I’ll make it simple. I went to London. I saw exhibits. Good and bad. Here, I talk about why a particular one disappointed me, while the other restored the joy in my life (sort of, I’m almost exaggerating). Plus, I’m exploring why curation is increasingly important and yet we don’t get enough educational value as much as entertainment while we’re at these exhibitions. Okay. You’ve probably made your decision whether to proceed reading my long-ass post. If you’re on board, here we go!
Going to The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (long title, I know) was a tremendous experience. I think it’s fitting to publish this now, in conjunction with his last ready-to-wear collection and presentation. To see his work in person was a huge sigh of relief. When I was there, I felt as though someone had rescued me from the clutches of death that extended from the halls of the Victoria and Albert Museum, trying to drag me into the pits of hell.
I’m referring to Wedding Dresses, 1775-2014, which was in essence a tyrannous ball of curtain fabric salvaged into over-glorified garments of union and matrimony. It was beyond disappointing, especially to my classmates and my lecturer (who’s also a curator). As a visiting student hailing all the way from Singapore on a 16-hour flight to London, I felt cheated. A run-down version of the exhibit had actually made its way to the National Museum of Singapore, which I attended. It was more or less the same, but in a far smaller space and photography was actually allowed, if I recall. However, there were far less items and information presented. One would expect a grand comparison when referring to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the institution that houses the world’s largest fashion archive. But I was wrong. I felt trapped, claustrophobic, and had I not been with a couple of lecturers who were notable curators and fashion programme leaders, I would not have been able to digest. As much as I would like to get close and see the details, a screen prevented that from happening. And as much of the space was really boxes, and not any other shape, most of the detail of the gorgeous and precious wedding gowns were left unexposed. If the curators were emphasising the train of a wedding dress, the front part would be facing the wall, which is a shame as every part of a wedding dress is usually as beautiful.
In contrast, the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit was exciting and theatrical, even if Jean Paul Gaultier, to me, is a tired name in Fashion. The 80’s for the designer was by far more glorious than it is today. The 80’s saw the days of the V-Cone worship, the peak of Material Girl and pop culture, constant TV, commercial and film appearances and the loud ideas the rebellious designer was noted for and seemed buried way in the past. But as I stepped into the exhibit space at the Barbican, it didn’t seem that way. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier was not built to commemorate a death, it was to celebrate life. And life was well present in every element of the set up: from the ambiance of the space, the vivacious and elaborate outfits — either ready-to-wear or couture — down to the mannequins, which to my surprise were busy talking to themselves and winking at the audience. His works were displayed so intimately to the viewer, allowing close and participative observations. Take this motored runway: there were actually seats placed near the podium so that viewers can experience the simulation of watching a JPG fashion show in person.
It’s a nice relief from all the other fashion exhibitions we’ve seen, which are normally static and requires the viewer to stare from afar, creating a rift between the work and audience. This would be something that completely undermines the impressive technical skills, of Gaultier, for example, which were fundamental to him being a couturier. But as I got to see the clothes up close, his genius became evident.
Take this trompe l’oeil Leopard Dress. It’s a trick on the eye, as are many of his material experimentations. The ensemble resembles a skinned cheetah, sewn onto a the corset of a dress — but it isn’t. Now look closely.
That’s right. The animal is made of thousands of beads, hand-sewn together with incredible execution. You do get to see this close. But that’s not the case with a lot of fashion exhibits. Here was where I realised that very few of fashion exhibits actually allow close-proximity interaction.
Wait. Was the JPG even interactive?
Not really. It did, however, allow close observance, which is crucial in learning. As much as the mannequins winked at the audience, it’s not something you can call interactive. The entire exhibit is saved by the fact that we are allowed a lot of freedom of viewing its entirety. Photography is welcome, and most of the collection isn’t caged inside a glass box.
It got me thinking, though. It’s probably my favourite show to date, and I’ve never even been interested in Gaultier’s work. It was then that I realise: most fashion exhibits aren’t impressionable to begin with. Clothes… clothes… and more clothes. Sure, there must be some form of clothing at a fashion exhibit. But is that the only criterion?
It’s a given that fashion exhibits basically serve as a public function of presenting work and disseminating information of the fashion world, which has been strictly confined to the elites of the social hierarchy. Yes, fashion shows have recently been democratised thanks to social media, but nevertheless actual invitations are strictly addressed to those the top tier of people. But if the special element of a fashion exhibition simply rests on the ‘democratic’ presentation of clothes, then none of these exhibits will ever create a lasting impact. For that matter, fashion exhibits, no matter how much spectacle and entertaining elements are thrown around, will cease to inspire and only fall to repetition.
1. Why are most fashion exhibits static? — They stick so much to the formula that they seem homogenised.
There’s plenty of collections to see, and to date I can note going to five exhibits between Singapore and Jakarta. I can’t argue about formulas and organisation being a crucial foundation of an exhibit, regardless of what it is being displayed. But as we go forward, is it enough to stick to the status quo? I definitely don’t think so. After all, fashion is all about bringing the future to now. What’s so new about putting together a collection of clothes and throwing a few technological charades here and there? That doesn’t change the nature of the presentation — it’s still static. What I mean is that the lack of interaction between the audience and the viewer is still apparent.
Observation and the absorption of information is a one-way street. In this sense, fashion is voyeuristic. You look at or watch the clothes, go “Wow! This is amazing!” and go to look at the next one… Where is the feedback? It’s seem odd to find myself in a situation to ask this, because the buzzword of the art scene happens to be participation. This theme is plentifully put forth by museums (in which these events were mostly held). Everyone’s gotten on the bandwagon. Take Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or Marina Abramoviç’s recent piece titled 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Both their premise is the inclusion of the audience to complete an art piece, thus exploring how far the boundaries of possibility are pushed. Simple. But this call to action is rarely seen in anything fashion related — it’s relatively a one way street, we consume and we don’t give back.
2. What do you gain, and what is the role of curation in all of this?
In exhibits, you can ultimately gain two things. The first is experience, meaning the elements beyond the object that makes being in the space memorable and unique. This is why, two months later, I am still able to retell the impression I had of the exhibits I’m writing about. The second is to learn, to gain new information that perhaps was not available or known widely. The latter, especially, is why museums and the team behind these exhibits continue to produce and publish extra footage online or interactive applications, usually on the iPad. This is in addition to the audio guides provided that guests usually have to pay for. That is always a deterrent, but perhaps one that will serve more right, in my personal opinion. It’s difficult to absorb all of this visual feast when your attention span is also being used concentratedly by another sense (hearing). Even if parts of the exhibition require the use of your other senses, having earphones continually sending audio to your eardrums distorts the entire experience. But hey! These things are the ‘engaging’ aspect I was talking about! When you have extra content that require you, voila, the engagement is being called for… or is it? Do we have to be entertained all the freaking time? Curators certainly make it seem that way.
I think this treatment is why we typically undermine the educational value of fashion. Only recently has fashion been legitimised as a proper research field. But if fashion has been so keen on democratisation for the masses, I don’t see why the museum space isn’t being treated as a public space to engage the targeted masses through education for all sorts of age groups. Children, for example, are usually catered for by given a designated space for colouring, which was evident in the Singaporean showcase of The Wedding Dress from the Victoria & Albert Museum at the National Singapore Museum. What is notable is that this space was not integrated as a cohesive part of the museum experience. This was different to, for example, the dinosaur exhibit Dawn of Extinction at the Arts & Science Museum. Various components were actually part of the presentation i.e. puzzle solving, mind games, scavenger hunts, interactive computerisations of various dinosaurs. The exhibit was targeted specifically for families who had children. The Wedding Dress exhibit though, remained a little unclear.
Is the lack of educational features because fashion is necessarily more of a mature subject? The average demographic for fashion exhibits are 18-30 year old women, and fashion students encompass pretty much that group. Education should not be reserved for children and primary or secondary students. Most of the people who visit fashion exhibits, anyway, are students who are pursuing a degree. While children will be far more entertained of the fanciful technological shenanigans the museums are installing, more mature audiences demand functional, enhancing or helpful features. Not just screen projectors, moving mannequins or crazy fancy dresses. Our brain can only absorb so much, and these spectacles demand a large attention span and the entire takeaway of the exhibit may be diluted and overpowered.
To begin with, why do we glorify curators? While the responsibility of an exhibit’s execution lies in the vision of the assigned curator, it’s pretty mind-blowing how much authority we give them in ranking things into the hierarchy. Do you realise the impact of curators towards art history? Give yourself a minute and just think about that. It seems to me that the make or break of an exhibition almost entirely rests on the curation. While an exhibit does, to a significant extent, rely on the eye of the curator to distill information as to make a range of information and display coherent and sensible, does it not also mean that what is generally regarded interesting makes the top pile of the cut?
Does that also mean that the fashion exhibit, has not become something observable, but simply spectacle by its own nature? We cannot deny that fashion is accompanied by the whole sphere of entertainment. I have previously elaborated how spectacle has become inseparable from fashion. Experience should not limit to emotions, feelings, ambiance as many great exhibitions have managed to fulfil, but also the participation of the audience into completing this experience. While the outcome of an event is subject to the individual’s perception, it is nevertheless imperative that curators evolve from impressing simply by using one-way communication media.