bubbles into the sole, a praise of hot air worthy of Loris Greaud), the Air Jordan (do not mention Ball Total Equilibrium Tank by Jeff Koons but light flights of fancy by Ernesto Neto), the ERS (a technology that only Olafur Eliasson can understand), show how technological evolutions mix up with artistic practices. We could talk about the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila: winner and recordman of the marathon on 1960 in Roma... barefooted, he repeated the same performance 4 years later in Tokyo, with... Asics shoes. Such an attitude could be compared to art performance and body art for the first one, and malicious irony, like Claude Closky or Matthieu Laurette for the second. 

Concerning particular treatments artists do to sneakers, we have the hand-made version by Patrice Gaillard & Claude (in collaboration with Daniel Dewar) for the Handmade Shoes series, in polyurethane and leather: ES, Stan Smith, DC, Air Max 90. The duet reinvents myths: iconic shoes, artist meticulously working on handcrafted fabrication. Johannes Wohnseifer likes to tantalize big German brands, including obviously the Adi Dassler company. He collaborated for the Wohnseifer, 3 specimens of shoes mixing architectural elements of the Olympic Games in Munich with Otl Aicher works. He exhibited too 100 pairs of painted and reconstructed shoes for the Yokohama Triennial on 2001, and offered them to dumbfounded spectators. Jose Antonio Hernandez piles sneakers up to, thanks to their logo, spell the name of a great thinker: Jung, Kafka, Marx, Hegel, Kant. The idea is not extraordinary but the result is funny. Well, the link between sneakers and thinkers is quite abstruse. Adam Brandejs replays the manual approach of Patrice Gaillard & Claude but on a non-vegetarian version: a sneaker made of flesh and meat. Between marketing cannibalism and work sacrifice notion, Nike undoubtedly appreciates this homage... Ala Ebtekar mixes Iranian culture with hip-hop environment on Elemental, an installation where sneakers play the role of mediators between Orient and Occident and incarnate a certain imagery of our contemporary societies. Ricky Swallow tries the cardboard version on Vacated Campers and the wood version (with bird integrated) on Together is the new alone. The technical mastery of the Australian artist impresses but has to confront to furious classicism (and what it implies) on realization. Finally, Valentin Ruhry on Nike Air takes the swoosh brand to the letter and puts poetry and humor on these incarnations always connected to primary mercantilism. 

Mentioning mercantilism, another strategy governs the art / sneaker relationship. Numerous artists associated, voluntarily or not, their name and creations to various shoes. The Adicolor series can be proud to quote Jim Lambie, Claude Closky, Keith Haring, Taro Okamoto or Peter Saville, as participants. And it’s a great aesthetic success. We cannot blame artists for giving in to merchandising temptation, especially when they are dead like Jean-Michel Basquiat, or honestly and deeply implicated like John Maeda, both with Reebok. Concerning brands, they have always been inspired by contemporary creation. Let’s remember that Vans became a leader on skate market after the great acting of Sean Penn on Fast Times at Ridgemont High by Amy Heckerling in 1982. Vans whom advertising answer to Nike involvement on its skate market has been absolutely brilliant, fit for an Ed Ruscha painting: “Don’t do it”. A merely divine inspiration.... But, talking about God, what brand Soeur Emmanuelle wore?

[Picture :  Claude Closky, BK1 for Colette. Courtesy de l'artiste, Colette, Adidas]

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