Thirty Thousand Streets

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Eye love Camo

I went to the camouflage exhibition at the Imperial War Museum yesterday with Jess, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and would heartily recommend.

It's a fairly concise show, but well curated, and gives an overview on the subject from its inception in modern warfare at the beginning of the twentieth century through to to its impact on art and fashion more recently.

The early pioneers of camouflage were artists, and this is evident in the 'dazzle' system of painting warships, which can be seen on the HMS Belfast, currently parked up on the Thames. What had never really ocurred to me was that Dazzle camouflage's aim, rather than seeking to blend the ships into their surroundings (a pretty tall order when all you've got is a bucket of paint) was instead to disrupt outlines and hamper depth perception – making trajectory, distance and speed harder to gauge. This is brilliantly demonstrated in a large oil painting of some dazzle painted ships in convoy, where large zebra like areas of contrasting colour distract from their general 'shippiness', rendering them moody geometric shapes plonked on an iron grey sea. They look incongruous, more than anything.

The influence of vorticism is keenly evident in the dazzle system, and indeed one of their movement—Edward Wadsworth—actually worked for the Royal Navy as a kind of consultant on disruptive pattern. It is ftting that the Vorticists trademark splintered style came to adorn warships, given that the movement as a whole fetishized the trappings of the industrial age. As Cubism sought to reduce a variety of perspectives into a compound view, Dazzle performed a kind of optical fission, fracturing the whole into a mess of shapes that distract from a unified reading. It is remarkably effective, and looking at it I couldn't help but wonder that if Op-Art had happened thirty years earlier, whether we wouldn't be seeing dreadnoughts picked out in Bridget Riley's shimmering mirages.

Aside from the camouflage there is a lot of assorted fascinating marginalia in this exhibition, assorted trivia such as artist's and scientist's notes and sketchbooks. One artifact I found amusing was a photo of the wife of someone involved in camouflage research and development, lying on the ground naked but for some drab olive skin paint and a kind of mossy merkin. She looked almost exactly like the woman off those deodorant ads in the 90s (can't remember what the spray was).

Of course I was really there for the clothing, of which there was lots, and which encompassed the full spectrum from the purely martial through to purely fashion. Given that this thrifty, resourceful art is itself a study in affectation, posture, modes and transitions it was perhaps inevitable that it would ultimately be itself appropriated by fashion for both political and aesthetic reasons (it just occured to me that the Public Enemy t-shirt I wear as I type this has a camouflage motif worked into the background).

In some ways, Camouflage represents the apex of a very successful design credo. Like much army issue clothing, it is hard wearing and hyper-practical, but more than that, it engages in a discourse with the environment, and toys with our hardwired semiotics. It is ancient and subtle, it is devious and romantic.

Looking at the traditional designs on display, it was interesting to note how different nations had evolved similar designs in parallel, while at the same time preserving certain idiosyncracies – presumably so that the gear could simultaneously function as a uniform, and communicate allegiance.

In terms of the fashion stuff, the usual suspects were on patrol, including Stussy and Maharishi. Indeed, I think quite a lot of stuff was on loan from the latter's founder Hardy Blechman, who is credited at the end of the exhibition in an advisory capacity.

So go see it. It's a fun day out, and what's not to like about looking at lots of splotchy clothing. If you're a bit of a camo freak like myself, so much the better, and you might even learn something. For instance: did you know that people who devise and create camouflage are referred to as Camofleurs? I didn't, but all of a sudden my career path has suddenly become clear.. I mean, is that not the fucking coolest job title you've ever heard? those tedious conversations in pubs would never be the same again:

"So what do you do?"

"oh me? I'm a CAMOFLEUR. You get that? CAMOFLEUR"

I couldn't be sure, but I bet camofleurs get the girls..

No comments: