Art and fashion have made for endless but unresolved collaborations, and remunerative endorsements. The Hugo Boss Prize, to be presented on Thursday at the Guggenheim, has been, since its inception in 1996, a way for one of Germany's leading high fashion names to support art, and to do so in a way that isn't uncomfortably mongrelized. "We've never asked an artist to create a handbag for us—we don't believe in that. And it's not like we're doing a fashion show at the Guggenheim," chuckles the brand's Director of Communications Philipp Wolff. Rather, the prize gives a $100,000 grant and a solo show the Guggenheim. Past winners have included Tacita Dean, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Emily Jacir, none of who would be considered walking billboards Hugo Boss image, which is apparently as it should be for the brand's ideology behind the prize. "We would like to support this world by helping it live in the way it wants to live. It's not about a commercial connection," says Wolff.
Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Empire of the Senseless Part II, 2006
A jury of art professionals not affiliated with Hugo Boss are chosen to select the candidates, narrow them down to the finalists, which this year include Cao Fei, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Roman Ondák, Walid Raad, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and then select the final winner. Thai-born Weerasethakul, is something of an art world adoptee, having begun his career in the world of independent film and having made a comfortable home there as this year's Palme d'Or recipient for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The artist is best known for creating feature length films, such as the beautiful and quietly erotic Tropical Malady (2004), that explore sexuality, spirituality and folklore.
As the Hugo Boss prize is based on an artist's entire body of work, a German artist like Feldmann, who shows internationally and consistently, and is very well known for his evocative image collections, gives a lot to choose from. As one of the group's more seasoned inclusions, he serves almost as a counterpoint to an artist like the Lebanon-born Raad. Raad also works with images, yet his practice focuses far more on their analysis through a lens of cultural and political motives, as opposed to Feldmann's discursive phenomenology, which looks to images as they relate to—or disconnect from—themselves. Raad has been the ‘00s darling, and his creation of The Atlas Group in 1999 has defined the era's interest in the tenuous separation of fiction and fact in institutional discourse.
Sadr Haghighian also deals at times with a form of institutional critique in her work, though the German artist is more focused on a broad multi-media practice that interrogates perspective and authenticity in varied social settings. This summer, the artist showed Fruits of One's Labor, a lovely, evocative sculpture of an oven spewing plastic apples at Ludlow 38 in New York, linking her in visual prowess to Beijing-based artist Cao Fei, whose trenchant explorations into the aesthetics and dynamics of internet avatars and Second Life make her practice arguably the most immediately reflective of contemporary culture/subculture. Conversely, the last artist, Slovakia-based Roman Ondák, has a practice, tinged with aspects of Socialism, that relies on real, earthbound people: for one piece, Resistance (2006), the artist asked twenty strangers to untie their shoelaces in protest of an unknown cause, while another piece, Passage (2004) invited Japanese factory workers to make sculptures out of chocolate bar wrappers.
The link connecting each artist seems to be an interest in mending or reweaving the social fabric of contemporary culture, be it through heady animal romances or internet meta-friendships. Which perhaps makes these six artists the ideal competitors for a prize that is defined by its willingness to accept art on its own terms.