The exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? currently on at the MoMA celebrates 111 clothing and accessory items that shaped the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. These include items like Nike Air Force 1, the pearl necklace and Levi 501s. Before going to the MoMA I read the exhibition statement, it said the following: “driven first and foremost by objects, not designers, the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.” After reading this, I was curious to see how they would address such diverse topics through the curation of the 111 clothing and accessory pieces.
Upon entering the exhibition I was surprised to see the items displayed in a very traditional way. The fashion items at eye-level, the captions at the bottom and longer write-ups randomly positioned on the walls. Most of the captions were centered around the designer, the history of the piece, followed by a cultural or aesthetic observation. The longer write-ups covered wider topics like power, beauty standards, and control. As I was moving through the exhibition space I couldn’t help but notice the clear disconnect between the exhibition’s intention and the final result. Once again the designed objects and designers were being enshrined, while the important conversations were either cleverly intertwined into the sparse pieces of writing or not discussed at all.
On my way out I noticed a large data visualization drawing on the wall. Zooming in closer, it was a visualization of the 111 items in the exhibition grouped thematically and distributed according to their emergence over time. Underneath was a visualization showing how the development of eight of the fashion items, including the pearl necklace, 501s and Air Force 1, impacted areas such as labor, technology, finance and the environment over the years. It was evident that this was where the real conversation was taking place, but its isolation from the rest of the exhibition resulted in the crowd being oblivious to its existence.
While standing in front of the wall-sized diagram I noticed how other people walked past discussing the desirable pieces they had seen inside, not even flinching in the diagram’s direction. It was as if it didn’t even exist. This is exactly the same way we treat the makers of our most beloved clothing and accessories as if they are invisible. As Peter Hitchcock discusses in Oscillate Wildly – Space, Body, and Spirit of Millennial Materialism in the chapter on Fetishism (Of Shoes) it is only when the item fails to deliver on its purpose that it leaves the owner ‘disconsolate but aware’, briefly, that the item was made.
The data visualization diagram starts to unpack the cultural systems entangled in the specific fashion items, consequently transcending time and space. This defamiliarizes commodity fetishism and in essence, reminds the consumer that the items were made. The diagram is an excellent embodiment of Hitchcock’s conclusion at the end of his essay, that criticism should do more than just express concern, but must tirelessly work toward demystifying the conditions under which the “Being” of the commodity is implanted. Raising the questions: Why did the data visualization stop after eight items and not complete its task of demystification? Why were these visualizations and statistics not interwoven into the conversation inside the exhibition walls? Why were the ecosystems embedded in the fashion items not discussed in conjunction with each piece? Instead of creating a conversation around the demystifying of desire, the exhibition enhanced it.
Peter Hitchcock, “Fetishism (Of Shoes)” in Oscillate Wildly: Space, Body, and Spirit of Millennial Materialism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999), 109-142.