Thursday, August 4, 2011

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Alexander McQueen

Dress, Autumn/ Winter 2010-11, Alexander McQueen
     Special exhibit Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty ......... 1.5 hrs 
COST: Free with membership (otherwise suggested admission is $25)

Without a doubt, New York City's greatest museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  As with many celebrities this famous museum needs only its first name to be recognized and is usually referred to as merely "the Met,” a cute moniker for an amazing museum housing over 2 million works in one of the worlds largest art galleries.  Paul and I had originally planned to save the best for last and make the Met the final museum in our trek, but a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History changed our minds. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art
That museum took us two days and nine hours of concentrated museum viewing to get through, and we still didn't see everything.  After recovering from “natural history overload,” we decided that instead of cramming the Met into one long bleary-eyed viewing extravaganza, we would pace ourselves and see it in stages.  This was made even easier by a thoughtful relative who got us Met memberships for Christmas this year, ensuring free admission to both the Met and its sister museum the Cloisters.  Now the Met is a “suggested admission” museum, so membership may not seem like a good deal, that is until you enter its grand entrance hall and see the lines. 

This year over 5 million people visited the Met, and it can feel like you have to fight through a good portion of that number to enter the museum.  With our membership cards firmly in hand, Paul and I can now sidle up to the completely empty members desk and grab our admission tabs before most tourists figure out which line to stand in.  Then there is the fantastic benefit that members are allowed to “skip the line” at special exhibits, and the exhibit we were here to see today had a two hour wait.  It took us some time to trace the line to its head through both the Babylonian and European Painting sections, but it was a great feeling not to have to stand in it.  (Great Christmas present Mom!)

Ensemble from VOSS 2011 Alexander McQueen
We hadn’t intended on going to the Met this weekend, but a friend of ours from Seattle (lets call him Petruchio) had, like us, recently moved to the East Coast (in his case Baltimore) and was visiting New York with a friend this weekend.  Petruchio is a fan of contemporary art and of course we had some suggestions, but unfortunately he only had time for museums on Sunday, and all but the largest or most Jewish of museums are closed on Sundays.  We recommended the three biggest contemporary art museums: the New Museum, the Whitney and P.S.1 (all have Sunday hours).  However Paul and I have seen all of these, so we thought outside the box and offered to show him the hottest contemporary art exhibit in town, which, oddly for a museum best known for its ancient and classical art, has been packing them in at the Met all summer.

from The Horn of Plenty 2009-10, Alexander McQueen
This exhibit is “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and exhibits the designs of recently deceased fashion designer Alexander McQueen.  A fashion exhibit might not be the standard fare of the average museum visitor, but the combination of McQueen’s celebrity, his bizarre sense of beauty and his showmanship have been drawing record crowds.  Current estimates indicate that over ½ million people have seen the show, bringing the most visitors to the Met since 1962 when the Mona Lisa made its first and only trip to the U.S.  The closing of this exhibit has been delayed twice due to its insane popularity and the museum has extended its hours to accommodate the crowds, but the exhibit is finally closing for good on August 7th.  Paul and I suggest that you see it if you can.

Jellyfish Ensemble, Plato's Atlantis 2010
"Spine" corset, from Untitled 1998
“Savage Beauty” is the third fashion-related exhibit we’ve seen, and it left the others in the dust.  It's not that the other two were bad (we enjoyed both the history of American fashion at the Brooklyn Museum and the special exhibit on modern Japanese fashion at FIT) but those exhibits were merely clothes.  The McQueen show isn’t really about clothes.  No one you know could or would wear most of the items on display.  Most pieces would be incredibly uncomfortable, like the bondage bracelets made of long lengths of barbed wire and the steel corset shaped like a spine with a rib cage and tail.  Many were too fragile or rigid to move or sit down in, like the dresses made of dangling microscope slides, layered seashells or coiled steel.  Then there is the problem that you can’t even imagine an occasion where covering yourself head to toe in iridescent scales would be appropriate (besides a really ritzy Halloween party).  And his shoes!  I have no idea how models made it down the runway in these sculpted torture chambers. 

Prosthetic leg from No. 13, 1999; shoes from Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius 2010-11 and Plato's Atlantis 2009
 However, the fact that these items are so unwearable is part of what makes this exhibit interesting.  As there is no way you would wear them, they stop being clothes.  Instead you begin to see them as parts of the themes and stories that McQueen was trying to evoke.  The clothes stop representing real people and become bizarre characters in a play that McQueen is putting on.
Ensemble from Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious 2002-03, Alexander McQueen

Its a Jungle Out There 1997-98 McQueen
The exhibit is divided into the separate themes that McQueen explored in his work and incorporates settings and films of McQueen’s elaborate theater-like fashion shows to set the mood.  For example, one room explores themes of Romantic Naturalism and Primitivism in McQueen’s work.  There are dresses made of animal parts like buzzard skulls and antlers, and pieces from a fashion show meant to depict a shipwreck and the subsequent encounter between the ship inhabitants and a primitive tribe on shore.  The centerpiece is a dress that looks like stacked oyster shells, and the entire ceiling of that room is covered with an eerie film of a woman slowly drowning.  
Still of a film from Irere Spring/Summer 2003, Alexander McQueen

Its Only A Game 2005 McQueen
Its Only A Game 2005 McQueen
Another room presents the outfits related to the show “Only A Game,” a fashion show staged as a chess game played between the East (Japan) and the West (America), using extremely odd adaptations of traditional dress to explore themes of racism and nationalism.  An quote from Alexander McQueen on the wall reads, "Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. . . . That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers.”  McQueen’s most political show was “Highland Rape,” referencing the Jacobite Risings in eighteenth century Scotland.  In a film of that show, semi-naked, blood-spattered models look lost and wounded in their disintegrating clothes, evoking the bloody slaughter of war.  Paul particularly liked the show that ended with a box falling open to reveal a naked overweight woman covered in live moths and connected via a breathing tube to a monkey.  He found it a fascinating exploration of untraditional forms of beauty.

from Highland Rape 1995-96 Alexander McQueen
In short, Alexander McQueen may have been a fashion designer by trade, but the "clothes" in this exhibit transcended fashion, exploring themes and emotions that no mere dress has ever suggested to me before.  These clothes could be political, violent, twisted, tragic, macabre and primitive, in addition to being beautiful.  By the end of the exhibit I felt worn out, like I'd been on an emotional journey with a troubled yet passionate soul.  Its not often that you get to see an artist's life work collected in a single show, and the four of us agreed that it was an amazing experience, well worth fighting the crowds for.  
From Sarabande 2007 by Alexander McQueen