By Scarlett Baker
“The museum is a place of intense physical experiences and overflowing desires – a romantic space of lived physicalities, lived desires” posits Niklas Maak, an arts editor and architectural theoretician, living in Berlin. He is not wrong. Entering the space of a gallery, we undergo a transition as a subject, bearing witness to the ‘romantic’ ideology that society has prescribed one must experience when entering the physical area. Curating a space of temporary architecture that radiates a certain emotion is no doubt a complex procedure to create. Yet, as Ben Lerner states in his novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, through the voice of the anxious narrator, there is a pressure to have ‘a profound experience of art’.
Entering the autonomous space of the gallery, one is expected to undergo a ‘profound’ spectrum of emotions; be it solace, understanding, melancholy. This connection is only exacerbated by the success of the curation of the exhibition and thus, the concept of the galleries physical space in the act of “experiencing” an exhibition is integral to the viewer. In late summer 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in Knightsbridge examined the legacy of Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. Portraying the House of Balenciaga’s transition from Cristóbal’s early designs to the contemporary innovation that exists within the house today, the V&A sought to capture the exquisite craftsmanship of “the master of Haute Couture” through his revolutionary female silhouettes that led the pathway for the future of modern fashion.
Yet, amongst this environment that paid homage to Cristóbal’s innovations, the exhibition seemed lacklustre in its portrayal of such an icon. Whilst Balenciaga drew upon his inspirations from his “designs of Catholicism, bullfighting and flamenco” the history of Balenciaga fell flat in the face of the exhibit’s space. Caged in glass cabinets, the sartorial display felt static and contained, as viewer’s were forced to follow a crowded path, that meandered awkwardly, and at times fragmented, piecing together the history of the fashion house. On this historical voyage, the V&A provided virtual examples of archive sketches, photographs and samples of fabrics. Whilst new technology allowed anatomical investigations into Balenciaga’s garments, such as the collaboration with artist Nick Veasey who created a Digital X-Ray pattern to expose the detail behind Balenciaga’s untimely work, the appreciation of the brand’s archive seemed lost amongst the crowd of tourists, longing to portray their “aesthetic experience” on social media, rather than bearing witness to the “profound” experience Lerner writes of, when one views art in its purest form with the naked eye.
Perhaps the exhibition was overcrowded? Would it have been better if the V&A prohibited the number of voyeuristic eyes that scanned the silhouettes of Balenciaga’s iconic fashion history for a second, only to obtain a “cultured” Instagram shot. Cassie Davies-Strodder, curator of the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibit, that celebrates 100 years of the fashion house clearly felt consumed by exaggerating the timeline of the house’s linear progression. Throughout the exhibit, you were assimilated into a line of eagerly anticipated viewers, battling to read the small surface of white text, printed onto a glass screen that accompanied a particular garment, marking the ethos of the brand’s success. The epigraph to each garment felt inferior, marginalised, and perhaps underwhelming in relation to it’s visual superior. How are we to then experience the ‘romantic’ ideology one is to feel when gazing into the history of an such a critically acclaimed artefact? If we are to just weave through mannequins, forced to walk around a white cube making the cognitive link between temporality and creative vision, we need something more. The gallery is, after all, ‘a testing ground for aesthetic experiment and response’ Lerner concludes. With the absorption of our virtual experiences reflecting our ‘overflowing desires’ in the space of the gallery, we should be able to curate an identity of emotions that excels beyond the bright-white walls, not wanting to walk out in protest feeling stifled by the stubborn boundaries of underwhelming curation.