As I was leaving the press preview of the “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one question on my mind crowded out the others, which perhaps makes this a rather untraditional review. The question was, “Who is this exhibit for?” Or, to reframe it in broader context, what is the role of museums today? In the past, unquestionably, the role of a museum was to edify and educate the public. Increasingly, as museums struggle with the primacy of mass taste and shrinking budgets, it seems that their role is to entertain the public instead. Today’s masses have won a decisive cultural victory and will accept no diktat on taste unless it comes from the Kardashians. In this light, the show, skillfully though agonizingly (more on that later) curated by Andrew Bolton, the head curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, is a bold one. I have attended press previews for virtually each of the Costume Institute’s exhibitions since the 2011 show on Alexander McQueen and mingled with the elite, and I have come back to most of them to mingle with the museum-going public. The contrast could not be more jarring. The reactions from the fashion press corps have been for the most part overwhelmingly positive. The members of the public, on the other hand, more often than not looked as if they were in a zoo; meaning, they were looking at something exotic and unrelatable. “Who’d wear this?” would be the most common question I’d overhear.
In this light the Comme des Garcons exhibit seems as polarizing as a show can be. For the fashion enthusiasts Kawakubo is a mystic figure, one of the most creative designers and probably the most daring one, an artist (an accusation Kawakubo would roll her eyes at); a near deity. Hence, it is understandable why Bolton, a fashion enthusiast par excellence, would want to give Kawakubo a show at arguably the most prestigious art museum in the world. But if you were to stand in front of the Met and ask the entering public if they knew who Rei Kawakubo is, 99 out of 100 (and I think I am being generous here) would have no idea. Put simply, Comme des Garcons ain’t no Chanel.
To complicate matters further, the show is wonderfully disorienting. The garments are housed within an installation of Kawakubo’s own design, which has no clearly marked path. There is nothing to be seen in the exhibit in terms of accompanying text – no introduction, no explanation of the garments, no guiding markers of any kind. This task has been outsourced to a booklet (how many of those will the Met have to print?) that you can reference as you browse. It is a great idea for someone who is into the whole thing. But today’s public is increasingly lazy and easily distracted, and I wonder if complicating matters further here will backfire.
Bolton’s concept, which Kawakubo initially opposed, was to sketch out her work in terms of occupying a space in-between normative cultural dichotomies (Kawakubo flatly refused to do the show as a retrospective, and roughly half of the clothes on display are from the last five years). Each small section and subsection of the exhibit tackles nine major dichotomies, from the abstract “Absence/Presence” to more concrete “Clothes/Not Clothes.” Some of those are further subdivided – for example, “Self/Other” into “East/West,” “Male/Female,” and “Child/Adult.” Now, if you read Bolton’s text in the accompanying catalog and in the booklet, he makes a pretty compelling case for it. But if you don’t, you are mostly looking at a bunch of complicatedly tailored garments that bear little relation to what most people think clothes should be. There is virtually no way to discern Bolton’s intended theme from just looking at the clothes. I don’t think I have ever seen the theoretical framework of an exhibit so divorced from its artifacts. Which does not mean it’s not thought-provoking or meritless, but it means that you have to work to get it. The fashion enthusiasts will certainly be willing to do the job, but will the public?
All photos by Eugene Rabkin and may not be reproduced without expressed permission