by Tara Flanagan
A review of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s “Love is Love”.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s exhibit “Love is Love” closes on October 22nd, and thus marks the end of a six-year collaboration between the MMFA and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. The MMFA’s “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” has been on tour around 12 cities since 2011, and was the most visited Canadian touring exhibit with over 2 million individual visitors during a six year period. This capsule exhibit features a variety of Gaultier’s wedding gowns with the overarching theme of universal love.
The room is centered around a rising platform mimicking a white tiered wedding cake. White mannequins are positioned around the room, and the ones on the wedding cake have faces projected onto them. As I walked around the exhibit with my sister, who was on jacket holding duty, recorded voices playing in time with these facial projections echoed around the room. The effect was disconcerting, as these speak over each other low tones and whistle at visitors. I don’t know what these mannequins have to do with love and marriage, but I am certain that those flat faces will be visiting me for many nights in my nightmares.
When walking around and admiring the various gowns, however, my attention was drawn to one that was in the back corner of the room. Gaultier is known as a humanist designer who aims to challenge cultural norms through his humor and fashion, and is unabashedly unapologetic in his presentation of these ideas. Therefore, I was surprised to see a large panel of text next to a dress which featured a mannequin wearing a large, white feathered headdress.
This panel features a long passage of text explaining the oppression of First Nations peoples in North America, which is a welcome sight next to a work that appropriates the Plains First Nations eagle feather headdress, but somewhat fails in their mission to avoid “the double impasse represented by indifference, on the one hand, and self-censorship, on the other” by refusing to acknowledge the mere possibility that this work is more appropriative than appreciative.
Gaultier’s work is often irreverent and iconoclastic. In the same room, a mannequin wears a dress covered in Christian imagery and is crowned in chains. This work features no explanatory text – in fact, no other works in the room provide any cultural context behind the dresses. I do appreciate the effort of the museum to be aware of the significance of the headdress, but what put me off the exhibit was the overbearing attempt to exempt Gaultier and the exhibit from the discussion. Just explaining the context behind the dress would have been less offensive than labeling the text “Understanding Jean Paul Gaultier’s Headdress,” which implies that viewers need to be told what to think about this work.
The text outlines the ways in which First Nations peoples have been oppressed in Canada, and then instead of inviting us to question how Gaultier’s dress fits in to the narrative we are told that he is exempt from it. The wall text asks us “How can this designer’s tribute to universal beauty be understood?” This question is followed up by “In a wider context, how can we respectfully show our appreciation of a culture that is not our own?” The phrasing of these statements excludes Gaultier from the very discussion that the museum invites us to engage in; the headdress seems to exist in a vacuum that is exempt from the wider context of appropriation.
Journalist Robert Everett-Green discussed this dress in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, and mentions his surprise that the headdress did not cause much controversy when it was on tour. Perhaps this is because of the panel on the wall next to the dress, which does offer insight into why appropriating First Nations cultures is problematic. My grudge with the panel is not with its author’s opinion of the work, but how they present their opinion as fact without offering any real justification as to why.