Four monumental garments hang from the ceiling over the entrance to the 2018 Armory Show. “WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING,” which is also the title of the installation, is written in beads across the midsection of the garment in front. I asked Jeffrey Gibson, the artist who made the garments, whether the text refers to the idea that fashion waits to be animated by people — that without us, clothes are nothing.
Humble and generous, Gibson told me that he likes the idea, but it’s not at all what he intended. He doesn’t think of the garments as clothes, he said. Instead, he calls them proposals. They incorporate ancient materials like beads and laces, as well as modern materials, like neoprene, canvas, and polyester. He mixes a distinctively Modernist, abstract iconography with anthropomorphic and figurative imagery.
Further expressing my ignorance, I asked whether the beads and laces and figurative images were intended to convey a Native American aesthetic. Gibson responded that, early on, some inspiration for the garments did come from the Ghost Dance movement of the 19th Century, in which ceremonial Ghost Shirts were believed to be able to deflect bullets. But it was not the aesthetic of the Ghost Shirts that impressed him; rather, it was the idea that garments can bestow power on the wearer.
“Understanding of the Native aesthetic is so limited,” he said. “It creates a fetishism for me to perform to and for people to respond to.” The human figures on the garments, Gibson explained, relate as much to the aesthetic of ancient Chinese terracotta warriors as that of Pueblo kachinas.
I initially misread Gibson’s textiles because of my cultural assumptions. Museums and the media have trained many viewers to see work by Native American artists, like Gibson, in an anthropological or craft context — instead of the context of fine art.
Gibson designed these garments to shatter presumptions like mine. Our limited understanding of the past, he pointed out, constructs and constrains our present. Just as I assumed that I could recognize a Native American aesthetic, some people assume they can recognize a masculine aesthetic, a feminine aesthetic, a queer aesthetic, a transgender aesthetic, a migrant aesthetic, and so on. But these categories are based on generalizations and mischaracterizations, nurtured by sheltered experiences and biased media. “I hope to get out of that didactic conversation,” Gibson went on, “and move forward, away from obvious definitions. I’m trying to complicate.”
If someone were to wear one of these garments, Gibson said, it would weigh them down, and it would be noisy. Gravity and noise remind us that our movements, our actions, have significance. Action is key. The garments borrow imagery and themes from the Standing Rock protests and debates around immigration, LGBTQ rights, the definition of family, and identity politics. As objects that are wearable, and seemingly ceremonial, they claim a heritage associated with performance and transformation. That heritage ties them to spiritual traditions, as well as to the powwow, rave, and punk cultures, with which Gibson identifies. They are corporeal, but also metaphysical — totems for resistance and transcendence.
Before we finished our conversation, I asked Gibson again about the text written in beads on the front garment. “It’s from the 1990 Sandra Bernhard film, Without You I’m Nothing,” he said lightly. “Have you seen it? It’s hilarious.”
When I looked up the film, I realized that I had seen it, and Gibson is right, it’s hilarious. Bernhard satirizes American culture, celebrity, politics, political correctness and the entertainment business. She pokes fun at how we allow our identity to be defined by others, even when they define us as clowns. Gibson said:
This film has made so much sense to me about critiquing the way I talk about race and identity. As a gay man, a Native American, married to a man who immigrated from another country, with an adopted child, I think I am the one who shapes my identity. But I am only in control of what I send out. My identity is really constructed by others, based on cultural assumptions.
By confronting every visitor to the Armory Show with these garments, Gibson pushes the boundaries normally imposed by context. He invites consumers of culture to reach beyond outdated understandings. Poly-national, multi-ethnic, and omnigendered, these garments are not relics of the past. They are an invitation to a future in which individuals have a sacred right to construct their own identities, and in which contemporary art can draw on any number of materials, processes, media, and iconographies. However we choose to respond to this invitation, we are making an investment in the future of our culture — a culture that’s nothing without us.