Behind Security Through Obscurity is Simon Denny
The death knell of the Patagonia vest, at least as a symbol of utopianism co-opted by the tech and venture capital world and transformed into shorthand for a certain kind of unbridled corporate power, was much predicted last year, Vanessa Friedman reports for The New York Times. The prophecies of doom turned out to be somewhat overstated. But they may soon be heard again in the land, thanks to an unexpected source: Simon Denny, an Auckland-born artist who lives in Berlin.
Denny, is the man behind a new show at the Altman Siegel gallery in San Francisco, “Security Through Obscurity”, that combines (of all things) Patagonia, Salesforce (the customer relations digital behemoth) and Margaret Thatcher, Friedman writes. The result is a visual treatise on income inequality, global capitalism and the digital world built on shared fashion references.
Patagonia and the former British prime minister have one thing in common: They each gave the world items of dress that transcended their origins to become emblems.
In the case of Patagonia, the power vest: the fleece or puffer zip-up that is the de facto uniform of the private equity and venture capital world and the tech companies that loves it.
In the case of Thatcher, the silk scarf, which, along with the skirt suit and pussy-bow blouse, became signifiers of the Iron Lady, the woman who put on her absolutely appropriate clothes like armour in her battle to liberate the markets and bring “tough capitalism” to Britain.
Combining both, Denny, 38, found the shape, literally, of an idea.
“[Thatcher] was very visible in the 1980s, shaping a new kind of politics that emphasised the individual, deregulation and global neoliberalism,” Denny said.
Though Denny has previously had exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and the Serpentine in London, and represented New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, this is the first time he has used fashion in his work, and it is partly because of the former prime minister.
In early 2019, a Christie’s auction catalogue crossed his desk that included a group of Thatcher’s scarves. “There were a number of things being sold,” Denny said, “but many were quite expensive.” There were suits, jewellery, silver, decorative vases. The scarves, however, were a more accessible story.
“I thought, ‘Wow, these could be quite potent material for me,’” he said. “I knew I really wanted to work with them.”
He ended up winning 17 of them from two different lots after “quite fierce competition.” The estimate for one lot was 400 to 600 pounds, and it ultimately went for £3,250; the other was £500 to £800, and the final price was £3,000. They include a Nicole Miller scarf with a Forbes print, dollar bills and slogans like “Forbes capitalist tool” and “No guts, no story”; a leopard print that made Denny think of England’s colonial past; a Chanel design; and one from Liberty of London.
“To me, they represent an era of dress – the feminine but power business look,” Denny said. “Also the Thatcher policies, which have accelerated global inequality.”
Combine that with the offer of a show in San Francisco, home of both the tech elite and a growing divide between rich and poor that is painfully visible, and Denny’s thoughts turned to another kind of dress: the vest.
He zeroed in on one example in particular, a Salesforce branded Patagonia vest, like the kind given to Dreamforce conference attendees in 2015. (Salesforce, the company co-founded by Marc Benioff in 1999 that has revenues of over US$13 billion, is one of the largest employers in San Francisco.)
The result is four Nano Puff power vests made from a variety of Thatcher’s scarves with a repurposed Patagonia label taken from an actual Patagonia garment and pasted over one breast, displayed in shallow glass vitrines like collector’s memorabilia, and two Patagonia sleeping bags, which are references to the homeless in San Francisco.
Denny’s “Security Through Obscurity” exhibition is on at Altman Siegel until 22 February.
Original article by Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times, January 14, 2020.
Photo by Nick Ash.