Art or Fashion?
On Ewa Kulasek's "sculptural" hats

Fiat modes, pereat ars. – "Let fashion be made and art perish" - was the title that Dadaist Max Ernst gave to a suite of 8 lithographs in 1919. Each sheet shows an arrangement of tailor's dummies in stage-like spaces combined with parodistic citations from his colleagues, the artists Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. With this provocative and ironic commentary on the relationship between art and fashion, which could be more loosely translated as "Long live fashion and down with art", Max Ernst pointed to the centuries-old division between high art and everyday culture, between "high and low", as a celebrated exhibition was recently entitled. Whilst fashion is oriented to the passing seasons and thus subject to constant change, art defines itself as precisely the opposite, as directed to the eternal, the immortal, to lofty insights. The functional aims of fashion and design, and their relations with and reliance on commerce, seem to hinder the kind of "detached pleasure" (Kant) that is needed for the autonomy of the visual arts.

As with photography up until 20 years ago, fashion has only recently gained admittance to the museums and exhibition halls. Not until the post-modern crossover between artistic genres in the 1990s did people's views begin to change. The large-scale biennial in Florence in 1996 entitled "Looking at Fashion" not only presented a synoptical view of the relationship between art and fashion from the beginning of the last century to the present day. In addition, contemporary artists and fashion designers produced collaborative works for various locations at the exhibition. Similarly the retrospective "Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art & Fashion" at the Hayward Gallery in London and Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in 1999 examined the interactions between functional and free aesthetics, and highlighted their interpenetration.

Today artists and fashion designers who straddle the genres increasingly smudge the boundaries between painting and photography, architecture and sculpture, film, video and theatre - or even dance and performance when creating fashion shows. Already in the 1980s, Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake produced sculptural dresses, and photo-artists Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin accepted commissions from the paragons of fashion extravagance, "Comme des Garçons" and "Matsuda“. Installation and performance artists Sylvie Fleury or Vanessa Beecroft even made direct references in their works to the glamour world of fashion, while artists from the fashion branch, such as Peter Lindbergh, began to be exhibited in art museums. This development reached its initial climax in 2000 in the highly controversial exhibition on fashion designer Giorgio Armani at the New York Guggenheim Museum, which subsequently travelled to Bilbao and later the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

It is in the context of this interpenetration of the realms of art and fashion that we should view the recent works of Ewa Kulasek - even if the formal rigour of her hats has little to do with the pretension of haute couture or the multimedia works of the 1990s. And yet she presents her hats both in exhibition spaces and at the leading fashion fairs in Europe - and at the latter her works have triggered a minor revolution. Together with
Alexander Honory, Ewa Kulasek has produced a DVD on her hats - which she markets under the label [SCHA] - that spotlights them to a catchy background tune. The DVD seems no less fitting for a video installation than for a publicity event at a trade fair. And typed out word by word before our eyes we read the sentences:

What is important about my hats:

They are about form,
They are about colour,
They are about structure,

They are not so much about decoration,

They are about beauty,
They are about simplicity,
They are about reduction,
They are about perfection,
They are to play with.

Many of my hats have many faces.
It depends on the way you wear them.
It depends on the way you combine them.

With these brief statements, Ewa Kulasek has clearly delineated the fields of reference for her artistic production. One may be certain that the Polish artist, who now lives in Cologne, did not choose English for her texts merely as an aid to international comprehension, but also because the terseness of the English word "hats" fits their precise, pared-down appearance.

Ewa Kulasek reduces their forms to basic geometrical shapes. Yet on closer inspection the hats demonstrate an extremely dramatic line and precisely cut edges. Their softly rounded contours or gently curved brims betray her desire for perfect form. Yet despite her predominantly abstract vocabulary of forms, the hats open up a wide range of associations: some shapes are reminiscent of saucers or vessels, others of historical headwear – from the Osmanli fez to mediaeval artisans' bonnets, or the hats worn to denote Italian merchants or princes – while others have shades of the steel helmets worn by German troopers, or even of Darth Vader's helmet in
Star Wars.
In keeping with the apparent simplicity of her canon of forms, Ewa Kulasek also restricts herself in her choice of colours. A few warm shades of red and brown, alongside grey, anthracite, beige, dark yellow and pea green.
Set in a row, the hats have the aura of a minimalist artwork, although the immaculate felt the artist uses has quite a different visual appeal to that of the industrial materials typically used in minimalism.
And placed individually on pedestals, the hats transmute into classical sculptures with an essentialist style that distantly recalls the foremost sculptures of the great masters of Modernism, such as Constantin Brancusi or Hans Arp.

Yet Ewa Kulasek does not generally look to the Parisian avant-garde for her ideas. Her inspiration comes far more from the Polish and Russian Constructivists and Suprematists, and from the "Unism" of the Polnish painter Władysław Strzemiński. The writings of both him and his wife, the sculptress Katarzyna Kobro, have left a clear mark on Ewa Kulasek's notions of form and space, as she has remarked in interviews. Strzeminski propounded an "art of strict forms". Line, colour and the working of the paint - as the " building bricks" of painting - were to form an indivisible whole on the surface. And referring to sculpture, Katarzyna Kobro wrote: "A sculpture [is] neither literature nor symbolism nor a personal psychological emotion. Sculpture is purely and simply the "fashioning of form in space". Consequently, there must be no accidental forms in sculpture. One may only use those forms that create a relationship between sculpture and space and [thus] link the former with the latter." If we substitute the word "hat" for "sculpture", we get a pretty clear description of Ewa Kulasek's sculptural headware.

However, the East European avant-garde has not merely influenced the artist in formal terms. No less important is their dream of a new social reality in which art permeates all aspects of life. Apart from painting and sculpting, Alexander Rodchenko, Natalya Goncharova, Lubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova also designed utility objects, workman's outfits, theatre costumes, and everyday garments. Their patterns were strictly linear and excluded any kind of decoration, just as Ewa Kulasek dispenses with all ornament in her hat designs. They "live" quite simply from their stringent forms.

Yet the hats only begin to reveal their extraordinary wealth of variety in combination with a wearer - once they are actually being used as headware. Incidentally, the artist is her own best model when it comes to showing off all the hats’ many aspects. And precisely because she has reduced each hat to the simplest form, it enters into an almost symbiotic relationship with the shape of the wearer's head as soon as it is put on. As a result of its specific form, just the smallest alteration transforms its shape so that head and hat merge to create a host of different silhouettes. Simultaneously, such minimal changes in shape alter the overall impression of the wearer's head, and even the person's face conveys something new. A brim turned up or pulled down can transform the same person's expression from seemingly serious and concentrated to mischievous, coquettish or amused.

As Roland Barthes has noted in his essay
The Fashion System, the capacity to transform is one of the foundations of fashion. According to him, fashion "stages" woman in a way that corresponds to various typologies – much like the traditional set rôles in theatre – such as sporty, avant-garde or classic. Barthes sees the combination of these character elements as granting the individual the illusion of a quasi-infinite richness, which also testifies to one of humanity's oldest dreams: the dream of totality, in which every human being can be everything at the same time, and had no need to choose. So according to Barthes, fashion is about "the dream of identity" and simultaneously the dream of otherness: the woman in fashion is seen as dreaming about being herself and at the same time about being an other. The serious issue of human consciousness, the self-reflective question of "Who am I?“ is united in fashion with the playful theme of dressing up. This duplication of the individual is, however, performed without risk of losing oneself. "The game of clothes is no longer a game of existence… but simply of the gamut of signs from which a person with a timeless existence may select a few for their pleasure." But through this, as Barthes tells us, the question of identity is played down by fashion and rendered trivial.

Ewa Kulasek's hats have a completely different effect. Although we also find a playful element in their changing forms and the resulting changes in the wearer's perceived personality, her hats are free of theatrical effects. Rather, head and hat merge to form a total form that is never masquerade. On the contrary, the simplicity of the form leads to a self-awareness that may even extend to self-assurance. These hats do not create a “fashionable personality”, but instead make individuality visible in all its complexity. And clearly this is the reason why the hats can be combined with quite different dress styles, from casually sporty to classically elegant.

Solely the names that Ewa Kulasek gives her hats allows room for dreamy fantasies. It is almost as if she wanted to find a balance for the strictness of their shapes. With names of cities and countries such as Buenos Aires, La Paz, Africa and Granada, she appeals to romantic longings for faraway places and foreign cultures. "Le voyage", one of her other hat names, is according to Roland Barthes ultimately the major topos of fashion. The geographical names stand for a "utopian elsewhere" that fulfils the promise of beauty, pleasure, leisure and enjoying the envisaged flair of a city – while being free of everyday cares. And when Ewa Kulasek names a hat "Cotton Club“, she triggers a whole bundle of associations – of a feeling of life in a particular milieu in the past, of magnificent jazz music, and of unbridled
joie de vivre.

Yet for all these buoyant aspects, a close look at the hats and their wearers conveys the artist's absolute will to form. Not a detail is left to chance. Choice materials are cast into elementary forms.

In order to comprehend the complex frame of reference for her hat production, it is worth looking at her other artistic works. In keeping with Unism, her use of form always reveals an uncompromising simplicity reduced to the essentials. Her drawings, murals and spatial installations are based on clear, reduced lines, on strictly stereometrical bodies which, through their striking arrangement, allow exciting spatial situations to arise.

In 2000, Ewa Kulasek produced a "
Room of silence" for Blücher GmbH in Erkrath, on the site of the "Brügger Mühle" - a former paper factory dating from the heyday of 19th century industrialism. Set in a place dedicated to constantly catalysing new activities, she created an architectural sculpture that invites one to be inactive, to muse, contemplate, reflect and find inspiration. This room-size construction in pale green fair-faced concrete, and with a ceiling approx. four metres high, has three slender vertical openings on three sides, and a similar-shaped door opening that almost reaches the roof of the fourth. Viewed from a distance, the construction resembles a minimalist sculpture. Inside the cube the artist covered the walls in long months of work with successive coats of grey graphite, which catch and reflect the incoming light in myriad ways. But interspersed in this graphite grey, the tall slits constantly present views onto the landscape as it changes with the seasons.

Ewa Kulasek has used much the same principles when devising her "
Summer bedrooms", one of which she is currently realizing in Italy. Two interlocking, u-shaped concrete walls form an open-roofed space based on a square ground plan, which can be entered from two sides. The facing walls incline outwards at an angle of 10° from the vertical – thus allowing the light and shade to create geometrical wall drawings that lend a clear structure to the space. The bed is a slab of natural stone that may be heated. Once again, this art location offers itself to concentration or cleansing the worlds of thought and the senses.

Regardless of whether architectural sculpture or sculptural hats – Ewa Kulasek's artistic creations refuse to be placed in one clear artistic category. Her buildings, her rooms or huts are eminently usable, yet act in the contexts in which she places them as autonomous artworks. By a radical use of form she transforms, as Friedhelm Mennekes has put it, everyday experiences into a spiritual process, "in which technical, logical thought can once again be united with intuition, imagination and inspiration."
In the words of Constantin Brancusi, "Simplicity is… not a goal of art, but one reaches it even without trying as soon as one approaches the essentials."
Ewa Kulasek's works are in this tradition.

Bettina Ruhrberg , 2005

Translation: Malcolm Green