Byline: Robert Murphy

PARIS — The crowds visiting La Beaute, the four-month cultural extravaganza that opens Saturday in the southern French town of Avignon, may not expect installation art by the likes of Alexander McQueen, Viktor & Rolf, Jeremy Scott and Hussein Chalayan.
But neither should they expect next season’s runway trends elevated on a pedestal or framed and hanging on a wall. Fashion designers are invading the terrain long reserved for art with a capital “A,” and this time their work will be shown alongside artists such as Jeff Koons, Nan Goldin and Rebecca Horn.
McQueen joined British photographer Nick Knight and Icelandic pop star Bjork to create a hard-edged visual and auditory installation. Scott asked Australian artist Kenny Hunter to sculpt a likeness of his bust. And Viktor & Rolf made a tongue-in-cheek video commentary about the fashion system.
“Fashion designers at my level are working with an aesthetic that takes into account an entire way of viewing life,” said McQueen. “So to take our ideas beyond clothes is a natural transition. It’s essentially an opportunity to express our ideas about the world through a new medium. I think people are looking to designers for inspiration, in part because the art world has become too intellectualized and stuck up about what art is.”
In their piece, McQueen and Knight challenge what they call the prepackaged views of physical beauty promoted by today’s high-fashion aristocracy. Dubbing the work “Momento Mori,” which refers to the Baroque convention of addressing the transient nature of life through art, they’ve transformed a photograph by Knight into a living sculpture of maggots, which have been colorfully dyed and divided into fixed compartments to reproduce the image of an angelic face.
Elevated on an ornate six-foot lectern, the complete image is deciphered only by looking into a mirror suspended from the ceiling in Saint Charles Church, one of the many spaces the city is using for the exhibit. Bjork composed music to accompany the installation. “We wanted it to be an aggressive piece that forces a strong reaction,” explained Knight. “Alexander’s work is often like contemporary theater, and it vocalizes ideas that people aren’t easy with. We both think fashion can take a politically active role. In this case, we question the established idea of beauty by showing how something that is usually an object of derision, maggots, can become something of exquisite beauty.”
Among the designers, only Chalayan is showing clothes — if they can be called that. He’s displaying the garments-as-furniture he created for his fall-winter presentation, which was bankrolled by the French government, also the sponsor of the Avignon show.
Chalayan agrees that designers have begun to earn more recognition in the art world. “Design is incorporating and addressing various influences,” he said. “And although there’s still a schism between art and design, many designers are becoming more interesting than artists.”
For La Beaute, Chalayan created an ad hoc living room filled with furniture that transforms into clothing. He calls the installation a commentary on the multifunctional nature of beauty.
Viktor & Rolf, the design team of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, produced a video that depicts press clippings about their work speeding through the void of the universe.
“It’s similar to a scene in ‘Star Wars,”‘ Snoeren said. “But we’ve replaced speeding stars with press clippings. We didn’t want to present a fashion object, because we show clothes on the runway. The video gave us more liberty to express ourselves.
“We find it interesting how creations get press, are judged in the press and only then do they take on a reality. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So why not show the eye of the beholder itself?”
Jeremy Scott’s contribution is a commentary on the way the fashion world transforms designers into heroes and commodities in their own right.
“Originally, I wanted to do clothes for the exhibit,” said Scott. “But when I started thinking about it, I thought using another art form would be a more interesting way of expressing my ideas.”
In any case, La Beaute marks a shift in the way designers choose to approach the public. Even Christian Lacroix, whose work is less conceptual than most featured in the show, was recruited to decorate the city during the exhibit.
“Usually, fashion exhibits show a designer’s clothes in a museum setting,” said Olivier Saillard, director of the fashion exhibit in Avignon and curator of Marseilles’ fashion museum. “La Beaute is unique because it features a new generation of fashion visionaries whose creative concepts go beyond their garments.”
Attention, Mr. Lagerfeld: Sounds like the perfect place for a Chanel retrospective.