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Checking out the Helmut Lang archive at the MAK Museum in Vienna

December 11, 2023

 A look at the Helmut Lang archive at the MAK Museum in Vienna. The artist donated many items and also staged his own intervention in the archive containing them. 


Vienna is such a city of history, so steeped in artists of the gilded kind. Not just artists but fashion, and wealth. Gustav Klimt was born in Vienna and is highly associated with the city, and his gold-leafed, decorative style is still much in evidence in the city, along with other treasured remnants of the Vienna Secession group, which was active around the turn of the century. The style was madly modern at the time, of course, radical and surprising – but it does fit in very well with what is a very decorative city.


Much more radical and surprising and to my contemporary eyes, not really fitting in with the old traditional parts of the city, is the work of Helmut Lang. Lang is Austrian and was brought up in Vienna. He opened his first shop there. His clothes were hugely popular and influential. But he became disillusioned by the fashion world, and closed his shops one by one, and stopped showing too. Now he is a visual artist. He has donated a significant portion of his fashion archive to the MAK museum in Vienna. 19 other museums around the world also benefitted.

Helmut Lang Vienna – The MAK – such a beautiful space

The MAK is the city’s design and applied arts museum. It is equivalent to London’s V & A. The huge building is so beautiful, with a central atrium around which arched corridors run. It shows themed collections such as the MAK design lab, “Vienna 1900” (exploring the famous artistic scene around that date), Empire Style Biedermeier, and other design periods as well. 


Helmut Lang donated to many institutions since his retirement from fashion in 2005. But in the city that he lived and worked in he has donated 9,000 objects. They include records and paperworks, but also 1,400 examples of shoes and clothing, some from catwalk collections, others ideas and prototypes. There is a little room in which, since 2013, several are regularly pulled out and displayed, in a changing exhibition.


In its best known presentation, Lang curated the tiny space himself. He didn’t travel to the archive to do it, but directed the placement from New York. Perhaps he felt a little nostalgic, for this was in 2020, during the pandemic. He chose chiefly to show a specially-created video-edit, along with some lightbox images. There are no clothes on display, which is a shame, but the clothes were only ever concept made flesh in fabric. In fact, there are no archive objects on display, although the images were created from Helmut Lang Vienna archive materials.

An Intervention

Lang doesn’t actually call this an exhibition but “An Intervention”, to enliven the collection, let it breathe, and let it become “a living archive”. He feels like museums’ usual presentations are “bureaucratic”, which seems a little thoughtless, verging on mean to me. I know many creative and imaginative curators working in museums today. The term intervention is not meant in the sense you might hear it for drug addicts or alcoholics, which conveys an idea of something that seriously needs to be changed. Instead, it’s more like a disruption, and usually comes in the form of a series of playful irrelevancies, which chirpily sit amongst a museum’s dusty permanent exhibit as a startling counterpoint.

Helmut Lang Vienna – A Living Archive

This room is not based on an existing exhibit, so there is nothing to disrupt. Maybe he is disrupting the museum itself, which needs no disruption, having reorganised itself quite recently and in any case being quite beautiful, as I say. Or maybe it’s just a concept in his head. Well, he donated the stuff, so perhaps he feels he gets to be a bit patronising about the very museum he has donated to and its staff when invited to do something with it. Since he didn’t come in person, how can he say he’s radically changing it? Making something unexpected? Well, OK.


All the same, I don’t entirely blame him for what he’s come up with. As with any artwork commissioned to a theme, it’s sometimes hard to stick with it. You might be invited to write a story about, I don’t know, ponds, and from there you start musing on forests and then how the forest looks from the air and really in the end your story is more about travel than ponds. (I mean, you might suggest writing something about the Helmut Lang archive exhibition at MAK and end up musing on artistic pomposity and, dare I say it, arrogance).


“The idea of the living archive is not only about preserving the facts and data but the spirit which gave my work its gravitas.” is Lang’s own comment on Helmut Lang Vienna archive.

Will Helmut Lang go back to Fashion?

When he made the intervention, even the fact that Lang was engaging with his fashion history got people excited. He had so resolutely turned his face from that path. He always maintained that he wanted to be an artist and thought he could support himself through fashion. But the fashion grew to overpower the art. When he left the fashion world it was shocking. But now he is ready to think about it all again.


After all, of course it all bears a relationship to each other, the art and the clothing. David Hockney started with painting and drawing. He then moved onto gigantic photo collages and latterly films and i-Pad drawings, and they are all David Hockney’s artwork. So it is with Helmut Lang. He is at least ready to look at what he’s done, and put some attention into his own history now. Working with the materials from the archive, he told Vogue, “made me finally ready to embrace the idea to work on a few books and other materials encompassing my body of work in fashion”.