When the Metropolitan Museum’s latest Costume Institute show asks, “Do I look fat?” it’s not fishing for a compliment. Spread over 30,000 square feet — that’s three times the size of any previous fashion show at the museum — “China: Through the Looking Glass” knows it’s only shopping at Lane Bryant.
Chub is no biggie if you’ve got a heart of gold, but alas this lady is a gold digger. Seemingly calculated to extract yuan from the pockets of moneyed Chinese collectors — the ones who are increasingly prominent at the auctions (witness Chinese movie tycoon Wang Zhongjun’s headline-making purchase of a Picasso a few weeks ago) and on the art-fair circuit — “China” is built on bloat and bling. You’ll leave it feeling a little dirty, reminded that the Met is just another business seeking a piece of the globe’s second largest economy. If anything, it shows to what lengths — at least as long as the train on RiRi’s dress on opening night— the institution will go to get it.
To the Met’s credit: Prominent behinds were expertly smooched in the making of this show. It’s a massive splash of a thing that celebrates not only dresses decorated with dragons and pagodas, but also Chinese filmmaking: a double whammy of glamour. And the sponsors did come. Opening text thanks “several Chinese donors” (they remain nameless) alongside corporate backer Yahoo, which here seems to be attending to both its nascent fashion vertical and its Alibaba spinoff in the writing of one fat check. Also credited: the House of Wintour (er, Condé Nast). But as gala supporter Wendi Murdoch recently told the Wall Street Journal, it’s those anonymous benefactors who’ll pay long-term dividends. “They’ll get involved more in the Met in the future, not just the Costume Institute but also the Met museum,” she said. We haven’t seen such pandering to the wealthy since the baffling kitsch of the museum’s JAR jewelry exhibition…last year.
There’s no shortage of flash here: A bamboo garden made from illuminated Plexiglas is one of many extravagant set pieces; wall-size video screens display clips from Chinese films, a selection edited by powerhouse director Wong Kar-wai; and you’ll espy the hautest of haute couture, from the likes of Valentino, Dior, and Chanel, all cinematically lit. Somewhere, too, are art and artifacts of Chinese culture — crystal snuff bottles, porcelain pieces, Manchu robes. But where, exactly? Oh wait, I see them! They’re in the shadowy vitrines hugging the walls of the Asian galleries, or downstairs in the Costume Institute galleries, where Qing dynasty garments lurk behind Tom Ford numbers like pickpockets trolling for wallets.
Though the show is billed as a collaboration between the Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art (which celebrates its centennial this year), it’s clear the fripperies of Costume Institute staffers Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda won the day. The museum’s Asian galleries have been mined here more for their acreage than their artifacts, and serve as backdrops for expensively clad mannequins. There are some interesting moments — see Li Xiaofeng’s contemporary art dress made from porcelain fragments, which looks as if Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings and Winged Victory had a baby. Glimpses of cultural complexity are here, too, in nineteenth-century blue-and-white porcelain whose willow motifs, the wall text tells us, were influenced by both English and Asian tastes. But it’s tough to register details in rooms illuminated like nightclubs. Is this 1 Oak or a museum?
As for the elephant pacing these galleries: Here’s what the opening wall text has to say about postcolonial critique as championed by Edward Said, whose commentary would drape this show in red flags: “While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue[s]…outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism…as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.”
Ed, we see you there under that M4 bus.
Politics, schmolitics, “China” seems to say. Another example comes from designer John Galliano’s recent resurgence, which proves that no matter how heinous one’s gaffes — remember his anti-Semitic rant, caught on video in 2011? — one may rejoin the fold so long as one cuts well on a bias. At the Met, the museum’s Astor Court plays backdrop to pink and teal confections from Galliano’s spring 2003 Christian Dior haute couture collection themed on Chinese opera.
Those interested in examining the workmanship therein will find the pieces inaccessible. (Sorry, fashion students, these duds are not for you.) The room’s skylights have been darkened and some shiny stuff placed on the floor to evoke water; it’s as if the dresses were marooned in a koi pond. Such display choices are more the rule than the exception here. At times the presentation verges on the inexplicable: Witness the mannequins enclosed in inch-think plastic cases, like bank tellers behind bulletproof glass. Explanatory text is often hard to find — history being less relevant than the wow factor.
But what’s really missing here is soul. Compared to two recent Costume Institute triumphs — the incomparable Alexander McQueen drama of 2011 and the portrait-of-an-artist that was last year’s Charles James affair — “China” is all sequins, no silk. With McQueen and James we felt, miraculously, that their spirits had entered the building. The current show is a hodgepodge pulled from the pages of Vogue with a few vintage heavyweights like Paul Poiret thrown in — in other words, a large-scale advertorial. Wall text informs us that what we’re looking at “is not about China per se but about a collective fantasy of China.” More like a museum’s collective fantasy.