The world’s most sig­nif­i­cant col­lec­tion of sneak­ers has taken over the Art Gallery of Western Australia, writes Ju­lian Tomp­kin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

It was late last year that the en­dur­ing stereo­type of the in­sou­ciant Aussie bloke hit an ex­is­ten­tial junc­ture, as a cache of con­found­ing im­ages were bran­dished across the na­tion’s mast­heads and news­feeds: pic­tures of thou­sands of Aus­tralian men queu­ing to buy shoes. Yes, shoes.

As a na­tion, we had grown cu­ri­ously ac­cus­tomed to the neo-glad­i­a­to­rial blood sport of the Boxing Day sales and the in­de­fati­ga­ble trail of tech geeks bunk­ing out for nights on end to be the first to swoon over the lat­est iPhone. But shoes? Granted, th­ese weren’t just any old kicks but scarce Yeezy 350 v2 sneak­ers, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Ger­man be­he­moth Adi­das and US rap­per Kanye West.

For many, how­ever, it was a con­found­ing in­tro­duc­tion to an oth­er­wise in­scrutable sub­cul­ture: the world of “sneaker heads”. And it is the hum­ble sneaker that takes cen­tre stage in a defin­ing ret­ro­spec­tive open­ing to­day at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, ti­tled The Rise of Sneaker Cul­ture.

Cre­ated by Cana­dian shoe his­to­rian El­iz­a­beth Sem­mel­hack, it de­buted at the Bata Shoe Mu­seum in Toronto in 2013; the ex­hi­bi­tion was sub­se­quently trun­dled through­out the US to much shoe-gaz­ing fan­fare and now makes its ex­clu­sive Aus­tralian ap­pear­ance in Perth, in what is be­ing her­alded as no small coup by AGWA di­rec­tor Ste­fano Car­boni.

“I chased this ex­hi­bi­tion … I was de­ter­mined to se­cure it for Western Australia,” Car­boni says, hedged by hefty tomes on Is­lamic art and Ital­ian masters in his of­fice in Perth.

“Yes, view­ing the sneaker as an art­work was a chal­lenge in the be­gin­ning for me, but I have no doubt now: this is art.”

The sneaker’s prove­nance is of course far re­moved from the lus­trous glass dis­play cab­i­nets of a state art gallery. The suc­ces­sor to the recre­ational plim­soll, the sneaker’s rise is con­gen­i­tally teth­ered to devel­op­ments in rub­ber tech­nol­ogy. La­tex sap was long ex­ploited by the an­cient civil­i­sa­tions of Me­soamer­ica, and Euro­peans even­tu­ally came to recog­nise its man­u­fac­tur­ing po­ten­tial in the 18th cen­tury. The sub­stance would ac­quire its moniker in 1770 when, on ex­co­ri­at­ing co­ag­u­lated sap against pen­cil lead etched on to pa­per, Bri­tish the­olo­gian and al­chemist Joseph Pri­est­ley no­ticed the lead traces would be “rubbed” away.

Rub­ber’s value was cor­rob­o­rated when Amer­i­can chemist Charles Goodyear mas­tered the method of vul­can­is­ing or cur­ing the vis­cous sap in 1844, un­leash­ing one of the mod­ern era’s most in­dis­pens­able ma­te­ri­als. By the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, rub­ber — al­though still an ex- pen­sive al­ter­na­tive to leather — had weaved its way into fash­ion, as wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ists in the US and Europe de­manded bet­ter footwear for their sport­ing and leisure pur­suits. The rub­ber over­shoe was there­after re­placed by a re­pur­posed dress shoe with rub­ber soles man­u­fac­tured by the US Rub­ber Com­pany in 1892, herald­ing the ar­rival of ded­i­cated “sneaker” man­u­fac­tur­ers such as the Con­verse Rub­ber Shoe Com­pany in 1908.

The Rise of Sneaker Cul­ture charts the evo­lu­tion of the sneaker as prag­matic sport­ing garb through to its emer­gence as a totemic fash­ion state­ment in the 1980s, and on to its rein­ven­tion as a sta­tus sym­bol in the 21st cen­tury.

“I think the ques­tion is not ‘Is fash­ion art?’ but ‘Is art fash­ion?’, ” ex­hi­bi­tion cre­ator and the Bata Shoe Mu­seum’s se­nior cu­ra­tor Sem­mel­hack says about the sneaker’s place in a se­ri­ous art gallery. Hav­ing spent her ca­reer in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­nate role of footwear in so­ci­etal and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment — for in­stance the high heel, which be­gan life in 10th-cen­tury Per­sia as a male eques­trian shoe, be­fore trans­mo­gri­fy­ing into an icon of fem­i­nin­ity — Sem­mel­hack ar­gues that the sneaker has been fun­da­men­tal to US cul­tural life, be­gin­ning with its cen­tral place in the coun­try’s YMCA tra­di­tion, be­fore its even­tual con­ver­gence with the hip-hop and ur­ban cul­tures that came to dom­i­nate the coun­try’s cul­tural dis­course.

“I am in­ter­ested in de­ci­sions peo­ple make and what it says about them as in­di­vid­u­als and groups,” she con­tin­ues. “An item can be ap­pre­ci­ated for both its beauty and ap­pli­ca­tion — there are very com­pelling rea­sons and sto­ries for why peo­ple make spe­cific choices, in­clud­ing with our sneak­ers. I had to put my

prej­u­dice [about] the sneaker to the side, and fig­ure out what the real story was.”

The real story is a sur­pris­ingly grip­ping so­cial, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal pot­boiler. Stowed within this kalei­do­scopic col­lec­tion are rous­ing yarns of po­lit­i­cal sub­terfuge (fu­ture Adi­das founder Adolf Dassler’s dar­ing de­fi­ance of Hitler’s Aryan supremacism at the 1936 Ber­lin Olympics to trial a pro­to­type run­ning shoe with African-Amer­i­can gold medal­list Jesse Owens) and tec­tonic cul­tural up­heaval (as one of the first af­ford­able rub­ber-soled sneak­ers, the PF Flyer be­came an em­blem of baby boomer Amer­ica, and the shoe that came to sym­bol­ise the sex­ual revolution that be­gan wash­ing through Amer­i­can high schools in the 1950s).

As vi­tal sport­ing ap­parel, the sneaker has al­ways nudged the fron­tiers of tech­no­log­i­cal and de­sign in­no­va­tion, with each shoe pushed vir­tu­ally to break­ing point and re-engineered as a re­sponse. The all-pur­pose run­ning sneaker would be honed and per­fected over time, and adapted for spe­cific sports and ac­tiv­i­ties, paving the way for tribal sub­groups within the broader sneaker cul­ture.

By the early 80s the bat­tle lines had been etched, with la­bels such as Puma and Vans ap­pro­pri­ated as sa­cred totems of tribe and creed: the for­mer rep­re­sent­ing black Amer­i­can ur­ban­wear and break­danc­ing cul­ture, and the lat­ter skate­board­ing and punk rock. And in 1986 pi­o­neer­ing hip-hop troupe Run DMC re­leased the epochal track My Adi­das, later sign­ing a spon­sor­ship deal with the la­bel — forg­ing an en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween rap mu­sic and the Ger­man sneaker brand, fur­ther en­trenched by the Beastie Boys and, of course, Kanye West.

But the wa­ter­shed mo­ment in the rise of the sneaker had ar­rived a few years ear­lier, in 1984, with the ink­ing of an al­liance be­tween then lit­tle-known bas­ket­ball rookie Michael Jor­dan and Nike. In 1985 Nike would re­lease a de­cep­tively aus­tere black and red leather high top bas­ket­ball boot chris­tened the Air Jor­dan 1. The sneaker would never be the same.

“When Nike put the first pair of red and black shoes on that bur­geon­ing icon from North Carolina, they had a com­bi­na­tion of style, colour, at­ti­tude and in­no­va­tion that launched the Air Jor­dan name into pop cul­ture for­ever,” Air Jor­dan col­lec­tor and Bos­ton Sneaker Mu­seum founder Rick Kosow says. “And the shoes weren’t the only thing that changed. Changes in fash­ion, on and off the court, swept the land­scape with the emer­gence of sneak­ers as form as well as func­tion. His in­flu­ence was enor­mous.”

The Rise of Sneaker Cul­ture fea­tures all 23 Air Jor­dans — as well as a num­ber of reis­sues and

The Rise of Sneaker Cul­ture cu­ra­tor Robert Cook at the Art gallery of Western Australia

Pierre Hardy Poworama, 2011, on dis­play at The Rise of Sneaker Cul­ture ex­hi­bi­tion

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