South African Cultural Observatory

The other side of SA fashion

BY Dr Danny Shorkend 19.07.17

INTERROGATING the world of South African fashion, photographer Johnny Lai Sang has produced images of rare complexity. On the one hand, full of the glitter and glamour of this world and yet on the other hand, a murky, darker, shadow-side emerges. This is captured through an understanding of his craft where contrasts of colour, intensity of light, the ability to focus and yet not focus the lens and an eye for alternative perspectives and vantage points contribute to an interesting show, one well worth a visit.

Such works are enigmatic precisely because they are not simply about the allure of clothing, the polished image of figure and facial expression and the like, but appear to delve into a deeper psychological dimension. Beauty – yes, but mysterious, even potentially hiding a darker, unknown world. In these respects, such images such as “Just Hanging” and “Apparition” suggest a surreal reality, an unknown presence of great force or rather a force that unhinges what society deems beautiful, and instead asks the viewer to look behind these images or rather the ideological framework that determines a society’s view of what constitutes beauty, the ideal and perfection. This unveiling of such concepts, if you like, is backed up by astute visual and technical skill.

Lai Sang’s photographs capture a sense of foreboding as shadows lurk, as faces become mask-like, even dolls. He is able to do this as over the years he has managed to get back-stage access to such events. The glitz and glamour become abstract dots of sorts, and he often uses stark black backgrounds from which figures emerge. One is reminded of a Kirchner painting wherein the artist questions the values of that society and its decadence. This he achieves with figures “strutting” at contorted angles; with the seeming insanity of odd head gear and the dotted markers of light that distort and fragment. This is further highlighted by his one image of a strange procession of models (what does that mean?) that seem to be going no-where, a kind of militaristic uniformity - and yet banal.

Of course, such a reading is but one side of the coin. One may also argue that the artist is merely strengthening society’s norms and its categories, in this case “the fashion world”. But fashion is a very loose term. Could ideas be said to be a certain fashion? In which case, just as garments come and go (and how peculiar and interesting are the arbitrary configurations of clothing in any given society and the change over time), so ideas do. Or perhaps more curiously, how are such ideas and ideals or better, the process of socialisation, determined and created through the fashion that is consumed and followed (just like a model-doll).

Flesh appears unreal. Clothes ahead of its time. That which is behind or within concealed in the glamour of the pageant, the circus, the so-called cat-walk. This assessment may appear critical of mass culture, but since one can use the word fashion loosely as hitherto argued, such a description could equally apply to sacrosanct world-views and the like. Having said that, there is also a highly creative and off-beat aspect to the fashion world, both art-like and beautiful (a highly maligned word in the first place). One can at least say that new fashions can be game-changes and in fact themselves create and institute new ideas within a given society. Is a society of jeans “Western” and does that reflect freedom or merely an ideological framework, a merely apparent openness that fails to recognise other points of view? Perhaps it is only mere cloth.

Lai Sang’s work, therefore is in my estimation more than just about the spectacle and atmosphere of the fashion world, specifically in a South African context. The clothing thread, so to speak, leads to philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, there is an aesthetic appeal that is charming and frightful at the same time. A play of surfaces, a presence that refuses and refutes speculation. It’s a pantomime, a dynamic shifting party that happens within specified time-frames. And then the game is over. It’s all much ado about nothing. Or is it?  

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