THE DAY THAT PUNK DIED AGAIN by Sasha Frere-Jones (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sashafrerejones/2013/05/met-punk-chaos-to-couture.html
Whomever we define as a true punk in 2013 could take nothing but pleasure in the overwhelming failure of the “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibit of punk-related fashion that opened at the Met on Thursday and runs until August 14th. There is no axis along which this exhibit functions properly: the historical, anecdotal, or superficial.
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Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A tough, mythical New York punk wouldn’t see herself here—neither would her more flamboyant English relative. Nor can we feel the curator’s hand stringing together idiosyncratic associations to illuminate a time line of taste or presenting artifacts that convince us of a time line. History, if it’s here, is the ambient background for a selection of fairly recent work that makes occasional use of spray paint and chains. And a metal corset around a lacy dress—we’re pretty sure those constituent bits predate punk.
The basic concept fails before you walk into the gallery, because, categorically, the negative power of punk cannot register at an institution like the Met. But O.K.—so what? Only a party-line loon would expect a conflagration to happen. So then be generous, approach this at the level of clothes, look for thematic unity, and see if an exhibit emerges. Perversely and consistently, one does not. “Chaos to Couture” refuses to take on either the thorny ideas of punk as praxis or the slightly less thorny idea of beautiful clothes found in unexpected places.
We can dispense with the liturgical stuff quickly. Punk retains much of its power because of its ability to negate, resist, and reinvent, to reject supervision or support. That is the through-line in various accounts of punk: Mick Jones’s famous saying that punk lasted only “a hundred days” in England; Greil Marcus’s synthetic vision of Dada, Situationism, and punk in “Lipstick Traces”; or Pussy Riot. But Andrew Bolton, who curated this exhibit, is only obliged to make a narrative from clothing, to tell any of the many stories between the safety pins. It is not clear why this exhibit can’t do that. Instead we get a lot of timid, sticker-shocking clothes—Zandra Rhodes’s junked-up ball gowns look mostly messy and cramped, paint or no paint—jammed into narrow spaces. That sense of confinement could actually have been a plus, if the fashion matched that sense of being jammed in at a punk club. But the clothes are surrounded by barely identified video and audio loops. We know that’s Sid over there in a filmstrip (ironic, as he was shirtless so often) and there is a voice floating in the first room that might be Richard Hell’s. This is only white noise to a parade of work by commercial designers whom the museum may need to flatter, and whose collections are mostly from the last five years, which kind of makes you wonder if anyone even attempted an archival approach. You can’t even begin to imagine what the point is, beyond suggesting punk was searching for a corporate patron all along.
That straight-ahead archival approach, pedantic as it might seem, works. This has been practiced downtown for years by punk archivist Johan Kugelberg and his Boo-Hooray gallery. Whether in his own space or in the form of a high-end Rizzoli book, Kugelberg heads to an historical moment—punk, hip-hop, homemade records, the spiritual wholeness of the Velvet Underground—and hoovers up every available document related to that scene, made in that moment. The effect is at best transporting, and, at worst, valuable for scholarship. Imagine an exhibit of nothing but the entire stock of Vivienne Westwood designs for the London SEX shop in 1976 (she, at least, is represented here generously, though without deep background); or everything Trash and Vaudeville sold in 1977 on St. Mark’s Place. This completist, narrower approach might tell us something about the fashions that became codified as punk, here and in the U.K., and then trickled down into late adopters like Hot Topic. Instead, the Met presents us with the work of current designers like Moschino, Margiela, and Christopher Kane, none of whom make work that resembles early punk. The closest the show comes to evoking the spirit of punk is with the mostly unclothed mannequin with a pink fright wig, giving us humans the finger with an upturned right arm may not be punk but it is at least a light-hearted stab at what the Situationists called detournement, modifying the tools for new ends. Maybe not punk but somewhere in the emotional ballpark.
Richard Hell has several pages of interest in his new memoir, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp,” beginning on page 116, that describe his approach to the various ways fashion could signal the coming of a new cultural moment. (He is often credited with inventing the safety pin move, though he debunks a myth that it came from a girlfriend ripping his clothes apart.) Hell describes analyzing the Elvis and Beatles haircuts and coming up with his own, raggedy, homemade style, which could only be done half-blind, and at home; as well as the idea of repurposing functional working-class uniforms for bands. That chunk will take you much further than anything at this exhibit, which enacts none of this. (Odd that Hell, so much smarter about the moment than Bolton, contributed a preface to the catalogue, which leans so heavily Anglo and Euro.)
In gallery six—“DIY: GRAFFITI & AGITPROP”—the display copy quotes Joe Strummer of The Clash as saying there was no connection to Pollock when their clothes got covered in paint. (They were painting a warehouse.) He goes on to note “It was a good way to put together something to wear on stage, as we [unlike the Sex Pistols] didn’t have the back-up of the SEX boutique.” But this is followed by a display of working mainstream designers who sell pieces in the three- to four-figure range. Is any of this D.I.Y. because you could buy a Moschino T-shirt and then tear it up at home? And there are gorgeous pieces here, like Rei Kawakubo’s distorted velvet tunics, but they have no direct correlation to punk. What his funhouse-mirror outfits suggest is a connection between Versailles and Matthew Barney, with limbs and ruffles and collars all jammed together at deliciously wrong angles. This evokes not punk but Surrealism and high-end seamstresses. No punk ever had the time or money to put together outfits like these.
So give the exhibit the benefit of the doubt and remember how punk made itself work. What can we look to? There was the common man’s outfit, the combination of affordable elements that couldn’t lose. In fashion, that might translate into the Diane von Furstenberg wrap, the tapered trousers, the Chanel handbag, or Ray-Bans. In punk, that would have been the three-chord mantra: simple, obvious, and accessible to the great unwashed. At the other end, there was the fiery peacock, the sui generis performer who could bear the weight of a generation. (Punk needs this person no more or less than any other musical genre, but forget that for a moment.) In the music, we got John Lydon’s fearlessness, Debbie Harry’s casual glamour, Richard Hell’s hobo bricolage, and Siouxsie Sioux’s neon clothing and porcupine hair. They would have fared well at any point in the twentieth century. That unique eruption of style did happen in fashion, and Bolton already curated an exhibit of that person’s work in 2011. It showcased a designer named Alexander McQueen.
The biggest sin of this current show is not that it isn’t true to punk. It’s that it doesn’t honor history, ideas, or clothing. It’s dull, and even a suburban house party can negate that kind of bad religion.