By Marcus Field
Nobody could accuse Miuccia Prada of having pedestrian taste in art, but even by her standards the exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Prada Foundation space in Seoul will strike many as a brave choice.
Visitors to an installation conceived by the young Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg will enter a felt-lined dreamscape, grope their way into a cave and there come face to face with her dark musings on the meaning of life and death. In the animated title film, Turn Into Me, one of Djurberg's signature puppets is shown dying and decomposing, its chest and womb inhabited by wild animals until it metamorphoses into what she describes as 'a strange monster'.
It's all a far cry from the rarefied world of smart boutiques where Prada plies her trade as one of the world's most revered fashion designers. But for her that's exactly the point. It began in 1993 as a small sideline when somebody suggested Prada should exhibit sculpture in the building where she staged her catwalk shows. She found she enjoyed the experience.
'We started meeting artists, visiting them. It was an intense training,' she says. As a result, the not-for-profit Prada Foundation, established with her husband Patrizio Bertelli, was set up in 1993 to give the famously intellectual Prada - she has a PhD in political science from the University of Milan - an outlet for the deeper creative urges she found could not be satisfied by designing clothes. Its aim, she says, is to bring to an international audience the 'most profound thought-provoking art projects of our times'.
To help realize her ambitions, Prada appointed jet-setting Italian critic and curator Germano Celant as director. Since his arrival in 1995 they have staged some memorable exhibitions in the converted Milan industrial space on Via Fogazzaro that became the Foundation's HQ. The choice of artists is highly personal, with Prada herself involved in all the key decisions.
'Miuccia likes Nathalie a lot,' says Celant of Djurberg, who also exhibited in Milan before her show moved to Seoul. 'She's very interested in the stories Djurberg explores between mother and daughter. They can be very difficult and dark.'
Happily, Miuccia Prada's relationship with her own mother, Luisa, was perfectly functional; although she has said that there was a lack of fun in her upbringing and lamented that her mother always dressed her in such serious, chic clothes, and never in the garish reds and pinks of her school friends.
Luisa ran the family's luxury leather goods firm, founded in 1913 by her father Mario and her uncle Martino, who specialised in walrus-skin luggage for the Italian aristocracy, from the Fifties until the Seventies, when she retired and handed the company to her daughter. Miuccia was, perhaps, a surprising choice; her interests always being more cerebral than fashionable. After university she had trained as a mime artist, had joined the Communist party and had taken part in the student riots of 1968 (albeit wearing YSL at the barricades).
But the lure of the family firm proved irresistible, with Miuccia first coming on board to design handbags, before being appointed chief in 1978. It was around this time that she met her husband in a leather goods factory. She credits this partnership, and her husband's business brain, with the transformation of Prada from a dowdy luggage atelier into an international fashion brand.
The company's first great coup was a luxury bag made in the distinctly unluxury material of nylon, which retailed for around £300 and was worn by celebrities and the fashion cognoscenti alike.
Despite having no formal training in the subject, Miuccia progressed to designing clothes in 1988. Since then her line in expensive, intellectual fashion has won her admirers the world over. The Nineties saw a grand expansion of the company, with the purchase of Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Azzedine Alaïa, leading to comparisons with that great French luxury goods behemoth LVMH. But, more recently, these labels have been shed, allowing Miuccia more time to concentrate on her burgeoning art foundation.
The Prada Foundation's scope is international and several British artists, including Sam Taylor-Wood and Anish Kapoor, have been hand-picked by Prada to exhibit at the Milan gallery. Marc Quinn is another. In 2000 he entranced audiences with his work Garden, an installation of vividly coloured flowers preserved for infinity in frozen silicone.
'Miuccia bought several works of mine and then she asked if I had any larger pieces I wanted to make,' he remembers. 'It was great because it allowed me to do a piece that I couldn't otherwise have done. It made me realize that all museums should be autocracies; they get so bogged down with inertia and committees. It's much easier when there's one person making all the decisions, plus Prada has a bigger budget. There's a lot of other people who could learn from it.'
In recent years, however, Prada has declared herself restless with the conventional relationship between artwork and viewer and has begun to commission works that function beyond the confines of the gallery. 'I am very much interested in art that is accessible to people and is not secluded in a small space, that is more popular in a way,' she says.
Germano Celant describes this shift in attitude as moving 'ever further towards the outside reality, seeking to enter further into everyday life, where the imaginary is interwoven with the functional'.
To the great delight of London's art and fashion set, the most notable manifestation of this approach so far was the Prada Foundation's Double Club, a kind of bar/ restaurant-as-artwork that occupied a Victorian warehouse behind Angel Tube station from last November until July.
Conceived by the German artist Carsten Höller - he of the giant slides at Tate Modern - the idea was to create what he calls an 'influential environment' in which culture from the Congo could be experienced directly alongside Western culture. So while one side of the bar was covered in corrugated iron and sold Congolese beer, the other side was copper and served champagne. In the restaurant some people sat on plastic chairs and ate traditional Congolese dishes such as goat stew, while others kicked back on banquettes and ordered Western food.
On the rotating dancefloor the DJ played sounds from the Congo on one rotation, and pop music on another. The Prada name acted like a celebrity magnet: in The Double Club's short life Kate Moss, Penelope Cruz and Tilda Swinton were all spotted there. But it is testament to its status as an artwork that Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin and Tate director Nicholas Serota also dropped by.
Jan Kennedy, a former partner in Damien Hirst's Pharmacy restaurant and project director of The Double Club, says that Miuccia Prada 'loved the idea' when Höller first proposed it and 'was close on all the significant decisions'. The club has now closed, but some of the contents - the ' breeding tables' and other artworks made specially for the interior - will now enter the Prada Foundation's collection.
Like the Medicis, art patrons of Renaissance Italy, Prada has her favorite artists. Carsten Höller is clearly one of them. Not only is his Upside Down Mushroom Room - an installation of huge revolving mushrooms hanging from the ceiling - one of the most successful shows the Foundation has ever staged, but one of his shiny slides graces the Milan office of Miuccia Prada herself. If the mood takes her, the normally serious 60-year-old can flip off her shoes and travel the three storeys down to street level on her bottom.
Miuccia Prada eschews the glitz of the fashion circus. She still lives in the Milan apartment where she was born and where other members of her family also live. She has two sons with Bertelli, and weekends tend to be spent with her family at their countryside palazzo, which is filled with books and avant-garde art.
With all this in mind, it's no surprise
to find that another favourite Prada collaborator is the Dutch architect and Harvard professor Rem Koolhaas. Known as much for his theoretical projects as for his finished work, Koolhaas brings the same kind of intellectual rigour to his buildings as Prada does to her clothes. After hearing that he was 'difficult' - an adjective of the highest praise in the Prada vocabulary - she sought him out in 2001 to design her New York store.
The result remains one of the city's most unusual retail experiences: a $40 million block-long emporium in SoHo that looks more like a skateboard park than a clothes shop. Its critical success won Koolhaas and his firm OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) the commission for the Prada 'epicentre' store in LA, and his studio's media offshoot AMO has designed all the Prada and Miu Miu (the Prada diffusion line) catwalk shows since 2004.
Having proved his worth in the fashion business, it was only a matter of time before Koolhaas - who lives in Hampstead - would be promoted to working with the more highbrow Prada Foundation. And when it came, the prize was big: in 2008 it was announced that his office would design a new home for the organization on a huge industrial site just south of Milan.
This new project marks the most significant shift in the Foundation's history. 'It's all part of our plans to expand,' Celant tells me on the phone from New York, where he is busy making arrangements for another Prada Foundation show, a retrospective of the Pop Artist John Wesley, to travel from the Venice Biennale to Manhattan. 'After 15 years it's important to make this next step to become a major institution. We will show our collection and store work there. But there will also be seminars and travelling shows. It will be a laboratory for art.'
Celant is ambitious that the Foundation should become like its Getty and Guggenheim counterparts and live on after the life of its founders. 'That's the idea of institutions,' he says. 'Also, it's important for Milan and for Italy.' And here lies a great opportunity: although Italy hosts the Venice Biennale every two years, it has no real permanent focus for contemporary art. If Prada pulls this off, Milan - already a center for fashion - could join London, Paris and New York in the international art axis.
Models and drawings for the site show the existing seven factory and warehouse buildings transformed into galleries, lecture halls and cinemas, with an additional 'museum tower' and new buildings to be built from scratch.
The campus, elliptically described by Koolhaas as 'a collection of artefacts that encounters several architectural typologies', will become a permanent home and display space for the Prada Collection, which now numbers more than 500 large works including pieces by Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Sam Taylor-Wood, as well as a more general arts center hosting exhibitions and conferences on anything from film and architecture to philosophy and fashion. When completed, it will push the Foundation into the major league of contemporary art organizations.
All this will cost money, of course, but then Prada has heaps of it. The 2008 figures for the fashion group, which funds the Foundation, are robust, with a profit of €99 million on a turnover of €1.7 billion. If Prada chose to put only half its profit into the Foundation, the figure would roughly equal the £46 million government funding received by the Tate in 2007-2008.
Even so, Celant is now more cautious about the opening date for the €25 million development, originally scheduled for 2012, telling me 2013 or 2014, but certainly in time for the Milan Expo in 2015.
In the meantime, there is the Prada Transformer to play with. This is the minimuseum - a kind of diffusion line - that Rem Koolhaas has designed to house a series of Prada events in Seoul, including the Nathalie Djurberg installation. The Transformer looks like nothing else on earth: a 20m-high temporary pavilion of white fabric stretched over a steel frame in the colliding shapes of a circle, a rectangle, a cross and a hexagon.
Each time the contents of the Transformer change, a crane flips over the entire building so that its shape changes with it. Already it has housed an exhibition of Prada skirts, a Prada Foundation film festival curated by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, director of Babel and 21 Grams, and, following Djurberg's exhibition, it will be the setting for a Prada catwalk show.
What drew Miuccia Prada to install the Transformer in Seoul, she says, is that its Asian location is 'in the centre, not Japan and not China'. She has had a long-standing fascination with the East, having traveled to China aged 25, and it was there that she first developed her interest in Communism. And now that China and its neighbors have booming consumer economies, the attractions clearly go beyond politics.
Seoul is a very dynamic city,' says Jan Kennedy, who together with Celant is flying to Korea for the Djurberg opening. 'There's a thriving contemporary art scene and people are very interested in fashion.' The restlessness of this culture is reflected in Koolhaas's concept for the Transformer: 'It has no average condition,' he says.
With all the Prada Foundation's excitement about Asia, fans of The Double Club may worry that London will get left behind in the rush. But there are positive noises that more art is on the way. Already there have been collaborations with Tate Modern (a film series in 2006) and Nicholas Serota says he is full of admiration for the Foundation's exhibitions.
Germano Celant also remains keen. 'London is an international capital of culture,' he says. 'I think we will always consider it in our plans.' If you can't wait that long, then there's still time to head to Korea where Nathalie Djurberg's installation at the Prada Transformer runs until 13 September. Prepare to find it clever, a little bit dark and a little bit playful; just like Miuccia Prada herself.