28 July 2011

E's Take: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty

There are hour queues to get into see The Costume Institute's new show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.  Reviewers seem to love it.  The audiences seem to love it.  But is it worth paying entrance (this means a dollar if you are poor/cheap like me) and actually waiting to see this show?

Yes it is.

You may be disappointed when you leave and you may be annoyed when walking through the exhibit, but the ability to see McQueen's brilliant and inspiring creations will be worth at least a fraction of the effort, if not more.  The reason Alexander McQueen was and is popular has less to do with his unfortunate death and more to do with his brilliant designs.  This exhibit does not only show clothing, it shows garments that are more-like artwork than anything you would find on the shelves of Bloomingdales.

Yet, the presentation does not do the clothing justice.  Instead of presenting the clothing in a cohesive and inspiring manner, one feels that the Costume Institute got carried away with quantity, sorely forgetting quality.  This focus on quantity over quality permeates the show, leaving the museum-goer with a disjointed feeling.  You will be impressed by what you see, but you will most likely fail to see McQueen's unique point-of-view, highlighted only by the tag line, Savage Beauty.

I didn't read the placards going through.  Mainly because it would be impossible.  The show is so saturated with people piled in like a delayed subway during rush hour that you can barely move.  Forget seeing reading the descriptions, getting a proper view of the clothing is distinctly difficult.  This could be excusable if the museum had not anticipated huge crowds; I highly doubt this is the case.  Since McQueen is widely recognized as one of the most creative designers in recent memory—his popularity, unfortunately, bolstered by his death—the MET should have made proper adjustments to create an effective blockbuster show.

Yet, that is exactly it.  After the exhibit one sense that the museum is exploiting McQueen in order to create a high-grossing popular exhibit.  I understand that New York City is cutting funding for cultural institutions, but does that give a museum the right to use whatever method possible to gain money?  No.  There must be a line that gives a cultural institution boundaries for what they can and can't use to draw in crowds and money.  It is not the fact that they are putting up a show about Alexander McQueen, rather it is the manner in which they have chosen to exhibit all the pieces.

Walking through the exhibit I felt like I was in an amusement park.  In one room, they have a sound clip of blowing wind on rotation.  That combined with the decor properly made me feel like I was in the Disney World Haunted Mansion ride.  A museum should never make me think I am in an amusement park.  Where is the line between a brilliant show and pure entertainment?

I want a museum to show me something that encourages me to think, as opposed to bombarding me with sensory overload.  If large cultural institutions begin to present each new show as a spectacle, where does it end?  There needs to be a defined line that allows a dialogue to ensue between the museum and the viewer.  While the McQueen show displays breathtaking garments, it does not encourage the museum-goers to think about what they have seen in a deeper manner than they could by viewing the original runway show.

Ultimately, that is exactly what the McQueen show is, a glorified compilation of a variety of different runway shows.  There is no denying that the MET has gone above and beyond.  There is no arguing that the garments are beautiful.  The show falls short when one leaves, without being truly aware of what they have just seen.

What kind of museum shows do you like?  Have you seen the McQueen show?  What did you think?

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