PUNK, but not as I knew it

The DIY Gallery at PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring its “designationed punk”, Sid Vicious

The DIY Gallery at PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring its “designationed punk hero”, Sid Vicious

PUNK: Chaos to Couture
The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
9 May to 14 August 2013
Visited 12 May 2013

What’s to be said about a “blockbuster exhibition”? Having reached saturation point due to blanket press coverage, you’ll dutifully add it to your list of “things to do this summer”, remembering to avoid weekends, bank holidays and school half-term…

If it’s the Metropolitan Museum’s annual summer exhibition, you’ve probably also ogled the fabulous frocks and wardrobe malfunctions that clad celebrities (from Aye to Zee) at the Met Ball (proper title, the Costume Institute Gala). We have Diana Vreeland as “special consultant” to thank for kicking off the exhibit-themed frivolities back in 1971 (the film, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel investigates Vreeland’s role at the museum). Now the Met Ball is run by Vogue and raises millions of dollars annually for the museum.

This summer’s show, though, threw a spanner in the Ball’s works. Just how do you “do” punk couture? Definitions of cultural phenomena are a tad slippery, and try as it might the Met’s show doesn’t quite nail Punk. This year there was more chaos than usual on the red carpet.

Fun as it is to dwell on that, let’s get to the actual exhibition. In May, I was in the right place at the right time (questionable) to visit in the flesh. Sunday morning at the Met…and I was not impressed. I’m no nitpicker, but my aim with this blog is to consider the entire experience of visiting an exhibition, and although the Met is looking good these days, and generously only asks visitors for a donation, not an entrance fee, my experience of this grand institution was marred by a very basic operational flaw; the guards and security system were draconian, to the point of being rude and intrusive.

I was told not to touch a wall, a wall made of extruded plastic, which at the end of August will be landfill. This wall is not an exhibit, and was not next to or behind any exhibit; it is not a precious or delicate object in the museum’s collection, nor is it the property of a kind lender; it could not be damaged and will never need conservation (it’s made from vacuum formed plastic); the wall is merely a temporary container, much like the floor, which thankfully, us visitors are allowed to walk on.

Mind you, in this show, simply walking is an issue too. Exhibits are displayed on mannequins placed on raised plinths and daises, which visitors walk between. There is no glass or significant guardrail, but get too close to a mannequin and a deafening, high-pitched alarm sounds. Oftentimes a guard will shout, “don’t touch”, so you get the message, but just as often there is no indication of why the alarm is blaring and I saw many visitors bemused and unsure as to whether the sound meant, “evacuate the building”! Visitors looked around for reassurance, but got none from the guards, who inexplicably ignored them.

At no time did a guard suggest what might be a safe distance from the mannequins; a natural propensity to “lean in” is exacerbated by low light levels and small labels placed near the ground. The final room, which feels a bit cramped to start with, as if the curators had thought, “where will we put this lot”, has a central runway of mannequins with more lining the walls. Visitors shuffle along, turn at the end and shuffle back, funnelled into the gift shop. The inevitable bottleneck occurs as some visitors who want to stay longer at the show attempt to double-back. In the crush, all hell breaks loose with alarms going off simultaneously and constantly, enhanced by an overly loud soundtrack, which makes conversation impossible except at a scream. All in all, it was a horrible experience, more like a theme park haunted house than an exhibition, with its designated route, dim spaces, loud noises and little opportunity to contemplate, study or enjoy the exhibits. If museum staff bothered to visit the show, once it is populated by visitors, they’d know all this.

Now to the premise of the show. To “examine punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the 1970s through its continuing influence today”. Straight from the press release.

The fact that Punk happened nearly 40 years ago, seems to have worried the curators into devising a way to make it “relevant”, perhaps thinking that today’s “kids” wouldn’t quite get it. So, the exhibition is introduced with reference to contemporary concerns about DIY and the handmade. I’d suggest that Punk’s destructive (“Destroy”) version of DIY had to do with a nihilistic rejection of consumerism by a generation that felt economically powerless, due to high youth employment and a worldwide recession, the result of the 1970s Oil Crisis. Punk was a reaction against a lack of choice and the predominance of “hippy” taste in fashion and music; against the fact that young people had no voice; against the spectre of “No Future”. I’d suggest that today’s handmade movement is the opposite; it’s a reaction against the over-abundance of choice on offer, and is spurred on by a plethora of means of communicating, creating and making their own future, via Etsy, Kickstarter and Facebook, albeit one that looks a bit like their (hippy) parents/grandparents. Couching Punk in “familiar terms” may be considered “engaging” an audience, but I’d suggest that it is actually “dumbing down”, by employing an ahistoric and inaccurate comparison.

Similarly, drawing comparison between Punk’s improvisational attitude (rip it up, pin it up) with the highly-skilled, traditional techniques of haute couture (which are displayed here in abundance) completely misrepresents the economic reality of the luxury end of the fashion industry that employs workshops of über-craftswomen to actually make this stuff; the entire analogy is too simplistic.

Much time and effort has gone into setting the scene at the start of the show, using facsimile dioramas (which visitors may not enter) and specially commissioned movies (which are hard to see and therefore function more like grainy wallpaper). Meanwhile, a text panel mentions Malc and Viv, but with no documentary print material to add context. And, strangely, while the text names those illustrious Londoners as “inventors” of Punk, the looped soundtrack features one of the Ramones stating that they invented the Punk “uniform” of ripped denim, leather jacket, etc. etc., which would make the “birth place” resolutely New York City. One message is subliminally subverted and literally “drowned out” by another, and that’s about the most punk thing that happens in the entire show.

To confuse matters more, the “then and then and now” are resolutely mixed up. If the aim is to juxtapose original 1970s exhibits made and worn by Punks, with garments influenced by the techniques and aesthetic of Punk clothing but made and marketed by fashion labels (both prêt-a-porter and haute couture) in the decades since, then fine. But more differentiation, perhaps by using different mannequins (for each decade?), would have helped tell that story. I heard visitors questioning what was what, and “leaning in” to read labels, which prompted the inevitable siren sounding.

Bringing it right up to date (because even in a museum, fashion is fashion), the inclusion of “on trend” garments from recent and current collections by “hot” designers who may not have previously explored this territory, points to how a blockbuster show, at arguably the world’s most high-profile museum (with a media-attention-grabbing gala attached), may exert “influence” on contributors. Curators have been working on this exhibition for years; the exhibition is announced seasons in advance; produce a spring/summer 13 collection that “quotes” punk, and the rest, as they say, is history. Such a cynical move doesn’t merit inclusion, but it’s another way of gaining those all-important column inches and “click throughs”.