Jean Paul Gaultier show at the de Young is creepy and fascinating

Last week, I found myself in Golden Gate Park with an hour of time to kill, and I wandered into the de Young. The current show is about Jean Paul Gaultier, and though the subject didn’t interest me, I so rarely get to museums these days that I bought a ticket.

Going to this exhibition was like entering another world. I lost track of time, space, and reality. The exhibition is a visual, sensory, heady experience that blew my mind.

When you enter the show, the lighting is dimmed. You are surrounded by mannequins lit up and looming over you. My perspective was immediately altered. As I tried to get my bearings, I realized that the mannequins lips and eyes were moving. One looked down and smiled shyly at me. Then he started to sing in French. Was he real? I looked down at his naked torso which was clearly plastic. Turning around, I surveyed the other mannequins. They were everywhere, twitching lips, bursting into toothy grins, and talking. It was like being in a room full of zombies. And there was room after room after room of them.

Finally, I noticed the clothing: layers of sequins, lace, and feathers. As I looked at the fashion, I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was seeing/ experiencing clothing as art. It occurred me that Jean Paul Gaultier is not an evil man who wants to keep women down by creating expensive dresses for anorexics. His intention, though the effects are not so great, isn’t bad. Women’s bodies are his canvases.

That’s not such a great position for women, of course. And the notion goes back to John Berger’s great book about art, Ways of Seeing, where he writes: “Men watch. Women watch themselves being watched.” That analysis applies not only to visual art but literature as well, where women mostly exist mostly through men’s eyes. This has happened to women for so long that it has become how we think about ourselves as well: from a male perspective. I’ve blogged about this a lot: men aren’t bad, they’re just self-centered like all humans are. That’s why we need more women artists to tell their own stories. The problem is that all art is derivative, so at this point, I don’t think its possible to tell a story without it being influenced by the thousands of years of that male perspective.

I escaped the zombie rooms for a few minutes, walking into an area with a giant, pink, quilted cube in the center. On each face of the cube was an open window with garments on faceless mannequins. I realized I was looking at the bustier Madonna wore in her Blonde Ambition tour. She is quoted:

“Gaultier’s corsets are very sexy looking, and I consider wearing them a form of personal expression. The practice is oppressive only if it is forced, and women today can choose to wear them or not; it is up to them. Plus I wore those corsets as garments–-on the outside–not as underwear hidden beneath my other clothes, the complete opposite of the way they were traditionally worn in order to achieve a certain shape. I think that inversion of the concept of the corset is what turns it into a symbol of feminine power and sexual freedom.”

I don’t agree that women have the free choice to wear what they want. Figuring out what we want can be like walking through a labyrinth. I sound like Freud here, but with so many images marketed to us and because when you look a certain way you are more easily rewarded with success and power, how can we really choose freely? Even if we choose not to “fall into that trap” is that really what we want? Rebellion adheres to the same rules as conformity if you are systematically breaking all the rules that you would otherwise be following. That’s not “free choice” either. Which brought me full circle: because we don’t really know and can’t possibly tell what free choice is given our culture and how we all internalize it, I appreciate Madonna playing with the images. Madonna’s performance– and Gaultier’s– makes you think, makes you see fashion, physical bodies, and gender in a different way. That’s pretty cool.

Under another corset, Madonna is pretty much quoted as saying just that. She explains her goal in asking Gaultier to redo the velvet cone bras for her “Vogue” video: “Playing with the idea of gender and what is masculine and feminine, and giving it a theatrical, humorous twist–it was a kind of political statement.”

I highly recommend this show but it has adult themes so don’t bring kids.

Reel Girl rates Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk ***H***