Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin
On Friday I went to the Met to see the new American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity that re-inaugurates the Met's Costume Institute exhibits, which have been closed since I was still in college. On Sunday I went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to observe Marina Abramovic's installation piece The Artist is Present. Viewing both exhibits in one weekend was uniquely thought provoking; they function exquisitely as a juxtaposed pair.
The Met Costume Institute exhibit was very brief, and entirely too crowded for it to have been a Friday night; apparently I'm not the only one who's been eagerly anticipating the reopening lo these many years. The exhibit consists of archetypal American women's fashions beginning in the 1890's, grouped into categories such as "The Heiress," "The Flapper," etc.
Once I got past gawking at the impossible waistlines on the 1890's gowns, I spent a little time assessing and appreciating the levels of psychology upon which fashion and trends operate. These gowns were art as much as they were fashion, but they were practical possessions as much as they were art. Any good little feminist who read Backlash in college probably remembers the discussion of feminism-friendly eras (e.g. the 1920's, the 1970's) championing fashions that deliberately downplayed breasts, hips, and other stereotypically feminine attributes. Seeing the evolution from wasp waist Victorian gowns to sleek Edwardian gowns to shapeless Flapper gowns, someone viewing the exhibit from my perspective couldn't help but see the gradual cloaking of the female body. The gowns almost because equalizers. The last room on the exhibit - The Screen Siren - is a visual shock after the shapeless (if still elegant) outfits preceding it. The room contains low cut and clingy Grecian and Oriental gowns that wouldn't be out of place at today's formal events. It's an interesting transition when you turn out of that room, expecting to see WWII-era dresses, and are instead faced with the exit room of the exhibit. It contains no clothing, only flashing images of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna, etc. Not only is it a singularly jarring transition (which I am not used to from Met exhibits), it functions as both reinforcement and rebuttal of the familiarities of those Screen Sirens gowns. On the whole, the exhibit was, for me, disconcerting as an example of the hold of the public over female bodies.
With apologies to my friends who are better-versed in art than I, while I go to the Met every chance I get, the MoMA has never been high on my list of museums to frequent; I am not a lover of modern art. I adore many artists right up through the Futurists (like Severini, above, and Boccioni), and then I just totally lose interest. When at MoMA, I usually beeline for the fifth floor (1880's - 1940's), then head down to the garden for a little while, then head out. Sunday, however, I sprinted my way to the second floor, in hopes that I could get a place in line to sit in The Artist is Present exhibit. (I arrived about five minutes after opening, and the line to sit was already beyond hope.) This exhibit has generated enough buzz in New York that I'd actually heard about it, which is saying something. There's an official Flickr stream of each person who sits with the artist, and the experience of their experience is moving just from a computer screen, so I knew I'd have to shake a leg and get down to MoMA to at least observe, if not to participate. Watching the museum visitors (around the edge of the lighted square in which the artist and partner sit) proved nearly as fascinating as watching the silent, seated duo.
The exhibit's stated purpose was to break down the lines between performance/art and the ordinary. What was especially interesting to me - in the Flickr feed as well as in person - was the degree to which the performance acted as equalizer, as those shapeless gowns once did. As one example, look through that Flickr feed, and I guarantee you you'll just about pass over the celebrities who are tucked away in there, while your eye will pick out various "normal" folks who are wholly more captivating.
Art and performance is always most interesting to me when it succeeds in making me notice something about the world which I didn't notice (or noticed by didn't consider much) before. The blending of body shapes, the blending of past and present that make up fashion, the blending of performer and observer, the blending of the observers. They dovetail nicely, but just dissonantly enough to be quite unsettling. The commingling of art and fashion, modernity and history, exhibition and participation. Unsettling and fascinating.