artforum.com / October 10, 2008
"Comfort and Joy"
Unquestionably one of the more unfortunate fashion innovations of the past year was New Balance’s “Joy Division” sneaker, designed by artist Dylan Adair and supposedly still awaiting commercial release. Initial reports of the shoe, which borrows from the cover of the band’s classic debut album, Unknown Pleasures, met with widespread disapproval from fans—though perhaps more for the bizarre equation of soul-searching postpunk with a pleasant jog around the park than for its appropriation of Peter Saville’s instantly recognizable graphic. Last Thursday evening, Saville again found himself metaphorically stumbling down the catwalk, as Burberry’s uptown store and Men’s Vogue hosted the launch of his new book, Estate (which could also be considered the belated catalogue for a 2005 exhibition of ephemera and reference material at Zurich’s Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst).
This isn’t quite as incongruous as it might seem—Burberry’s current ad campaign features Sam Riley, star of Anton Corbijn’s recent Ian Curtis biopic, Control, and the brand is obviously keen to exploit this association to the hilt, however far off the mark it might seem. So not only was the store’s menswear department hung with blowups of a trench-coat-wearing Riley, it had also made space for a leering Paul Sevigny to spin some new-wave hits and invited a clutch of the volume’s essayists round for champagne and sliders. Of these, only Liam Gillick and Sarah Morris were in immediate evidence, though also on hand were dealer Casey Kaplan, curator Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, DAP’s Alex Galan, and, uh, actor Alan Cumming. Saville himself, who showed up lateish and clung to girlfriend Anna Blessmann, wore a slightly long-suffering look but posed politely.
“Oh, don’t mention that!” Saville’s response to an allusion to the Burberry event by curator and fanboy Matthew Higgs, interviewing him at a packed White Columns the following evening, was one of eye-rolling embarrassment. His arrival delayed again by traffic, Saville launched immediately into the chat in the manner of a hip twelfth-grade English teacher, his straggly black mop and likably hangdog features gelling nicely with the practiced conversational provocations: “Is it true that I never listened to the records I made covers for? Well, some of ’em it was better not to”; “‘Do something’ was as much of a brief as I ever got”; “My mother is still waiting for me to become successful.”
Reflecting on a career characterized by a highly ambivalent relationship to his field—“I was intelligent enough to realize what design was, and intelligent enough to avoid it for as long as possible”—Saville presented a picture of a man still struggling to define his creativity. Describing his 2003 retrospective at the Design Museum in London as being based on “work that didn’t have to meet the approval of others,” he nonetheless balked at Higgs’s suggestion that this might just make him . . . an artist. Even shows at Manchester City Art Gallery and White Columns failed to prompt him to abandon his “professional” practice entirely, whatever its frustrations. Saville’s internal conflict was clearly genuine, but here his overstated reverence for art soon began to seem uncomfortably close to an excuse.
Admitting to losing his way entirely during a stint in LA during the early 1990s, Saville remembered that on the day of the big earthquake in ’94, he was close to penniless. “I had three dollars. It’s very weird being in the US with three dollars. Then back in London, I was very depressed for a while.” The honesty of the statement was affecting; for good or ill, the demise of Factory Records cast a longer shadow over this man than most. A “middle-aged guy who buys CDs of records he loved when he was in his twenties,” Saville verged on the curmudgeonly, but his enthusiasm for new projects appeared undimmed. Still, I struggled not to call bullshit his current gigs, including communications consultant for Daria Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, “creative director for the City of Manchester,” and designer of flat-pack museum plinths for amateur use. Suddenly, those New Balance kicks didn’t seem like such an aberration.