The Zimzum Man

After disappearing a decade ago, Martin Margiela’s resurgence as a contemporary artist comes at least twenty years too late.

Martin Margiela, Vanitas, silicone and natural dyed hair, 2019. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

There is a tradition in Jewish mysticism that says that after God created the world, there was nothing left for him to do but to recede into himself and disappear. Artists should also operate in this way – as an absent god who doesn’t need to appear again and again in his own creation to put things right – because the absence of the self (which in Jewish mysticism is called zimzum, a widely recognised method of decentring the self) leaves room for life and movement, surprises, projections, and desires.

There is a god in the world of fashion and his name is Martin Margiela. In 2009, after twenty years of ground-breaking collections, he suddenly chose to disappear from the face of the earth. Some said he had started working as a furniture restorer, others that he had become a fisherman in a small Belgian village. Margiela was missing, and not even the fashion theorist Olivier Saillard knew where he was, when I asked him a few years ago.

But now, a little more than ten years on, this intellectual trickster has reappeared, this time as an artist, with a solo show at the hip institution Lafayette Anticipations in Paris. Not bad for the first step in an artist’s career. In what way has Margiela’s fashion philosophy inspired the works of art, and is he as exceptional an artist as he was a fashion designer?

Martin Margiela, Torso (part of series), wood core and plaster (Torso I & II) / Wood core, polyurethane foam, and silicone (Torso III), 2018–2021. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

Margiela became a star by challenging the fashion system like no one else had done. He was a true postmodernist in the sense that he preferred deconstructing and reconstructing garments, building shirts on shirts, turning jackets inside out, and even exhibiting patterns as clothes. But nihil ex nihilo. He got the idea for the legendary split-toe shoes in 1989, for example, from Japanese workers’ tabi shoes. At the same time, he managed to mobilise two antitheses to fast fashion: timelessness and personality. He began reproducing anonymous garments he bought at flea markets, building garments with such disparate objects as leather gloves, decks of cards, Christmas tree lighting, and power cables long before organic recycling became fashionable. As for the trends of the 1980s, for his first fashion show he created a new slim cigarette silhouette that was the opposite of Montana’s oversized shoulders.

Margiela also worked with models of all ages, with different body types and skin colours, and, like Caravaggio, picked people straight off the street for the catwalk. He was also the first to stage fashion shows in grimy spaces such as basements, industrial estates, and abandoned train stations. Margiela himself was inspired by Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, who in turn came to dedicate several homage collections to him. Even younger colleagues from Antwerp – such as Raf Simons, Demna Gvasalia, and Andrea Crews – work in his spirit, and rappers such as Kayne West, Jay-Z, and Futura are constantly showing off their Margiela taste in songs and performances.

A few years ago, when I borrowed clothes from various designers for performing and traveling in the role of my literary doppelgänger, I asked the house of Margiela to lend me a garment from the archive. In most cases, I used to have to explain extensively to the archivists what needing to “dress my literary doppelgänger” meant. Not this time. They found the concept crystal clear and happily filled my entire bag with iconic Margiela garments. Without revealing too much, I can confess that his clothes gave me the courage to become someone different and do things I wouldn’t have imagined even in my wildest dreams. Because courage is exactly what fashion provides: an armour to protect against the outside world and a developing fluid for our most hidden desires.

Martin Margiela, Cartography, Print on Forex, wood, polyurethane foam, 2019. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

To now be able to step into Margiela’s mythical world is like stepping into his head. The exhibition is arranged as a labyrinth with grey walls and works that stand in small chambers behind plexiglass. Throughout the space I am met by elegant, black-clad men in white shoes and white gloves who move around the objects. In Hair Portraits (2015–2019), iconic women in magazines from the 1970s have had their faces covered with hair, erased and sealed forever. In a gallery next door, I encounter Readhead (2019), a portrait taken from behind of an anonymous red-haired woman’s head with a split in the middle that makes it look like a basketball. Further away, I see four heads with different colour gradations and roots showing. The very last head is white, as if a memento mori.

Another gallery has been filled with photographs of the dust on Super 8 movies. An absent art object paints a shadow on a plinth, the shadow of a painting. In a gallery further away, a bus shelter has been covered in fur. Suddenly, the plexiglass turns white. The work is gone. I either have to step up to the next one or wait for it to reappear. I stand there thinking of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-clad cup and wonder if Margiela is playing hide and seek simply so we won’t take the works for granted. They appear here and there like mirages – or phantasmagorias, as Walter Benjamin would say – in a commodified art world (Lafayette Anticipations is run by the well-known department store’s owner Guillaume Huzet), where the products are animated and people are commodified. It is impossible not to consider the exhibition’s automated agents who activate and deactivate the works by picking them up or taking them down from the walls as a response to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) – with the difference being that the latter’s hypermodern frenzy has given way to a post-postmodern phlegmatic lull.

Martin Margiela, Film Dust, oil on microbead-coated canvas, 2017–2021.

What does Margiela bring to contemporary art and art history? Most works have an aura of déjà vu, like the shadow works or the dust on the 8 millimetre film. Artists from Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein, through Claudio Parmiggiani and Arte Povera, and up to Ryan Gander’s post-conceptual games with air, dust, and emptiness, have worked with disappearance and the materiality of the intangible. The same goes for the wigs, nails, furs, and other attributes of femininity that Margiela deconstructs in the second part of the exhibition. Here he resembles a true feminist artist from the 1990s, while adding studies of the movements of the hair here and there. I even have a sense that I’ve seen the anamorphic wax cloth bodies based on bodybuilders before – and in much weirder versions, such as Patricia Piccinini’s fleshy metastases. Even Margiela’s fetishisation of the spray can – the filter between inner and outer life, which has been elevated into a symbol for the entire exhibition – pales in comparison to Andy Warhol’s soup cans. When it comes to the immersive and narratological gesamtkunstwerk claim, every other blockbuster exhibition at major Paris art institutions has employed this seductive exhibition aesthetic.

It is as if Margiela is an artist who arrived too late, an all-too logical result of twenty years of work in the light and ten in the dark. For what is his artwork saying about our time? That we are discontent? We already knew that. That gender is a construction? We knew that too. That fashion is a vain struggle against the passage of time and ultimately death? Unfortunately, we also knew that. That objects can be animated, transformed, or chased off, and that the best way to make yourself visible is to disappear? Many artists have worked with that too, and for a long time.

Martin Margiela, Bust Stop, Metal, dirty Plexiglas, and synthetic fur, 2020, Photo : Pierre Antoine.

Am I being too hard on my big fashion idol? Perhaps. But thus far the way he revolutionised the fashion world seems impossible to reproduce in an art context. Which is a shame, because an artistic equivalent to his covering of models’ faces to anonymise them and bring focus back to the garments could have been a welcome disruption to the fascist and narcissistic surveillance culture of our time. On the other hand, he has already done so in a way, as generations of artists have been inspired and will continue to be inspired by him. The question is probably better posed in the opposite way. What does Margiela get out of his newly found artistic practice? A freedom he had lost in the fashion world? What we see at Lafayette Anticipations is perhaps just a prelude to what is to come, beginning with a tribute to the masters of art history. As if he wanted to tell us once again: “Let’s not throw away the art forms we have. Let us deepen and distort them.”

Regardless, the exhibition ends with a video work that shows yet another woman wearing a wig, whose face is covered in hair. She looks mysterious and self-absorbed. Suddenly, she starts laughing. Herman Hesse’s cult novel Steppenwolf(1927) also ends with a laugh –  Mozart’s – as the only way out of a crazy world. Or is it maybe the way in? A call to stop taking ourselves so seriously and to laugh at both the world and ourselves in one and the same gesture? Whatever. The life and thoughts of the true Margiela, not least his sorrows and troubles – and there must be many of them – remain hidden and inaccessible to us. It makes me keep dreaming of another path into his head, a more intimate and darker path, and new works that succeed in breaking down and transforming the codes of the art world in the same way that he once revolutionised the world of fashion.

Martin Margiela, Red Nails, lacquer on fibreglass, 2019. Photo: Pierre Antoine.