'Lumps and bumps': The Cunningham/Kawakubo collaboration

Tom Caley, Holley Farmer and Glen Rumsey in Merce Cunningham's 'Scenario' 1997
Tom Caley, Holley Farmer and Glen Rumsey in Merce Cunningham's 'Scenario' 1997
Photo by Jacques Moatti

The Walker Art Center completes its "Dance Works" series showcasing the museum's Merce Cunningham collection with a display of photographs, costumes, archival video, and other artifacts from Cunningham's collaboration with Comme de Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo. This culminated in a production, called "Scenario," in 1997. Like Kawakubo's haute couture Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body Collection from the same year, the costumes for the work featured clothing that contained irregular padding in unusual places on the body.

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Tom Caley, Banu Ogan, Jeannie Steele and Lisa Boudreau in Merce Cunningham's 'Scenario' 1997
Tom Caley, Banu Ogan, Jeannie Steele and Lisa Boudreau in Merce Cunningham's 'Scenario' 1997
Photo by Jacque Maotti

According to research fellow Abigail Sebaly, the Walker's Cunningham collection is the largest acquisition the museum has every made with over 2,000 pieces. Rather than taking parts of the archive, the Walker acquired all of Cunningham's three-dimensional pieces, while the New York Public Library acquired the film, notes, programs, and so forth. 

The costumes and sets are not the typical kinds of pieces that the Walker collects. "We're going through the motions of what we might do with them," says Sebaly. Many of the costumes have been worn repeatedly, so some are very fragile. "It's our responsibility to treat them with great care."

The first image you see as you walk into the gallery is a photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders of Kawakubo and Cunningham meeting for the first time at Cunningham's studio. The blown-up image shows the two artists shaking hands; Cunningham stands very erect with his hand firmly out, and Kawakubo leans in, her body appearing directly in the center of the two reflections in the mirror behind them. 

While you walk through the gallery, you'll hear "Wave Code A-Z," by Takehisa Kosugi, who was the music director after John Cage for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. 

There are a number of photographs of the original production of "Scenario" throughout the exhibit. Curator Betsy Carpenter notes that the images reflect the silhouettes of Kawakubo's designs, creating positive and negative spaces that are also brought out by Cunningham's work. Cunningham believed in choreography having no fixed point in space, and often favored performing in the round. 

Robert Swinston and Cheryl Therrien in Merce Cunningham's 'Scenario' 1997
Robert Swinston and Cheryl Therrien in Merce Cunningham's 'Scenario' 1997

Kawakubo formally founded the Tokyo- and Paris-based fashion label Comme des Garçons -- a name which she had been using since 1969 -- in 1973. When she debuted her Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body Collection (which was nicknamed "Lumps and Bumps") in 1997, critics called the designs unwearable. "People reacted negatively because she disregarded the space of the body," says Carpenter. However, Kawakubo did see the designs as something that could be worn, and her work can be seen to linger in a space between fashion and art. In the collection, the designer clearly is pushing the boundaries of the grotesque, creating a "gorgeous deformation of the body," Carpenter says. 

In the collaboration between Kawakubo and Cunningham, the designs and choreography were created independently. Thus, there had to be a little bit of tinkering with movement when they discovered that one of the dancers could not actually use her arms because they were bound by her costume, which the dancers nicknamed "the bean." 

Besides photographs of the dance, there's also videos of the performance and of the original fashion show, and interviews with the dancers and Merce Cunningham. There are also photocopies of the costume sheets that the dancers used to track the elaborate costumes, books about the artists, and the costumes themselves, displayed on mannequins in a fluorescent-lit room with a huge photograph of the original set to give you a sense of what the performance was like. 

The exhibit gives you a small taste of what's to come at the Walker in 2015, when the museum will be presenting a huge symposium/festival/exhibit extravaganza focused on Cunningham's prolific career. 


"Dance Works Three: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo"
Through March 24, 2013
Walker Art Center

Exhibition is free with admission
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Walker Art Center

1750 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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