post by Rachel Pastan
“That looks like it fits,” Ika says, as the shoe model tightens her laces.
“They look cool.” The model admires her new footwear, which looks something like a woman’s figure skate with the toe and heel cut out. “I would actually wear these.”
A few volunteer models have come into ICA tonight to rehearse Nine Hour Delay, a fashion show/performance that is part of a new project by artist Irena Knezevic, who invites me to call her Ika. The project centers around a type of shoe—the model is called Borosan—that was commonly worn by women in the former Yugoslavia. They’re not made any more, and Ika spent all summer collecting them—a complete set, every size, in both white and navy. White was for office workers, doctors, and other professional women. Navy was for factory workers and women who cleaned for a living. “No one wanted to have a mother wearing the navy ones,” Ika says.
The models practice drawing the tall pink curtain that will hide them from the ankle up during the fashion show. They practice displaying their shod feet first here, then there.
“It’s not going to be a very fast walk,” Ika tells them. “Just relax.”
Ika loves these shoes. Constructed from rubber, cotton, and canvas, with metal eyelets, they are entirely recyclable. The ergonomic ball in the sole makes them easy on the wearer’s back. In Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties, when you wore yours out you could exchange them for a new pair at a negligible price. The shoe was designed for nine hours of standing—eight hours of working, plus an hour for lunch.
This project is just one pleasure among many in White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart, ICA’s major new exhibition of art engaged with clothing, fashion, self-presentation, pose—with how what we wear expresses our relationship to the social sphere. The show’s title refers to Narcissus, the beautiful youth of Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and eventually wasted away and died—or fell in and drowned, according to some versions. Either way, the yellow-hearted flower sprouting from the spot where he gazed upon the unattainable was named for him. Narcissism lurks at the core of this show—though, as its curator, Anthony Elms, consoles in his gallery notes: “Don’t fret, per American writer Wayne Koestenbaum’s pithy reminder: ‘Narcissism isn’t evil: it’s ordinary.’ It is self-evaluations at the work place, profile pictures for your social media, and looking at yourself in the mirror leaving the house.” Donning the courage of his convictions, Anthony has offered his own body as part of the gallery space. He’s wearing one of the works on his wrist for the run of the show: a digital watch by Dexter Sinister engineered so that the time runs—fleetly, fleetingly—across its face.
For Ika, the Borosan shoe is a lovely example of Eastern bloc Constructivism—art and design used for a social purpose. “It took nine years to actually engineer them,” she says. “There were lots of experiments and refinements.” At the same time, however, the shoes clearly denoted the wearer’s place in Yugoslav society—and they were generally despised for that reason, as well as for being required wearing in the public sector for decades. Tonight’s models, though, declare they would pay good money for a pair, underscoring the point that what we wear doesn’t have a fixed valence, an objective value, any more than a reflection in a mirror does.
Nine Hour Delay is an ambitious, long-term project, just starting out on what promises to be an exciting journey. For future iterations, Ika will invite presenting art institutions to pick a color, then place an order with the Boreli factory to manufacture 2,000 pairs of Borosan shoes in that color. The women of the museum will be asked to wear the shoes during their work day—to make them, in fact, the institution’s official footwear. Thus, in Ika’s words, “the art institution is actively excavating and propagating art histories.” Also, the support will help keep Boreli alive. “What’s so incredible about this company,” Ika says, “is that its charter from the 1940s prevents it from splitting up—in perpetuity.” And so it perambulates on, subsidized by the new countries of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia—a last remnant of a dead regime.
Well, or nearly dead. As Ika says, “Something has zombiefied.” As long as Boreli exists, there is a way in which Yugoslavia does too—gossamer threads, frayed but tough, holding it together. If I close my eyes, I can almost see the spidery garment they weave: a social cloak, woven of our needs, choices, desires, and delights. The fabric of society.
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White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart is on view at ICA through July 28.
To stay up to date with all ICA’s zombie and shoe-related activities, email firstname.lastname@example.org.