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Two Types of Garishness (1)
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Thursday, 20 September 2012
tags: asia, culture, emergence, europe, making sense, semiotics
I thought it would be worth looking at two types of garishness at London 2012. Garish is defined as obtrusively bright and showy. Synonyms: gaudy – showy – loud – glaring – flashy. I think that the official Russian Federation Olympic uniform and the GLA volunteer London Ambassador’s uniform both qualify. I thought it would be worth interrogating what sort of garishness it is and how it functions in both cases. What does this garishness communicate, what does it communicate in each case and why.
The conclusion would be that once we start to look at the different communication contexts, we can better see that the garishness performs different semiotic functions.
Russian Federation track suits by Bosco. They have been polarizing. Certainly, in the UK, when the first Russian athletes arrived at Heathrow in late July, they were slated by the press who interpreted them as an example of shameless 80s retro, evoking stereotypes of tasteless tracksuits, mindless away kits, insinuating unpleasant things about Russian taste. A friend of mine was roundly lampooned by his friends on his Facebook profile for having bought one as an ironic souvenir of his trip to the Olympic stadium. It was described as ‘minging’, and another quote described it as “the single worst piece of Olympic fashion” and “pikey sports kit”. This is a predictable English reaction based on our design prejudices that lean to sober and understated design leavened with a good deal of class hatred. I do wonder what Russians think of it? It seemed that the Russian athletes stepped out into the stadium with great pride and apparently it has been a popular fashion accessory back home in Mother Russia.
Unlike other tracksuits this one uses an ornate patterning device that catches the eye. The pattern is immediately identifiable as having an oriental, Levantine from my best guess, probably Ottoman influence. Matching the red stripes on the sleeve and waist is a sumptuous tangle of curlicues, paisleyesque, roseate and heraldic motifs all deftly interlinked together in a rich tapestry. According to my Russian colleague Masha Papanthymou, a main reference in the design is an ornamental so called 'Turkish cucumber', with Persian or Indian roots, which has of late become quite popular in visual culture, in a 21st century Russia still trying out new identities.
It has been popularly used in kerchiefs and scarfs and used by designers such as Denis Samichev on i-Phone covers as a nascent sign of Russianness. Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes discusses the perennial oscillation in influence between European oriented St. Petersburg and Asiatic Muscovy. Figes comments on the sympathy for all things Oriental in the Russian bourgeoisie in the 19th century: “the significance of the Eastern trace in Russian art went far beyond exotic decoration. It was testimony to the historical fact of Russia’s descent from the ancient cultures of the Orient.” (p.392). Vladimir Stasov researched the influence of Persian and Mongolian motifs in Russian lettering in Church manuscripts showing that Russian scribes had adopted nearly all of the rhomboids, rosettes, and checkered patterns later osmosed into Russian folk visual culture. So we can see from a Russian perspective that this track suit is not just kitsch Soviet retro; it is a fecund inter-textual reference to Russia’s history. Something similar has been happening in Turkey with Ottoman motifs in the last few years – becoming more comfortable with celebrating this through scarves & interiors.
What I like about it is that whilst it does play to a Russian love of grandiloquence and sentiment it also expresses something unique about Russia totally absent in the insipid anonymity of the horizontal Russian tricolore that will probably be forever associated with topsy-turvy transition period after the 1991 coup and short lived CIS.
As emblems, the bear or phoenix would be too vainglorious, so the sumptuous red with white tessellations smuggle in what a condensed symbol would do rather too overtly. This is reinforced by the bold lettered sash RUSSIA across the chest printed in grand, vertically imposing lettering. This is a new and interesting expression of Russian soft power and the team’s decent medal haul at London 2012 would have made this clear. Certainly Putin was a keen cheerleader for Russian success at the Games. The promotional imagery on the Bosco website, blonde Russian athletes, gazing Social realist style across the wheat fields of the steppe also shows a clear and proud rhetorical thrust.
© Chris Arning 2012
This analysis will continue in Part 2 with a look at the UK’s own take on garishness – the Team London pink and magenta Ambassador’s uniform.