In the fall of 2003 I returned to the United States after a harrowing summer serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, West Africa. Unsure of what direction I wanted my life to take, I considered a handful of options. Eventually it came down to either graduate school for writing or fashion school for design. I chose the former, but to this day I wonder what would have become of me if I had chosen the latter.
I still subscribe to W Magazine and have recently picked up a subscription to V Magazine. However, I ended my decade-long subscription to Vogue about five years ago, when Anna Wintour decided to allow it to become a bit too pedestrian for my taste; but that’s a whole other topic of discussion. From time to time I still grab individual copies off the grocery stand: always the September issue, of course, and if there’s a particularly interesting bit of content, such as the recent Kim and Kanye issue. Every season I watch videos of individual shows at New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. I pay attention to designers in much the same way I pay attention to other artists. I follow their work over time, and make a habit of learning all I can about their style and technique, especially my favorites, Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne to name but two. I favor Haute Couture, but of course I also pay attention to Prêt-à-Porter. All of this to say, the fashion world intrigues and excites me.
So, when the Ubu Roulette randomizer gave me Karen Kilimnik’s Kate Moss at the Beginning, I was over the moon. I’d never heard of the film or the artist, but I was nevertheless excited because the title told me instantly that I would be given the opportunity to enter the fashion world for a short time.
Following the titles, the opening image—in black and white—shows Kate Moss standing behind fellow supermodel Christy Turlington. Soon we see a handful of other models mingling about: Naomi Campbell, Beri Smither, Jaime Rishar, and Brigdet Hall. I want to know the occasion for this footage so I stop the film and do a little research. Turns out, this is video taken from a November 1994 Marie Claire UK photo shoot by Patrick Demarchelier. In faux Brooklyn accent, Turlington says, “Oh my god I could die, I said. I’m so shy, I said.” And underneath this scene, we hear a song from Björk. The women, all dressed in black t-shirts and black panties, are huddled together, playful, giddy.
Title cards burst in declaring:
Then a strange behind the scenes meeting of the supermodels and a man with a ponytail:
These three scenes are repeated and then a brief cluster of video images of models who are not Kate Moss turning on the runway and being prepped for the runway backstage at a show.
Then, the video cuts out for a moment.
When it returns we are in color and we are with Kate Moss for a brief moment before returning to images of Christy Turlington. The music underneath has changed; we now hear U2’s “Babyface.”
I decide I want to know more about Karen Kilimnik, the filmmaker assembling this film, so I pause and go looking.
I come across a 2007 article in The New York Times, written by Roberta Stone, about a particular show at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. She explains that Kilimnik “made an international name for herself in the early 1990s with seemingly random accumulations of cheap objects and materials that functioned a bit like three-dimensional rebuses.” Stone identifies Kilimnik’s work under the heading “scatter art,” which she defines as “Starting in the late 1980s, scatter art was a proving ground where early 1980s appropriation art was given a new life by infusions from early ’70s Process Art. Its basic strategy of accumulations of separate images and objects — a kind of assemblage or collage, minus the glue…” Stone links this practice to other artists, such as Sylvie Fleury, Cady Noland, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jack Pierson, Matthew Barney, and Jessica Stockholder. Important precursors, according to Stone, would be Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas, Barbara Bloom and the photo-based generation grouped around Cindy Sherman.
After a little more searching I find an interview Kilimnik did for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine with Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the designers behind the fashion label Rodarte. The first question and answer that interests me is this one:
MULLEAVYS: Can you tell us about your Manson murder blood pieces, with PIG written in what looks like blood on the walls?
KILIMNIK: Me just wanting to be one of the Manson girls, until I read the book about them.
I can’t help but notice Kilimnik answers most of the questions as if she’s annoyed. In this way she reminds me of Sophie Calle—an amazing artist whose work I’ve taught on many occasions, who seems to have a knack for conducting cringe-worthy interviews.
And then the interviewers ask Kilimnik about this film:
MULLEAVYS: What can you tell us about the Kate Moss film you did recently?
KILIMNIK: It’s actually from a while ago, maybe 15 years old, and it’s from a Christy Turlington documentary and European fashion shows, I think.
What an interesting tidbit of information. The footage is from a documentary about Christy Turlington, which would explain the prominence of Turlington in Kilimnik’s film.
I decide I’ve learned enough about the artist for the moment and want to return to my viewing experience. What happens next is the image of a young John Galliano with bleached-blonde hair and a hideous multi-colored bomber jacket directing a runway model, “You hear a wolf, owwww, when you get about halfway turn back around.”
“If you hear a wolf, look around like this,” Galliano says, “Think Irving Penn; think Irving Penn.”
Seeing Galliano here in his heyday—that’s him in the pink shirt and orange pants dancing a jig—is a strange experience, considering his recent notoriety as the fashion industry’s loudest anti-Semite. Recall his infamous “I love Hitler” rant in a Parisian café, which led to his losing his position as head designer at Christian Dior. Following the revelation of those events, I watched his entire Charlie Rose special where he apologized and attempted to take responsibility for his behavior.
The last two designers who make an appearance in Kilimnik’s film are Calvin Klein and Isaac Mizrahi. The latter engages Turlington in a conversation about her love life. She confesses that she wants to get with an artist. Then we return to the opening with more black and white footage from the Demarchelier shoot and a bunch of credits presumably from the videos Kilimnik used as her source material.
Aside from my personal interest in the fashion world, there are a lot of other interesting things going on in Kilimnik’s piece. Repetition is central. The choice to foreground Christy Turlington in a piece ostensibly about Kate Moss invites a host of ideas about competition, stardom, being in the shadows of another, or more positively about friendship, community, shared experiences. There is the obvious critique of modeling as a perpetuation of the patriarchal male gaze. A fight to be had between second and third wave feminists over the role of women as objects. But more specifically, the absence of Kate Moss in the footage foregrounding Turlington both reinforces Moss’s presence and works to occlude her, since the audience is made aware of her through the title and then denied her on the screen. Repetition. The glitchy nature of VHS is appealing to me as someone who grew up in the 80s. The “bad” editing is reminiscent of home videos. (For me it’s hard at this moment not to think of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers.) Repetition. The challenge of age to beauty arises as a central preoccupation as well. The fashion industry’s obsession with youth. Repetition. Black and white in competition with color. Fluidity in the age of analog. Repetition.
Ultimately, watching Karen Kilimnik’s Kate Moss at the Beginning felt like time traveling. Going back to 1994, which for me was the middle of high school in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Watching Cindy Crawford’s House of Style on MTV. Listening to August and Everything After by the Counting Crows over and over again. Driving my beige 1984 Ford Escort. Smoking clove cigarettes. For this trip down memory lane, I’m thankful.
This has been the newest installment of my regular series dedicated to exploring the avant-garde video stash at UbuWeb by using the Ubu Roulette randomizer. You can find the previous posts in the series here.