Exhibition of the Year

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In the waning moments of the year inevitable reflection on the good, bad and indifferent of the previous 365 days infects the mind, and drives most media outlets. Best of lists, Worst of lists, hot pick lists… well, just lots of lists. Most seem rather subjective, and most work to remind me that my taste differs from the vast majority of people.

This year I was asked to contribute to one really great year end review, and to write blurbs for another. I consider the former a great honor (thank you, Steven), and the latter a bit of a pain in the ass. Given that my views are available elsewhere and more so that my lists are completely off base, it seems appropriate to finish the year with a post about something so often avoided in year end reviews, the best (or really, my favorite) exhibition. 

2007 was a pretty good year for me and exhibitions. Without second thought I would say that in this calendar year I visited a wider variety of exhibitions than in any other, in more cities and in more diverse settings. Some were curated by friends, others by foes. Some displayed the work of new acquaintances, others the craft of dead cabinet makers. It was a year in which breadth of voice was privileged, and collaboration between the museum world and the practitioner expert delightfully achieved.

On that note, my favorite exhibition of the year came in the form of the Imperial War Museum’s (LONDON) Camouflage instillation. When launched, the exhibit received considerable attention from the streetwear blogs, in most part due to the association with the good people at Maharishi. I thought this brilliant – expand audiences, bring in intelligent collaborators and push the boundaries of the museum a little.

Despite my initial excitement, I was wary of what I might find. Fearful that the praise might be unjustified, and that the sum of its parts would come off as a lame attempt at cool. Turns out my fears were unwarranted.

The exhibition played out in two clear parts. First, there was a concise and complete history of camouflage in military use from World War One, and second, an exploration of camouflage in contemporary fashion. From my perspective, the opening section was the stronger. The history was full and the sources varied, and the presented objects were so engaging. From discussion of the artistic influences of early military camouflage, both naturalist painters and cubism, to the earliest vogues in fashion (popular camouflage parties) there was so much to discover and a wealth of connections to make and dissect.

Things either forgotten or simply unknown clicked. Disruptive camouflage on ships, for example, made such an amazing visual statement, and the paintings and photographs depicting them worked as both documentary artifact and art object. The duality of everything presented made the experience so memorable, as each and every selected article shared historical value and aesthetic sensibility. And it wasn’t just history, art and fashion; there was some science thrown in too, and also a dash of humor.

The Imperial War Museum, point blank, does visitor interactive correctly. Through video and reproduction pamphlets, the curators offered examples of how the general public engaged with camouflage. Protecting homes, protecting bomb shelters, and disguising tanks; after this portion of the exhibition I felt as if I could do it all. There was also an opportunity to test my understanding and knowledge of the history, bang on a touch screen, and celebrate being smarter than my brother.

Highlighting the exhibition was a long case displaying a wealth of camouflage from a range of inter-national military units. The shapes, colors, patterns and even cuts of the clothing were astonishing. Even amidst such a bounty of terrific objects, the uniforms shone. Of course they did. That’s why we were there! Still, I was refreshed that the uniforms not only exercised star power, but as the central objects they were treated as such. Brilliantly lit, simply explained and, in the flow of the instillation, a perfect segue to the more strictly driven fashion portion.

Given the excellence of the first half of the exhibition, I must admit to being a tad let down by the fashion element. The scholarship was certainly weaker, though the points solid and well articulated. Perhaps I was upset by the reliance on the contemporary. Or, it might have been a result of having just literally been at the DPMHI store two hours prior. I felt the drop off in historical connections, but not in visual impact, which was maintained throughout.

Despite my downplaying of the final section, what should be applauded is the contrast of dense history to clean celebration of aesthetics. I cannot recall another exhibition that so simply and easily appealed to a multitude of learning styles. It offered so much, so quickly, to so many. I have complaints about every exhibition I attend. Its in my nature, I’ve worked in the field; I scrutinize everything from hanging hardware to the material labels are printed on. And, yet at the Camouflage show, I could only complain about the limited text in a portion that was so stunning I really forgot about reading altogether.

I’ve done the work no justice. It was perfect balance of history, art, science, sociology, and that cantankerous beast we call fashion. It set a new standard, and I am pretty sure I will spend the rest of my life trying to match it in my own work.  


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