Thursday, May 7, 2015

Get Out the Good China

Gown by Guo Pei. Photo: Susan Yung
China: Through the Looking Glass, the Met's new blockbuster exhibition focused on China's influence on Western fashion design, peppers stunning vintage and new haute couture garments among artifacts from the museum's vast collection, setting both in a resonant light. Details from ancient jewelry sing anew next to a beaded gown. An animated calligraphic rubbing feels practically anarchic next to a silk dress imprinted with characters. And a hall of gilded buddhas becomes a monument to a regally opulent gown with an octopus train from 2007 by Guo Pei, who aims to unite cultures in her couture. (Pei also provided the ball's most stunning gown, a 55-pound gold ensemble with a teardrop-shaped trailing cape, worn by Rihanna, that proved the gala's hottest click bait.) 

Roberto Cavalli, 2005
The sprawling show, organized by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda and on view through August 16, includes sections such as Saint Laurent & Opium, Perfume, Ming Furniture, Anna May Wong, Communist uniforms, Emperor to Citizen, Moon in the Water (Astor Garden), and Blue & White Porcelain. The latter is one of the more dramatic juxtapositions, placing a vase next to a curvy 2005 Robert Cavalli gown. It also draws into the equation the tradition of blue and white porcelain in Northern Europe, an early example of borrowed stylistic cues.   

Filmmaker Wong Kar Wai is the exhibition's artistic director, and his romantic, elegant eye is evident throughout the extensive show. Clips of films by such directors as Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee are projected in select spots, providing a jarring modern, animated backdrop. The Astor Court houses a tribute to Chinese opera—stone floors are polished to a mirror finish, emulating reflective water; a moon is projected on the ceiling, but the lighting is too dark to clearly see the somewhat distant garments' details. More legible is the Imperial China gallery, featuring yellow and gold finery both ancient and modern. 

Imperial China gallery. Photo: Met Museum

Wuxia Gallery, Craig Green ensemble. Photo: Susan Yung
The Wuxia Gallery, with its magnificent, vast, early mural of Buddhist imagery, also contains the most modern installation—a forest of plexiglass rods, like giant fiber optics, amid which are situated Craig Green's neo-Mao outfits of quilted cotton, and Gaultier's futuristic silk damask getup with a laser headlamp. It's a lot of space to show a few mannequins, but such is the luxury of the Met's huge acreage.

Because the Met is a museum of everything, it has eluded the critical traps that have snagged the Guggenheim when it mounted a show of Armani's oeuvre, or one of motorcycles, and also MoMA, whose cold new building and Bjork exhibition have been favorite critical punching bags. There is no more brazen marriage of commercial and high art than the Met's Costume Institute (oh, sorry, the Anna Wintour Costume Center). Its gala raises millions for the museum, while allowing its future exhibition subjects a vast red carpet on which to display their latest wares—gratis—on the buzziest starlets, who invariably steal the limelight from the art on view. (Read about the influx of money from China in this Wall Street Journal piece.) 

There are few castigations of crassness or decadence, in part because the Met is the grand dame of US museums. With these fashion shows, it walks the fine line between supporting the arts, and abject capitalistic decadence and celebrity worship and exhibitionism—apparently the perfect equation for raising money now.

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