Preview Alexandre de Betak’s Ground-Breaking Installation at Park Avenue Armory


Even the most avid fashion followers might not be familiar with Alexandre de Betak, but that doesn’t make his influence on the industry any less profound. The French creative includes art director, producer, scenographer, and designer amongst his resume titles and is driving force behind some of the biggest fashion moments in recent history. At the end of the next Spring 2018 runway season he will have designed over 1,000 sets for fashion shows and exhibitions worldwide. He’s created dreamy sets for Rodarte and helped build the massive flower-filled walls that Raf Simons requested as a runway backdrop during his time at Dior. Another major career highlight for de Betak was designing the set for the 2000 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which was the first-ever of the lingerie giant’s epic runway extravaganzas to be live-streamed on the Internet.

For this year’s TEFAF New York Spring art fair—a Dutch event that focuses on art and design from the 20th century through today—de Betak’s broken ground once again. He was commissioned by Swiss Galerie Gmurzynska to build an experiential space within New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Whereas most art is presented against a plain white wall, de Betak is attempting to change the way art is viewed by making it interact with its surrounding space. For the installation, he built a silver cube striated with LED lights. Another massive metallic cube is positioned in the middle of the space, along with a mink covered table and chairs. On the walls, hang paintings by the likes of Joan Miró and Alexander Rodchenko. It will be easy for critics to allege that de Betak isn’t giving the art its rightful attention, but he’s never been one to shy away from taking risks.

Despite the ubiquity of his work, de Betak rarely grants interviews, but we were lucky enough to tap the designer at his installation’s opening preview at the Park Avenue Armory last night. Here, he opens up about his creative process and what he’s learned about fashion via the set of over 1,000 shows:

How did the idea for tonight’s space start to take shape?

“My design is always a combination of elements, but the creative process is different every time. Whether you’re highlighting fashion or an art collection, or just an idea, it’s about creating with different layers. I like to focus on an emotion and then the rest is a surprise. In the case of this space, I wanted to prove that you can show very important art in a non-neutral space in a very daring manner. It could be perceived as an overpowering manor, but it’s not, because the art is very powerful itself. The Miró for example, you see all of the reflections of the grid, and it gives you a different reading of the art. I guess I started by just thinking about how I would want to see the art if it was mine.”

It seems like a taboo in the art world to build non-neutral spaces to stage works. Why do you think that is?

“I’m accustomed to taboos. I live well with them. The gallery world, for obvious reasons, has always been neutral out of courtesy and enhancement to the artist. This is not a gallery, it’s an installation. I think that we’ve seen important art for so long now on stark minimal white walls, that we’re ready for something else. We, meaning all of us. I think everyone that loves art is maybe ready to open up to seeing it again against a completely different background. I personally think you can enhance it, you can modernize the reading of the art.”

Do you think that museums might be more relevant if they were experiential?

“‘Experiential’ is a word that I think I spontaneously try to put in everything I do. Nowadays, people want interaction, they want to feel apart of the experience. They don’t want to be intimidated. Whether it’s taking a selfie or a picture or just memorizing what they’ve seen, everything in our world needs to be different each time.”

What’s your personal creative process?

“I sketch, I do research, I put inspiration boards together on the computer. Then I have a team of renderers to help visualize what practically possible. In the case of this show, I designed a few variations before getting to the final one that you see here. I was wanting to do something quite brutalist in a way, quite minimal, quite modern. I also play with the interaction with the viewer, like the mirror cube in the middle. If you notice, when you move, it gives you a different reading of some of the paintings. If you stand exactly in the middle of the space, you can see two paintings as one.”

That’s surely a risk, because purists are likely to contest that’s not how art is intended to be viewed.

“I’m not a purist, so I’m not sure what that word should even mean. As times change, the way we see art changes too. A lot of the pieces on show here are almost a hundred years old; you have art that has gone through decades and decades of aging. I think that to not be purist and to integrate these pieces into our current times is a greater favor to each of them. All these artists were groundbreakers and precursors and modernists in their time, and I would imagine they’d appreciate the modernism of this present moment.”

When you’re designing a set for a fashion show, it’s not always possible to see the finished collection before you start building the space. How does that process work in those instances?

“It depends. Designing a fashion show is a very different thing, because they are collaborations with living artists. I usually start with a brief from the designer on the collection. I see their inspirations, sketches, colors, directions and ideas. Sometimes I know a lot about the clothes and sometimes I know very little, as we usually start working set ideas two to three months before the show date. There are cases where we come up with propositions for the designer and in reaction, it gives them a new idea. It’s a bilateral influence and the rules are always different every time.”

Some of the projects you’ve completed have been massive. Like, for example, the flower walls you built with Raf Simmons for Dior. What aspect of a project like that is the most challenging?

“It’s very hard to pick one aspect. By the end of this year, I’ll will have completed nearly 1,000 projects and counting, which is insane. Of course they’re all challenging, but the most challenging ones are not always necessarily the biggest ones. The challenge comes from a wish to succeed in a different way each time. It’s very hard to pull-off a surprise. My biggest personal challenge is to capture the emotion that I’ve dreamed of; To make it physical, regardless of if it’s small or big. I’ve worked on great projects with so many people, like Jaquemus, Dior, and Victoria’s Secret, but as soon as I’ve wrapped them I’m onto the next thing and tend to forget them very quickly.”

Has people recording runway shows on social media changed the design process at all?

“It’s changed the process a lot, because it’s forced us to create sets that look great from every angle, including on the screen held in the palm of your hand. What’s good in real life, is not always good on a screen. You want to it to be good live, of course, but more than anything, you want it to be good in the picture that people take on their phone. People photograph the set everywhere, so it’s not just one point of view anymore. We’ve adjusted to that, but hopefully still continue to make the live experiences fun and immersive.”

Do you feel that social media dilutes the importance of a live experience?

“Yes and no. There is definitely distraction when at the end of a show, instead of clapping, you’re photographing the designer coming out. It’s a distraction, but it’s the same as everything else in the world today. We have to take it for granted when designing and adjust to it, instead of trying to make people’s phones disappear. Trust me, I’m going to come up with a show one day that you can only see on your phone, even though you’re sitting there. It will completely fuck with your head.”

Visit TEFAF New York at 643 Park Avenue in New York to view de Betak’s installation from today through to next Monday, May 8th.


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createdAt:Fri, 05 May 2017 14:09:25 +0000