Diane Mullin, associate curator at the Weisman Art Museum, is wearing what she calls the curator uniform: a black turtleneck, slate gray slacks, and black pennyloafers. Mullin is rather conscious of her clothing today because she's surrounded by works of art that explore our relationship to the things we put on our bodies.
"There's an interest in this because everybody wears clothes," says Mullin. "One of the main points of the show is that, in our postmodern world, clothing is the closest thing to universal that we have. Everybody has some relationship to clothes."
The show, titled "Pattern Language," is on tour from Tufts University. This is no fashion exhibit; few of the items on display look like things you'd see on people walking down a city street. One of the first articles of clothing is an everyday black sweater....but with two necks.
"That piece is called 'schizosweater,'" says Mullin. "Basically it's talking about the fact that we have multiple personalities, so this sweater accommodates at least two heads."
Then there's the pair of love jackets, made out of smart fabric.
"They're made as a pair but sold separately," says Mullin. "When they meet each other again in time, they'll chirp and beep and light up."
Other items expand our sense of clothing's function. There's a jacket with a chessboard emblazoned on the back, and flat chess pieces tucked away into interior pockets, so that someone could literally play with his or her clothing. There are dresses made out of garment bags, thereby eliminating the need to store your clothing in a garment bag.
"The show actually features artists who use clothing to talk about things beyond just a simple idea that clothing is to protect you," says Mullin. "Instead they mine other notions about what our relationship is to clothes, what our clothes do for us, and what we want clothing to do for us."
Artist Cat Chow made a 1950s house dress entirely out of crosswoven measuring tape. She called the piece "Measure for Measure."
"Having a clothing and costume background, I thought about women taking their measurements," says Chow. "And whether it's through dieting or through exercising, trying to meet that goal of what they hope to be."
The dress brings to mind lots of domestic sewing imagery: being hemmed in, or buttoned up. Chow says she's found lots of artistic inspiration from clothing.
"I also feel like clothing is a metaphor we relate to directly daily in our lives as we put on clothes and in some ways kind of dress ourselves and put on these roles or identities," says Chow.
Another section of "Pattern Language" focuses on how what we wear relates to our bodies underneath. There's a film of Yoko Ono sitting on stage at Carnegie Hall as people slowly cut off bits of her clothing, leaving her exposed. There's a simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating black dress, made out of one long zipper. And there's an entire line of clothing imprinted with images of naked bodies, raising issues of modesty and self-esteem.
None of these works were commissioned for "Pattern Language," which runs through December 31 at the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus. Instead they have been selected from years of artistic fascination with what we wear and why. Mullin says the idea is to poke and prod people about things they usually do without thinking.
"What I think would be the best thing to take away from this would be to have a more nuanced idea or understanding of both the act of putting on clothes, the decisions you make and your body, which is that thing in the clothes," says Mullin.
Many of the articles of clothing on display in "Pattern Language" are forms of social commentary. For example, two artists bought expensive suits. They then defrayed the cost by renting out space to sponsors. For the next year they wore the suits, covered with labels for Target, Krispy Kreme and Budweiser. Meanwhile thousands of others were walking about with T-shirts that were little more than billboards for Nike, Adidas or Abercrombie and Fitch, and not making a dime.