Author Archives: Yinghan Guo

Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced

Prof. Martin Irvine

Yinghan Guo

May 4th, 2018.


Situating Rei Kawakubo’s fashion exhibition in a museum context, this paper questions how should be understood the relationship between the museum and the exhibits, and how does the museum work as an interface between the exhibits and the viewer. The first part of the paper gives a brief introduction of Kawakubo and her most famous collections. The following three parts discuss the function of the museum, the Metropolitan exhibition, and whether the museum makes fashion an artwork. This paper aims to show that the Costume Institute’s curation of the show creates enough room for the viewers to make their own interpretations of the exhibits, and that the museum space contributes to the making of Kawakubo’s haute couture artworks.


Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese fashion designer who is often seen as an artist as well, though herself never acknowledges. Behind Kawakubo’s blurring identity is a larger debate about whether designers are artists and whether fashion is a form of art. Daphne Guinness gives a definite answer to this question: “the best of our designers are indisputably artists; it just so happens that they have chosen fabric as their medium instead of paint or clay. Whether or not they regard themselves as ‘artists’ is another question entirely” (Smith and Kubler 8) Guinness’s contribution to this debate is that she separates the roles of a fashion designer as is viewed by the general public and those as is understood by the fashion designers themselves. What complicates the debate is that fashion has been gradually taken into museum space—be it contemporary art galleries or traditional art museums—since the end of the last century. This trend sparks more discussions about the relationship between fashion and art.

Taking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 retrospective of Rei Kawakubo’s work for example, this paper explores how fashion might be viewed as art in a museum context, and how the museum creates an interpretive framework for haute couture to be viewed as an artwork. This thesis aims to show that the museum promotes the idea that fashion can be seen as art, and argues that the museum space not only promotes cultural transmission and dialogue, but also participate in the meaning-making of a work of art.

Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo was born in 1942 in Tokyo. She enrolled in Keio University in the same city eighteen years later, where she studied fine arts and literature. Kawakubo was not officially trained as a fashion designer, but her exposure to Asian and Western art as she studied the history of aesthetics inspires her design in her later career, which incorporates both Eastern and Western elements. After her graduation from college, Kawakubo worked in the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile company, and then as a freelance stylist. In 1969, she established her own fashion brand Comme des Garçcons, meaning “like some boys” in French, and incorporated the label in 1973.

Kawakubo had her first Paris show in 1981. Together with another Japanese fashion designer, Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo brought fresh air to the European fashion world. In the early 80s, fashion “was dominated by the high glamour of Gianni Versace and Thierry Mugler.” (Hyzagi). Kawakubo and Yamamoto, however, went against this trend by using “deliberate holes woven into crinkled fabrics, irregular hemlines, side seams that were often ragged and unfinished, and loose-fitting layers that fell aimlessly over the body” (Mears 99).

Using formlessness to conceal the body, Kawakubo went against the dominant tight-to-the-body fashion trend. “I built my work from within,” says Kawakubo, “instead of satisfying a demand for sexualized and ostentatious clothing.” Her non-conformism generated distinct reactions of the viewer, some of whom gave her generous praise, while others dismissed the collection as “ragged chic” and labels it as “post atomic.” This demonstrates how meaning is made through difference, and how fashion as a sign is read and interpreted differently.

Both the trend that Kawakubo rejected and the critique she received provide crucial context to understand her work. Martin Irvine summarizes that “an expression, utterance, or any form of discourse is . . . always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in chains or networks of ongoing cultural and political moments” (1). If Kawakubo’s rejection of the fashion trend is a dialogue with the past, then the critiques is a response in the future which her design anticipated when they were made. Since meaning emerges from dialogues, be it conversation or controversy, Kawakubo’s design acquires meaning as we read it in relation to the fashion trend. Her rejection to the popular and the norm, and her relentless seeking for the new and the groundbreaking gave her design a unique feature, which allows her to enter into the dialogue of fashion conversation with a distinct voice.

Kawakubo’s 1997 collection, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress,” demonstrates the sign value of her design, which, I argue, blurs the boundary between fashion and art. Being referred to also as “lumps and bumps,” this collection includes “dresses, skits and jackets in bright, stretch gingham checks that came with enormous goose-down-filed protuberances suggestive of tumors, shoulder pads, pregnant bellies or outside fanny packs—and in all the wrong places” (Smith).

It is obvious that those lumps and bumps are not functional, because no one would wear them in daily life. They only appear in fashion shows and are appreciated because of their sign value, or the ideas that they express. “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” is a collection through which Kawakubo attempts to explore the relationship between clothes and the body. When the models put on the clothes, the lumps and bumps become a part of the body. Rather than seeing clothes as materials that cover the body, Kawakubo proposes a more intimate relationship between them. The lumps and bumps that give the clothes a special form (physical deformation) become a sign through which the viewer interprets Kawakubo’s ideas about the relationship between clothes and the body.

This collection also invites us to ponder over Kawakubo’s design in another dialogue, that is, with her own past. Though she claims time and again that she never goes back to her past ideas or designs, it is impossible not to. Indeed, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” in no way resembles the styles of the clothes she made for her 1981 Paris runway debut, as the former is characterized by bright colors and tight skirt while the latter is shown in black loose form, however, there are critics pointing out the spirit that they share in common. Alexander Fury, for example, argues that this collection presents Kawakubo as “a lone voice against fashion’s flow of skinny, unstructured tube dresses and bias-cut slips”—a critique that is also shared by Kawakubo’s 1981 show also received. It suggests that there is an overarching theme that rules over each of Kawakubo’s collections, and those meta-narratives, though seem to be distinct from each other in every way, also subject to a grand narrative.

Kawakubo’s 1997 collection poses the question about the relationship between fashion and art, as the clothes are presented as more ornamental than functional. Fashion, traditionally understood as a form of popular culture, is moving towards art. Mitchell Oakley Smith and Alison Kubler suggest that “the traditionally existed hierarchy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms” of art and fashion is now collapsed” (10) As early as in 1917, Marchel Duchamp had already made ordinary daily life objects into art, as is exemplified in his famous “Fountain.” In the 1950s, artists like Andy Warhol also turns mass-produced advertisements into artworks. Likewise, fashion began to show up in museums and art galleries by the end of the last century. In 2017, Kawakubo becomes the only living fashion designer after Yves Saint Laurent whose work was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition urges us to treat and examine Kawakubo’s fashion design as artwork.

The Functions of the Museum

Before examining Kawakubo’s retrospective, it is necessary to understand how the functions of the museum help us to read art and fashion in a museum context. Mark Lilla, Edward Alexander, and Mary Alexander discuss the cultural function of the museum. The Alexanders point out that the aims for the museums in the last century are “exhibition, education, or interpretation,” which is in essence a “conveyance of culture” (10). Underlie this claim is the interface that the museum creates between the object on display and its viewer. Exploring the nature of the museum’s cultural function, Lilla regards the museum as “an ‘empowering’ institution”, which is “meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience” (25). He focuses on the resonance that each viewer has with the exhibition, and discovers the trans-cultural bound between the viewers through their shared experiences. Sharing the same view, Andrew McClellan suggests that “we learn to see ourselves in a larger flow of human experience and to empathize with others through a shared appreciation of beauty.” Our willingness to accept other cultures and ability to understand them are the preconditions for the transmission of meaning.

Apart from the cultural function, critics also read the museum as a space for dialogue.  Duncan Cameron notes that “museums occupy two ends of a spectrum from a ‘temple’ to a ‘forum’ in the early 1970s,” which looks back at “the premodern form of a museum as a site for musing and for discourse” (189). Cameron interestingly points out two seemingly paradoxical nature of the museum, which is nevertheless both necessary for the viewer to comprehend the meaning of the exhibit and then transmit it. Musing is the process in which the viewer opens himself or herself up to comprehend the possible meaning of an unfamiliar object. Discussion with fellow viewers after their own musings helps each to understand the exhibition with more diverse perspectives and on a deeper level. Stephen Weil, however, slightly expands the scope of the “discourse.” He suggests that “museums have moved beyond collections and collecting so dominant in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to become institutions rooted in interpretation in its broadest sense, actively seeking to provoke thought and the exchange of ideas between the museum and its visitors” (229). For Stephen, the discourse not only happens between people, but could also happen between people and object, as well as people and the whole cultural tradition behind the objects on display. The museum puts the exhibit and the viewer into a dialogue in which meaning emerges.

To have a more comprehensive understanding of how the museum transmits culture, we also need to study the relation between the museum and the artwork it displays. Exploring the museum’s aesthetic purpose, Daniel Buren proposes that “the museum is the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed. It is at once the centre in which the action takes place and the single (topographical and cultural) viewpoint for the work” (189). By pointing out the museum’s framing and supporting function, Buren makes it inseparable to the artwork’s meaning-making. The objects are put in the museum because of both the curator’s choice and their own values. The fact that the works are chosen and put into the museum gives becomes an acknowledgment of their status as artwork. In other words, as the boundaries between art and popular culture or commodity become murky, it becomes increasingly hard to tell a work of art from a non-art object. Under this circumstances, museums define a thing as an artwork by admitting it and including in an exhibition. This function of the museum is especially helpful for defining the nature of fashion, given its ambiguous position between art and a popular form of culture. The functions of the museums, including cultural transmission, promoting dialogue and defining the objects as artworks, create meaning as it interfaces between the communication between art and the viewer.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between was curated by Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Costume Institute. It examines approximately 140 examples of Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons since the early 1980s. Through these examples, the galleries explore the space between boundaries in the designer’s revolutionary experiments. In the exhibition, objects are organized into nine themes, including Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti- Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. The exhibition aims to illustrate how Kawakubo breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness.

As we learn from Matthew Schneier that Bolton “structured the exhibitions around pairs of binary themes . . . to show how Ms. Kawakubo’s work could be both and neither, in between and somewhere else entirely” (Schneier). One of the interesting questions to ask about the exhibition is how the space of the museum and the installation of the exhibits help achieve Bolton’s intention and discover meaning. In the actual museum place, to one’s astonishment, there are no directions given to guide visitors through the galleries, and there are no wall texts to explain Kawakubo’s designs and ideas. One of the reasons why there is so little information given for the show is that Kawakubo hates providing interpretations for her own work. Since the exhibition is conducted by the collaboration of the artist and the curator, the latter had to compromise and design the show in a way that does not explain yet still allows the viewer to extract meaning from the exhibition.

Bolton ingeniously creates an interface between the exhibits and the viewers through the manipulation of the museum space. The retrospective of Kawakubo’s work is categorized thematically and by color, rather than chronically. In the gallery’s introduction video, Bolton reveals that Kawakubo “doesn’t want one grand narrative to be imposed on her work, so the actual display itself is presented as an artistic intervention.” The retrospective is thus broken into different meta-narratives, with each cluster of the exhibits occupying a place and displaying one theme, showing no apparent relation to other clusters—that is to say, the connections are left for the viewer to make. Bolton also explains that the show is “mazed almost like a playground. You’re encouraged to experience at your own pace, in your own route.”

The absence of the wall texts is aimed at engaging the viewer’s active participation. “I think Rei’s work is poetry,” says Thierry Dreyfus, who is in charge of the lightening for the show, “it is like when you read Whitman—you participate, and then you share something; but nothing is said, nothing that can be explained” (Yaeger). Rather than having the designer defining the meaning of her work, the show engages the viewer into an interpreting process in which the meaning of the work is produced by the collaboration of the artist and the viewer. One could have a postmodern experience viewing this exhibition. because no overarching guidelines are given to the interpretation of the work, that is to say, each viewer has to create his or her own pattern to participate. More importantly, since the artist intends to have her clothes speaks for themselves, each individual viewer participate in the making of the meaning of the work on display.

The relationship between the exhibits and the viewer are bilateral. As the viewer becomes the interpreter, they also change the nature of the objects—the interpreting process turns the clothes into artwork as they read fashion as signs. According to Daniel Chandler, “signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts of objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning” (13). As the viewers interpret the signs, they participate in the objects’ meaning-making process. Bolton’s curation of the retrospective could also be explained by Charles Sanders Peirce’s argument of sense-making: “the meaning of a sign is not contained within it, but arises in its interpretation” (32). The museum’s framing and supporting function are thus confirmed through Kawakubo’s case: it provides a space for the exhibits’ meaning-making process.

But then, it is also worth considering they seemingly lack dialogue in this retrospective. In other words, does the show demonstrates which system Kawakubo’s signs belong to? Mikhail Bakhtin argues that “the utterance is filled with dialogic overtones,” because “our thought itself—philosophical, scientific, artistic—is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought” (Speech Genres 92) The dialogue or conversation, however, is not explicitly shown by the retrospective. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of conversation in all individual exhibitions. Buren discusses the museum’s collecting function, arguing that it “makes simplifications possible,” because the collection can be used “to show a single artist’s work, thus producing a ‘flattening’ effect” (190) Is it legitimate, then, to argue that the Comme des Garçons exhibition is flattened because the show is all about Kawakubo’s design?

It is true that the exhibition does not include many backgrounds that could situate Kawakubo’s design in a fashion context, yet, there are still alternative conversations that circles around the show. First of all, critics’ comments suggest that, even Kawakubo claims that all of her works are original, it does not mean that she was not influenced. David Salle points out that Kawakubo’s design demonstrates a multicultural influence, from the Elizabethan court dress to the Belle Epoque, and from the France of Versailles to the Japanese battle dress. Stephanie LaCava also notes that Kawakubo’s designs in her 1981 Paris show took inspiration from Japanese folklore. The critics’ observations make up the dialogic background behind the show, which might offer the viewer more help were they offered by the Costume Institute’s curation.

In addition to a dialogue with other cultures from which Kawakubo got her inspiration, she is also in conversation with the future. “Continually questioning, encouraging individuality and looking to the future,” claims Kawakubo, “this is Comme des Garçons’ approach to creating clothes” (Frankel 158). Her anticipations of the future virtually make up part of her present discourse. Bahktin proposes that “the world is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The orientation towards an answer is open, blatant and concrete” (The Dialogic Imagination 280). Each of her new collection is her attempt to look into the future, and all of her haute couture is in conversation with the anticipated responses in future. One may situate Kawakubo’s exhibition among the past fashion exhibitions that the Constume Institution concocted, such as the ones featuring Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander MacQueen. However, it seems to me that Bolton deliberately eliminated the conversation in order to foreground Kawakubo’s artistic genius and creative attempts.

Fashion or Art?

A fundamental question that the Comme des Garçon exhibition poses is that whether Kawakubo’s haute couture should be understood as fashion or art? I propose that the answer is both. As is suggested by the subtitle of the retrospective: Kawakubo’s work is an art in between. Haute couture, defined as clothes produced by hand or for a specific body, is a form of high fashion as is differentiated from popular fashion. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin discuss the “aura” of authenticity that makes something art, and argues that it disappears in the age of reproduction (218). According to Benjamin, popular fashion is not art, because the mass-produced clothes bear no “authenticity” of artwork. Haute couture, however, could be understood as art, because it is made by hand and thus preserves an “authenticity” of an artwork. Germano Genoa notes that “the idealized view of artistic creation as the poetic manifestation of individual genius which transcends the banality of daily life is at odds with this correlation of art production with mass-market mechanisms” (Firenze 88) It seems that haute couture reconciles this contradiction as the clothes become the embodiment of the designer’s ingenious creativity. Haute couture takes on the “aura” that has been lost in the age of mass production.

Haute couture’s high symbolic value also makes it a form of art. Instead of the functional value that is emphasized by popular fashion, haute couture is characterized by its symbolic value. Since the materials themselves do not produce meaning and do not make themselves fashion or art, meaning emerges from the interpretation of the symbolic value that is attached to the clothes. Bolton argues that “fashion isn’t just about wearability or about the pragmatics of clothing, but also about ideas and concepts. . . Fashion is a vehicle to express ideas about the subject. And that, too, is what art is all about” (Smith and Kubler, 160). Though there are no tangible features that make certain clothes high fashion, each design that makes up a collection is unique, and each season is exclusive. It is the differentiation that makes them recognizable, and expensive. The fact that a great number of people cannot afford high fashion design gives more symbolic value to it, because wearing haute couture demonstrates one’s wealth and social status. Haute couture shares aspects of artworks because of the high symbolic value it gets from its recognizability.

Exhibiting haute couture in the museum reaffirms its artistic quality. When being asked how to evaluate whether a designer is worthy of selection for an exhibition, Bolton answers that they select “designers who really have advanced fashion in one way or another, whether through techniques and constructions, or conceptually” (163). The museum acknowledges haute couture’s artistic value by holding exhibitions for it. In the same fashion, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also corroborates the artistic quality of Kawakubo’s fashion design. Yaeger comments that Kawakubo’s avant-garde parade is closer to performance art than fashion show. Salles even calls her a “combinatory formalist.” Kawakubo turns concepts into objects, which is exactly what an artist does. Her groundbreaking or even grotesque design explores the area in between fashion and art, pushing the boundary of the former one step closer toward the latter.


The Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between exhibition exemplifies how the museum interfaces between the exhibit and the viewer and how it makes fashion possible to be read as art. The museum creates frames of dialogues for artworks, and also participates the meaning-making process. The museum also transmits culture. Kawakubo’s design already shows a fusion of Japanese culture with Western culture. By holding this exhibition at the center of the New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed this unique fashion to visitors from around the world. The museum perpetuates the idea and concepts that Kawakubo’s fashion embodies through collecting and displaying the haute couture. This process, which acknowledges fashion as artwork, also adds a new layer of meaning to high fashion.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P., and Mary Alexander. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Second edition, Altamira Press, 2007.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist, Translated by Caryl Emerson, Reprint edition, University of Texas Press, 1983

—. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, translated by Vern W. McGee, 2nd edition, University of Texas Press, 1986.

Biennale di Firenze, et al. Art/Fashion. English language trade ed., in cooperation with Skira editore, 1997.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, edited by H. Arendt. Schocken. 1969, 217–251.

Buren, Daniel. “Functions of the Museum,” in Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz. Later Printing edition, Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Cameron, Duncan. “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” Journal of World History Vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 189-204.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2 edition, Routledge, 2007.

Frankel, Susannah. Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers. V & A Publications ; Distributed by H. N. Abrams, 2001.

Fury, Alexander. “7 Key Themes in Rei Kawakubo’s Career.The New York Times Style Magazine. Apr 28, 2017.

Hyzagi, Jacques. “Rei Kawakubo’s Radical chic.” The Guardian, Sep 20, 2015.

Irvine, Martin. “Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism | Intertextuality, Intermediality | Remix: A Student’s Guide.”

LaCava, Stephanie. “The Radical Success of Comme des GarçonsThe New York Review of Books. Jul 11, 2017.

Lilla, Mark. “The Great Museum Muddle,” New Republic, April 8, 1985.

McClellan, Andrew. The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. First edition, University of California Press, 2008.

Mears, Patricia. “Exhibiting Asia: The Global Impact of Japanese Fashion in Museums and Galleries.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, Mar. 2008.

Oakley Smith, Mitchell, and Alison Kubler. Art/Fashion in the 21st Century. Thames & Hudson Inc, 2013.

Salle, David. “Clothes That Don’t Need You.” The New York Review of Books. Sep 28, 2017.

Schneier, Matthew. “Rei Kawakubo, the Nearly Silent Oracle of FashionThe New York Times, May1, 2017.

Smith, Roberta. “The Met’s Rei Kawakubo Show, Dressed for Defiance.”  The New York Times, May 4, 2017.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Weil, Stephen E. “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: the Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum,” Daedalus, 1999, pp. 229-258.

Yaeger, Lynn. “On the Eve of the Comme des Garçons Retrospective, the Notoriously Reclusive Rei Kawakubo Speaks Out.” Vogue, Apr 13, 2017.

Works Consulted

Bolton, Andrew. Rei Kawakubo/Comme Des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Slp Har/Ps edition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.

Godtsenhoven, Karen Van, et al., editors. Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th-Century Silhouette. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture.”The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies. Edited by Eduaro Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough. Routledge, 2015, pp. 15-42.

Kelly, Cara “Is Clothing Art? Who Cares, You’ll Love the New Met Exhibit Either WayUSA Today, May 4, 2017.

Shapton, Leanne. “Rei Kawakubo, Interpreter of Dreams.” The New York Times, Apr 26, 2017.

Thurman, Judith. “The Misfit: Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese avant-gardist of few words, and she changed women’s fashion.The New Yorker. Jul 04, 2005.

Waters, John. Role Models. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Yaggy, Amanda. “Channeling Rei Kawakubo at the Met.” The New Yorker, August 26, 2017.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

I was planning to switch my topic to the Costume Institute’s 2017 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which examines the works of Rei Kawakubo, a Japanese fashion designer.

Kawakubo was born in 1942, who was not trained as a fashion designer, but worked successively in a textile company and as a freelance stylist after her graduation from Keio University, where she studied fine arts, literature and “the history of aesthetics.” In 1973, she established her own brand, Comme des Garçons. In 1981, her design shocks the European fashion world. From then on, her “voice” is constantly heard in the global fashion world. In 2017,

Topic: Fashion as a Form of Art When Displayed in the Museum: The Curation of a Non-Traditional Exhibition

Research Question: What is the motivation of this exhibition? What does this exhibition want to tell us? How does it tell us through both online curation and the actual arrangement of the space and settings of the exhibition?

Tentative Outline:

  1. A General Introduction
    1. The designer Rei Kawakubo
    2. Kawakubo’s fashion brand Comme des Garçons
    3. How Kawakubo’s style changes and develops

[Resources: articles about Kawakubo from The New Yorker, NY Times, The Guardian, and several published books]

  1. The Interfaces of the curation of the exhibition
    1. The website: What information does it provide? How does it help the actual exhibition?
    2. The exhibition: How to evaluate the nine themes? How does it help the viewer to understand Kawakubo’s work?

[Resources: The Met’s official website, text, visual image and videos]

  • Fashion, Fashion Designer and Museums
    1. Fashion as an object of art in Exhibitions (a tentative conversation where I situate my project—need to know more about the academic conversation about this area and more materials)
    2. Kawakubo’s show in the Met: this is The Costume Institute’s first monographic show on a living designer since the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in 1983. Andrew Bolton is the curator of Kawakubo’s show.

[Resources: Andrew Bolton’s interview, … ]

Problems: Don’t know if I found a suitable conversation for my project; might need more materials that inform the larger conversation or contexts of this exhibition

Exploring Google Arts and Culture

First of all, the home page doesn’t make it very clear what is the focus of the whole project or how it wants to draw the viewer’s attention. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m curated. On the top of the homepage, there is the Virtual Tour of 10 Top Museums, as the title of this section says, which makes this part look like Google’s effort to digitalize the space and artworks in museums to promote the artworks’ transmission. However, the focus on technology immediately fades away when the designer puts the two Cultural Heritage Module under the Virtual Tour part: “Preserving Maya Heritage” and “8 Fascinating Communities Around the World.” Though still maintaining a worldwide view, this part is marked by using the traditional form of feature stories to mediate cultures around the world. Therefore, even on the front page, there are already too many focuses: technology, news, art, and culture, the problems of which continue to emerge throughout the homepage.

Another thing that I didn’t get about Google Art Project is how it makes categorization. Unlike the traditional ways of categorization including time, movement, school of painting, Google Art Project categorizes by medium and color. Under medium, there are hundreds of sub-categories, including some interesting ones like fiberglass, seashell, and walnut. On the one hand, this new method of categorization makes the viewers realize the various perspectives one could have in viewing the art world; on the other hand, categorizing with medium also makes one wonder whether it is effective in helping the reader to discover new layers of meaning in the artwork.

Going into the walnut categories, one would find paintings, furniture, sculptures, but none of them help to interpret other objects. They are put on the website as isolated objects. It seems to me that categorizing by medium does not help much in helping one to discover different layers of meaning in a specific object. However, it still points to different possible perspectives that one may take to view the world of artworks.


Art and Alienation

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin discusses the art of film as a form of alienation. It not only alienates the actor from the stage of the performer in the case of performing art, but also estranges him from his own person (31). That is to say, the actor is objectified before the camera and is deprived of its authenticity to some extent. One feature of art that Benjamin pointed out through this case is alienation, and this is indispensable from the new form of artistic reproduction. Benjamin argues that technological reproduction of art destroys its “aura,” which is bound to the actor’s “presence in the here and now” (31). In other words, the historical process that produced the art is separated from the display of the artwork

The same logic also applies to the still form of art: paintings and sculptures that hang in museum and art galleries. Once being put in institutions of arts, the artwork becomes an isolated object, a high art, that is detached from the time, space that produced it and the artist that made it. This, it seems to me, in turn helps the transmission of what the piece of art wants to express, because only when a piece of art is separated from the process of production, can it become an independent work. The liberation of an artwork from its “background” actually helps with its interpretation, because it foregrounds both the abstract ideas that the artist wishes to express and the form of art that embodies those ideas. Under such an interpretation, the alienation of art from its form of production actually promotes the interfaces between the object of art and its viewers.

Even though museum alienates an artwork from the space and time that the artwork was produced, it promotes a new form of space and time in the transmission of artwork. Debray proposes that “if communication transports essentially through space, transmission essentially transports through time” and that “with transmission, time is appreciable internally” (3). Transmission prolongs the interfaces between an individual and a piece of artwork, and emphasizes the forms or symbols of an artwork that helps the viewer to interpret and communicate with it. Even though the institution of art deprives the aura of an artwork, it puts the artwork in a new form of space and time that enables the interface between an artwork and its viewer.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility.” Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.

Debray, Régis. Transmitting CultureTranslated by Eric Rauth. Columbia University Press, 2000.

Paul Klee and His Artistic Expression

By Adriana Sensenbrenner, Catherine Boardman, Yinghan Guo

As a teacher, painter and musician, Paul Klee can be considered an anti-categorical artist in practice and purpose. His paintings, inspired largely by music and children art, cannot be contextualized in one “school” but rather can be seen as osmotic. His paintings blend multiple different movements and ideas together to create a rather witty and childish masterpiece that has influenced generations of artists and people alike.

As a teacher at the Bauhaus, he was exposed to the various teachings and dogmas of the Bauhaus to further influence his work in terms of design. His family was rather musical as well, with his father as a music teacher and his mother trained as professional singer. Klee was raised in a musical family and was trained as a violin player. He saw analogies between music and visual art, where certain colors stand for expressions and musical rhythms. Such an idea links back to Kandinsky who saw colors as different forms of musical rhythms and tempos. The musical and the visual become a different measure to analyze Klee’s work, which become, if you will, a symphony of signs and symbols that combined seem as if a child is playing with artistic tools (playing in the musical and visual sense).

In Klee, we can see the convergence and reinterpretation of many artistic genres – from Cubists and printmaking to the German Renaissance and Romantics (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012), especially in his choice of medium and material. In Paul Klee and Ten Americans, After Paul Klee, a Klee piece described as “oil on canvas” sits next to a work of “colored paste on newspaper on burlap.” His vacillating choice of medium captures the zeitgeist of the early 20th century: uncertainty. Whether it be the radical new ways of thinking, the confrontation of old and new cultures, WWI and II, the introduction of technology and the fear that comes with it, Klee’s work regresses to a childlike state – innate to all humans – all while incorporating the complexities of modern life and the traditions of human life (music, signs, language). Klee almost perfectly represents the “continuum of reinterpretations;” the idea that we will never cease to combine elements of what we have seen, heard, read, etc (Irvine, 2018). However, even with the multitudes of artistic codes present in Klee’s work, one cannot deny that what he was doing was different. It was so different in fact that it influenced a generation of artists in an entirely different country, as we saw in Ten Americans. Klee tapped into something that had not been tapped into before. He regenerated codes of the past, inaugurated them into the present, and solidified his influence into the future.

One of Klee’s ways to explore human life is through nature. Rather than representing nature, Klee mediates nature through abstract art. As the curator notes in “The Nature of Creation: Making the Invisible Visible,” Klee turned away “from the social realist art of the 1930s that remained firmly tied to depicting the harsh realities of the external world,” and developed “a profound desire to use art to express the vitality and internal rhythms of the natural world.” Just like artists of Romanticism, Klee also believed that human beings could reach their interiority and spirits through their connection with nature. Using abstract art, Klee tried to capture the ungraspable feelings that are evoked by the sight of nature. Arnason notes that Klee attempts “to arrive at a reality beyond the visible world” (128). It is through the media of symbols, bold colors and exaggerated patterns that Klee translates the invisible and the unrepresentable human feelings on the canvas.

Evoking the natural world for their artistic expression is not exclusive to Klee. It is also shared by later artists, who interacts with Klee across time and space. The Exhibition curation lists Klee, Baziotes, and Stamos among others as examples, and describes their style as “a pictorial language of abstract motifs” that “evoke the natural world in constant state of growth and evolution.” The paintings by Klee and Stamos (below), through different in various aspects, share commonalities as well. For example, both of them use abstract patterns to create meaning (or non-meaning), and both of them creates different layers of colors for expressing their ideas. This illustrates how artists are involved in dialogues across time and space, and how Klee’s innovations in abstract art influences artists in later times. Those paintings inherited the features of symbolism, including “expressing [the artists’ individual spirits],” creating “a fantasy world” and evoking “free imagination” (Kleinder 707), but also anticipate and echoes with surrealism and cubism in later times. The world of art is always a world of dialogism.

Paul Klee (1879-1940), Triplet Blossoms and the Cave (1930)

Theodoros Stamos (1922-1997), Untitled (1945)

Arnason, H. H. and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Irvine, Martin. (2018).  “Student’s Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality.

Kleinder, Fred S. Gardener’s Art Ages. 14th edition. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014.

Smithgall, Elsa. Wall text for Paul Klee and Ten Americans, After Paul Klee. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

The Art Story (website),

Photos are taken at the Philips Collections.

Paul Klee and Ten Americans

Each sign is to be understood in a certain context. In “Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism| Intertextuality, intermediality| Remix: A Student’s Guide,” Prof. Irvine introduces Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “utterance.” “Our utterances” are not themselves “connected discourses,” but they also suggest “our relation as a speaker to a necessary other” (Irvine 1). This interpretation puts utterance and the subjects who produce those signs into a context. “An expression, utterance, or any form of discourse is therefore always already embedded in a history of expression by others in chains or networks of ongoing cultural and political moments” (Irvine 1). Bakhtin’s theory not only works for utterances, but also for all forms of expressions, including artworks.

Reading the introduction of the “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” Exhibition, it seems that the Phillips Collection did a wonderful job in contextualizing Paul Klee’s artworks. The Introduction clearly explains that “the exhibition is the first to feature Klee in dialogue” with ten other artists. A brief introduction social-historical background immediately follows:

While Klee himself never joined his peers across the Atlantic, his works traveled there in great numbers, stimulating an enthusiastic reception by a young generation of American artists who, after the horrors of World War II, were searching for an art form removed from the external world. In Klee, they found a liberating example of an artist who drew upon many ideas gaining currency in the international artistic avant-garde, including the art of indigenous cultures, the power of symbolic language, the method of working from the unconscious, and an interest in probing nature’s invisible forces. Klee’s stylistically diverse body of work resonated with American abstract artists searching for a new personal language of expression.

The introduction explains how the horror of the war urges the artist to find new forms of art to express themselves. This gives an adequate reason for why Klee’s expressionist style resonates so well with his coeval American artists.

Paul Klee Yang Moe (1938)

Kenneth Noland In the Garden (1952)

Take the two paintings for example, even though the stylistic differences between the two paintings, including the two artists’ use of lines and colors, are obvious, they share some commonalities. For example, both of them use simple lines to create abstract patterns, and both patterns in their resemblance to human figures carry their own symbolic meanings. Although Noland painted In the Garden 14 years later than Paul Klee’s Yang Moe, their expressionist style and the themes that both paintings share nevertheless allow the viewers a new perspective to access to the traumatic post-WWII age. The commonalities between the two painting demonstrate well how the Phillips Collection brings the artists into dialogues.

My questions

1.Using the above case for example, how do we understand the process of meaning-production with Pierce’s theory? In other words, how do we conceptually get the meaning of the painting, and what are the “interpretants” in this process.

2. If we don’t contextualize the two works synchronically in spatial terms, but in temporal term with Peirce and Bakhtin’s theories, what is the new relationships between the two paintings?


Irving, Martin. Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism| Intertextuality, intermediality| Remix: A Student’s Guide.

Morse’s Painting, the Daguerreotype and the Telegraph as Interfaces

Morse’s tendency to look to the future is shown in his Gallery of the Louvre as he “re-mediated” the cultural knowledge to the American Republic (Irvine, p. 3). Although gallery paintings do not represent exactly what would have been on display,  Morse carefully selected works he deemed important, thus becoming a curator in his own right. His interpretation of the Salon Carré  represents  a “rich source of information about past attitudes about art”  (Roach, 2015, p.47). Serving as an interface of the Louvre to, the American public, the assembled collections in one painting show how Morse was participating in a larger trend among his network of influence (Roach, 2014, p.51).  Morse and many other artists of the time, such as, Hubert Roberts and John Scarlett, began changing the function of gallery painting as a social commentary to become a means for social mobility (Roach, 2014, p.51). Gallery of the Louvre shows Morse among other Americans in the paintings which is interesting for two reasons. First, it deepens the “meta” aspect of his message by showing how the Louvre or any museum can function as an educational institution. Second, it serves as historical evidence that could have been the impetus for his decision to help form a school of design in New York. Using art from other countries as inspiration for his own piece could also inspire, educate and provide a basis of knowledge for the anyone able to see Gallery of the Louvre to go forth and create their own great works of art.

As Gillespie states, “Most of Morse’s technological experimentation prior to his work with the telegraph was directly related to the mechanical replication of an existing subject.” (Gillespie, p. 101). Such became the common thread that tied his paintings together, namely the “Gallery of the Louvre” and the “House of Representatives”. Morse used technology as a means for exact, or “mechanical” reproduction/ imitation of nature. Through the camera obscura and the daguerreotype, Morse was able to create exact replicas that his mind was “highest class of painting- historical epics” (p. 102). The combination of art and science/ technology is nothing new in the art-world. Michelangelo and Leonardo are exemplars of embodying the concepts of science into their paintings. Morse probably had that same vision while creating his masterpieces, understanding that using technologies married the visual with the scientific, experimenting with new technologies to achieve a mechanical replication.

Aligning with Morse’s daguerreotype, his invention of the telegraph also demonstrates his endorsement of the technology. And this technology, just like his painting which transmits the western artistic masterpieces to the American public, also works as an interface that transcends time and space. Morse’s telegraph transforms messages into codes, and then sends the codes to a different, and more often, a remote place, where the codes are to be transformed back to meaningful messages. Telegraph allows for the instantaneity of information transmission, showing how technology not only intervenes but also changes the nature of human communication. If Morse’s painting could be read as a combination of “mechanical imitation” and “intellectual imitation,” his use of daguerreotype as a more direct transmission of message and meaning, and his telegraph, as Gillespie proposes, exemplifies his obsession with “mimetic reproductive technologies” (Gillespie, p. 101). Interfacing between different media through the system of coding and decoding, telegraph goes one step further in the accurate transmission of meanings. As Prof. Irving rightfully summarizes, “Morse’s whole career was about using symbolic media for encoding the transmission of meaning — and transmitting representations through time and across distances” (Irvine, p. 1).

Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Reproduction.’” From Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Peter John Brownlee eds. New Haven, Yale UP and Terra Foundation, 2014, 101-108.

Irvine, Martin. “Art and Artefacts as Interfaces: Meta-Representation and Meta-Media from Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project.”

Roach, Catherine. “Image as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.”  From Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Peter John Brownlee eds. New Haven, Yale UP and Terra Foundation, 2014, 47-59.

Catherine,  Adriana, and Yinghan

Museum as a Space of Exchange

In Museum In Motion, the Alexanders quotes Stephen Weil to suggest that museums have become “institutions rooted in interpretations in its broadest sense, actively seeking to provoke thought and the exchange of ideas between the museum and its visitors” (10). I agree that there is always an exchange of ideas between an exhibition and its visitors, and it is always influenced by the curator of the exhibition. The viewers’ interpretation of the artworks would be unavoidably directed by the curator’s thematic design of the exhibition and the spatial arrangement of the artworks. Take the Vermeer Exhibition for example, the curator, using the synchronic method, separates the paintings into several groups with different themes, then puts them into different spaces in the exhibition halls. It in this way prevents the visitors from understanding the artworks with other methods (such as taking each painters’ works as a unit, or studying the paintings chronically), but forces the viewers to make comparisons between genre-paintings of the same theme by different artists. As the curator subtlety exerts influence on the way in which the viewers study the artworks on display, they also have the autonomy to read the narrative of a single painting on their own. Thus, the exchange of ideas happens both between the museum and the viewers as well as the curator and the viewers.

To go one step further, I also suggest that the exchange, behind the viewers’ direct interaction with the artworks, happens on a larger scale in terms of cultural transmission. The nature and the function of the museum make it one of the most efficient places for cultural exchanges, because the museum displays artworks from all over the world, and attracts visitors with different backgrounds. For example, going to the Vermeer Exhibition is for me the experience of a Chinese student studying and appreciating Dutch paintings in an American institution. The art gallery in D.C. gives me access to artworks from places that are inaccessible for me for the time being. Andrew McClellan rightfully points out that “Museums are inherently ‘cosmopolitan’ institutions.” The National Gallery of Art could borrow the artworks from Europe; it can also attract local as well as international visitors. It seems to me that the process in which the viewers appreciate the Dutch paintings is a form of cultural studies that promote some sort of cultural exchange in the global context, which in a way gives the visitors a cultural experience that is normally unrealizable in their immediate environment. I, therefore, agree with McClellan that “As globalization draws the world closer together, the art museum prepares the way for a deeper understanding of our differences and commonalities.”

Another case that may help illustrate my point regards my visit to an art gallery in China. During the winter break, I went to the Sackler Museum of Art in Peking University in Beijing, and visited an exhibition titled “Enchanted Nature – Deforestation and the Environment.” It displayed more than 70 drawings and paintings by the Latin-American artist Nicolás Herrera. The paintings were bought and brought to China by his American patron (philanthropist? collector?) Dame Jillian Sackler. Herrera’s paintings address to the environmental problems in the Amazon forest caused by the deforestation. It introduces the Caribbean modernism to China, and also promotes the Chinese viewers’ understanding of the environmental problems in the Amazon Forest. The transcultural communication is especially meaningful, because the deforestation would cause environmental problems that involve every country in the world, and the force of the global capital that caused the deforestation can only be resisted most efficiently by the joint effort of countries in the global system. What the exhibition does is to raise people’s awareness through cultural shocks that the artist aims to achieve through his artworks. The museum as an institution makes the cultural transmission possible on a global scale.


The picture was taken from:

The screenshot was taken from: (More about the exhibition can also be found here)

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.


One feature that the Vermeer Exhibition curation stuck me as remarkable is the emphasis it puts on “relations.” It does not introduce Vermeer as an isolated individual painter, but puts him in a set of relations with other artists of the same time period; it also contextualizes Vermeer’s paintings with other genre paintings in the later 17th century. This effect is reached through the online introduction and the onsite exhibition arrangement.

On the exhibition website, there is a link to “Connect Vermeer,” which is a digitalized diagram that shows the relationship between artists that are involved in this exhibition. As the explanation on the website notes, “the distance between the central artist and a satellite artist is determined by the level to which the central artist influenced the latter.” Remarkably, it puts an artist into a set of relations through demonstrating each of his unilateral relationship with the others. The diagram thus creates a network of relationships that allows the viewer to understand a single artist’s status within his community, and to make comparisons within the same frame of reference. Take the Vermeer-centered diagram as an example (see below), we not only know who have been influenced by Vermeer, but can also see that, for instance, Vermeer had a greater influence on Jan Steen than on Gerard Dou. 

Likewise, the actual exhibition also forces us to acknowledge how the artworks with similar themes are related to each other. In the first exhibition hall, which has a theme of “musicians,” different artists’ paintings that deal with the same theme are put together. For example, Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at a Virginal and Dou’s Woman at the Clavichord are deliberately put together (see below). The resemblance of the two pictures are foregrounded immediately: both have a piano and a cello in the painting, and both of the protagonists sit in the same direction with their heads facing towards the viewer. The similarity between the two works might make one wonder the relationship between the two artists. At this point, if one goes back to the interactive diagram, one will find out that when Vermeer is in the center, Dou is on the outermost layer to the center, and when Dou is in the center, Vermeer is also on the outermost layer to the center. This obvious balance between their relationship may shed light on our understanding of the above discussed two paintings, and may suggest that Vermeer and Dou compete with each other as they hone their painting skills.

As it is helpful to contextualize the artists and their works with other artists of the same group and their works, this arranging method might also influence our sense of unity of a single artist’s works. For example, Vermeer’s paintings are scattered in different exhibition halls and are separated from each other. How do we deal with the situation that the current arrangement makes it harder to get a better sense of Vermeer’s style as we cannot view his works altogether in one exhibition hall?




taken at the National Gallery of Art