I went back to the Triennial just before it closed after a first visit that I’ve already blogged about here. I went again specifically to see these amazing dresses that friends and family had raved about. They were a bit hard to find; that’s my only criticism of the exhibition, it was badly signposted. This is a regular gripe of mine; good signage is a very under-rated skill. I didn’t ever get to the skulls that lots of people tweeted or instagrammed; not that I was very interested in those, but still I didn’t even see a sign showing me where I might find them.

In any event I eventually found the work of Guo Pei; dresses seems an inadequate description. She’s a Chinese couture designer in her early forties. She designed the Chinese ceremonial dresses for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and gave her first couture show in Paris in 2015 which was the same year the pop star Rihanna wore one of her gowns to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art Gala. I’d never heard of her. But I love her creations!

The ones at the Triennial all came from her 2017 Paris spring-summer couture show called Legend. They were inspired by the Cathedral of Saint Gallen in Switzerland which was built around 719 CE and grew to become the most important Benedictine monastery in Europe. It bore the name Seelenapotheke which has the beautiful meaning heart-consoling place. It’s one of the most important baroque monuments in Switzerland. Worth a visit on the basis of Guo Pei’s take on it. I encourage you to click on all of the photos in this post to really get the full effect. It was so inventive, so over the top, so amazing! Certainly worth a second visit to the NGV. And luckily for me, not too crowded.

With the Cathedral as its inspiration its not surprising there’s a great deal of religious iconography and symbolism throughout; starting with the very first creation. It reminded me of Cardinals’ robes and was enormous, making it very hard to photograph. These images don’t go near to capturing its sumptuousness. This was the final outfit shown on the runway in the 2017 show (instead of the usual bridal gown) and was specifically designed for the eighty-five year old American model Carmen Dell’Orefice. After looking at the clothes themselves we could watch videos of the runway show and Carmen looked spectacular, if a little wobbly. No wonder, this must have weighed a tonne. Mind you all the models were wobbly – which you will understand when you see the shoes pictured below. Carmen was accompanied by two young men holding her raised arms, presumably to help her keep her balance. The exhibit sign notes the colour is a metaphor for blood! A close up of the top. Here’s the view from the side. It was very long. Stunning.

White goddess, inspired by the dome of the Cathedral took central place in the middle of the dark room. More Pope than Cardinal it’s hardly a dress at all, more a sculpture to be inhabited by the wearer. Which is indeed how it looked on the runway. The model had some difficulty keeping her face within the oval opening. And it was all rather wobbly. It was hard to capture the full effect of this creation in photographs although I tried! And here is a close up of the fabric and bold yet intricate embroidery.

This number, called Golden memory gown, is redolent of the priestly garb common in my youth; though Father Philburn didn’t have anything quite this exotic in his Hopetoun parish! There’s a lot of gold here and a nice story associated with it. Guo Pei was in an antique stall at a flea market in Paris and found some golden embroidery floss produced decades ago. When told that it was once a favourite with couture designers she purchased the lot. There must have been plenty of it!
Golden goddess is another extravagant take on priestly vestments, the outer garment resembles the alb.

There are less overt religious takes; for instance this one called Dress with raised embroidery. Here’s a close up of the embroidery which, as on all of the creations is stunning. And check out the ear-ring. I loved this white number called Luminous spirit, it reminded me of Godard’s film of Beauty and the Beast; the candlestick I suppose. The designer was thinking about Marie Antoinette, hence the crown, which is spectacular. She (Guo Pei) was fascinated by the La Conciergerie building in Paris, as was I. Austere round towers on the bank of the Seine; where Marie Antoinette was held prior to her execution.

This Lantern sleeve gown looks as though it could be worn – one of the few about which that could be said. At a pinch, with the right figure and temperament, this might be wearable. Simply titled Tulle gown (I loved the mix of titles for the creations – some straightforward, some oblique), but you’d have to get into those shoes to have the same dramatic effect!

I’m not so sure that this next one is wearable. It’s just called Dress. Made of silk, polyester, polyvinyl chloride and embroidery it looks as though it is meant for day wear. Great for a dramatic entrance. The handbag is a straight out copy of the sort of incense burner used in the Catholic mass; good for holding incense but would it carry much else? Check out the ear-rings, shoes and ring.

There were some very metallic creations like this one, called simply Black chestpiece and lace gown made of silk, metal (pallette) and embroidery. Looks beautiful, if a little stiff to wear and it wobbled a lot on the runway.

This Bubble gown was fun, made of silk, polyvinyl chloride, polyester and embroidery.

The accessories, as would be expected with this designer, were also completely over the top. The shoes were beautiful but dangerous as you could see in the video of the show, with all of the models teetering precariously as they made their way down the runway. They were also tiny which brought to my mind at any rate, the practice of foot binding.

The rings were big, of course, and some brought to mind Bishops and Cardinals regalia.

There were huge ear-rings, bejewelled hand ornaments and extravagant head gear, like this simulacrum of a Bishop’s Mitre which you can see on this otherwise very poor photo.

The Triennial was a huge success; the NGV’s most visited exhibition in its 157 year history – 1,231,742 visitors. A record no doubt assisted by the fact that it was free. In any event it was another great Melbourne event. And as a member of the gallery I was delighted to receive this free gift as a memento. Especially as I had loved the Yayoi Kusama installation Flower Obsession in my first visit. See photos of it here. I think membership is a good deal. You get previews of shows which means you get less crowded viewings, although with the number of members there are still plenty of people. You also get to attend lectures about exhibitions by experts which, as someone very inexpert in artistic matters, has been a real benefit for me. It’s not very expensive, annual individual memberships cost $105 and its cheaper for dual memberships and longer period memberships. I thoroughly recommend it.


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