Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Andrew Bolton and the Curatorial Process

McQueen's Raven Dress made of 2000 raven feathers
Photo by Solve Sundbro
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2011
Andrew Bolton, curator of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, changed the paradigm of fashion exhibitions. Creating a multi-sensory experience akin to the charged emotional experience of being at a runway show, Bolton paid homage to McQueen as a designer with an extraordinary imagination "who challenged the idea of what is fashion". 

In a talk at New York's Pratt Institute on Monday, September 17, Andrew Bolton talked about his curatorial process in creating the McQueen exhibition. Generously sharing the credit with the McQueen team, including Sarah Burton, as well as his own staff, Bolton said that one of the reasons that the exhibition was staged so closely after McQueen's death was because it seemed possible that the team and the McQueen house might not survive the loss of their founder. Concerned about access to the archive and the possible dispersion of the team, the Met acted quickly to create the show. Bolton also "wanted to avoid revisionism" and capitalize on the "freshness, and rawness of memories". 

Bolton talked about McQueen's enormous creative talent and intensity in "using fashion as a way to convey complex ideas".  He cited McQueen's use of unorthodox materials in using such things as razor clam shells and microscope slides to "challenge the idea of what is fashion". McQueen also took inspiration from everywhere including films, paintings, and dolls. 

In walking the audience through the exhibition, Bolton outlined the curatorial narrative of each gallery and said that he designed the experience to be that of entering a gothic fairly tale. The choices of materials used within each gallery, such as rusty metal, wallpaper, acrylic tiles, and wood, all had parallels to themes of McQueen's runway presentations, such as the broken floorboards being from the "Highland Rape" show. Bolton also showed many clips of the runway shows to depict the dramatic intensity of these presentations, and said that McQueen used the concept of the runway show as inspiration for the garments he designed. 

In the question and answer session that followed, I asked Andrew Bolton how he edited the enormous McQueen archive to come up with a coherent narrative for the show. He said that the process was object based and that he had a difficult time given McQueen's enormous talent. Bolton made a storyboard and suggested that the themes emerged from that. 

I also asked Bolton where he stood on the debate around the intersection of fashion and art, and whether curators had a role in whether or not a designer's work is presented as art. He said that the debate is in effect "redundant", that "Fashion is a barometer of our times, and a mirror of what is happening in culture. Fashion is not just about functionality; it could also express complex ideas in the same way that art can."

Bolton said that the role of the fashion curator is "to interpret fashion through exhibitions" and "to interpret current events." He cited punk as one of the most exciting moments in fashion history which is the subject of the upcoming 2013 show at the Met Costume Institute Punk: Chaos to Couture. Bolton also said that he looked forward to the reopening of the Costume Institute's permanent galleries, mentioning his desire to encourage a different reading of fashion through the juxtaposition of historical and contemporary garments. 

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