In the course of the last day or so, I’ve been reflecting a fair amount on group identity and conformity and the notion of the outsider or non-conformist.
It’s clearly been prompted by the numerous white towelling robes surrounding me throughout the day. I have to admit I am amazed at the ease with which the vast majority of guests here have freely adopted this mode of dress literally from dawn to dusk. I’m surprised because whilst I quite like lounging in a dressing gown at home, its not that practical. Maybe its me, but I find it impossible to keep the belt tied properly, so the danger of indecent exposure is great. No one will mind this at home (much) but it’s a bit different surrounded by strangers.
So is The Wearing of the Robe driven by a temporary desire to conform? Be part of the group? And is my own reluctance to don one a childish act of pointless non-conformity, or fear of the underlying implications of unthinking conformity in even innocent circumstances?
Coincidentally -or not- there is currently an exhibition in Birmingham of the artist Doug Jones’ work Inservi Deo Et Laetare which introduces his Brotherhood of Saints (see photo above): a concentric circular grouping of faceless figures, heads bowed down, dressed in convincingly ecclesiastical-looking robes. From afar, the ‘vestments’ have an innocent glistening rich embroidered texture, but up close the story changes. They are anything but innocent, and each tells a different subversive story.
The entire group has a sinister, subversive quality. There is an aura of forbidding conformity exaggerated by the facelessness of the group participants. Individuality is sacrificed to the group, and surrendered in return for protection, purpose and a sense of identity. I found it very disturbing, but also quite compelling.
There’s a lot of other very good work in this exhibition, including the fascinating Coena Pro Vignita, clearly informed by Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, but with a particularly British cultural and industrial heritage kick. It’s on until 22 May.