Aug 25, 2011

NYC notes, #4: Alexander McQueen

July 8
The savage ghost of Alexander McQueen has kept museum-goers at the Met up past midnight for the first time in the museum's history. According to Time magazine, 66,509 people visited the exhibit during its run (May - August 2011); making it the 8th most-attended event in the museum's history. Clearly something extraordinary was going on inside that dark twisting labyrinth of rooms that constituted "Savage Beauty", a retrospective exhibit on his avant-garde fashion concoctions.

Alexander McQueen. Buddies with Lady Gaga. That was only shred of pre-existing knowledge I took with me to the exhibit; besides the facts of the obituary. He hung himself in his closet full of cocaine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. His mother had died nine days earlier, and her funeral was that evening. He left a simple note that read: "Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee" (a nickname). He was forty years old.

McQueen was a self-described romantic schizophrenic; therefore, this exhibit was constructed around the theme of romanticism. McQueen's particular brand of romanticism consists of uneasy pleasure, incredulity and revulsion, wonder and terror blending together to create the sublime. The show was divided into further segments based on further themes: individualism, historicism, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism, and naturalism. It was all very academically-plotted, but that couldn't stifle the raw power of McQueen's creations.



Image smash, first impressions (because the thing is a sensory overload):
 - eerie electronica droning over the crowd
 - a dripping blazer with blood lining and human hair
 - space whores & frothing burlesque ballerinas. Angels of the postmodern denarrative world
 - gorgeous gloom -- black marble & mirrors
 - the Spine Corset: aluminum and black leather, bondage of the human form. Skeleton frames for flesh.
 - wings and feathers, talons and fibulae. Plastic bones.
 - Joan '98: a red-draped model dancing in a ring of fire, becoming a gyrating priestess
 - gold thorns down the arm, crowning the head, face-mask of bright-red dripping blood -- deadly beautiful
 - rotating girls in purple flowery football bodysuits
 - silver barbs stabbing cheeks, hair covering face in a smooth mask, petticoat of glossy shells: masochistic
 - nature, aliens, bondage, rot, fire, lace, gauze, flowers ("I used flowers because they die"), heartbreaking fluttering beauty, the rolling mud dirge of time

I'm circling in tight lines of people passing in front of these clouded, bombed-out old mirrors in the gaudy gold of old art frames lining the walls. People's reflections bob up briefly, confusedly. I overheard one man telling his companion, "It's actually very beautiful. Actually... gorgeous, isn't it?... Beautiful...", very surprised. People were very excited and talkative at this exhibit, and Gaga's name was repeated through the crowd like a hypnotic helpless tongue-tripping virus.

One of the rooms is a hall with scarlet and bloodied devils lined up along stone castle walls glowing with fire like a royal court at attention, facing the oncoming crowd. The most dramatic and beautiful classical soundtrack is bathing the awestruck hordes. These halls of bloody gentry all have gold-studded masks, and the finery is truly spectacular. This is the Nationalism room, filled with pieces inspired by McQueen's Scottish heritage (all black, red, and white -- lots of plaid, checkers, lace, patterns orderly and disoriented by turns).

Just to give an example of the performance art style of these fashion presentations... There was a dress called Highland Rape; hanging synthetic lace with spiderweb twine, autumn-flower colors torn apart, a gaping hole at the plump white mannequin crotch. An electric guitar "Star-Spangled Banner" plays overhead. Exhibit background of rough, brutalized barn wood walls. Spectacular terror. There are sobbing violins in the next room... A cluster of people is jostling around a box in the wall. It's... a tiny matted-hair Barbie whirling in white gauze ruffles of swan feathers, suspended in a glass pyramid until she melts into a glowing ball of life that blips away into space. The atmosphere was heartbreaking, entrancing, like watching a flower grow in fast-forward; violins falling apart sweetly, suffused with tears. This kind of occurrence in Alexander McQueen's work is what makes it so hard to pin down in a critical mindset -- how could this kind of thing ever be considered shallow? As art, it is magnificent, unexpected, fresh, raw, lavishly lovely. As fashion, a product and market line, it is extravagant and almost painful to consider wearing. These clothes all have fantasy personalities, and occupy the realm of the alien other -- where beauty is daring and absolutely free.

Like Lady Gaga, one of McQueen's passions seems to be the thrill of the chase to grab the public's attention and slay them with art. He wants them to see the possibilities inherent in the human form, the logical extreme of lust and romance, by brutalizing it (somewhat) and putting it on display. Near the end of the exhibit is a video being shown inside a glass box. In slow-motion, the walls of a box standing in a bare industrial room fall and smash, sending sparkling glass flying in flurries. Inside the box is a fat model lounging on a couch, swarmed with butterflies, a gas-mask on her face. We watch her gently heave as she breathes, staring abstractly down at the floor. The film ends, and the audience's reflection surfaces in the glass box the video was shown in. A rapid-fire series of realizations occur: they see themselves staring, they see themselves, and a few women automatically send up fidgeting hands to fix their hair.

On a placard mounted on the wall beside the glass box, McQueen says, "In this collection the idea was to turn people's faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think: Am I actually as good as what I'm looking at? The show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show had started. These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who couldn't be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn't conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within." Unfortunately, Lee wasn't able to hang onto his inner beauty long enough.

Alexander McQueen, the brightest star in the fashion world just snuffed out.
R.I.P.

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