Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia (Or: No Stone Left Unturned)

by - November 22, 2016

It is so complex no one dares to say 'let's make it simple'.
Rik Wouters

Welcome to Antwerp, where the wind is tough and the streets are... well... tougher...

Last Sunday me and 'tha gang' went to Antwerp. Why? Why would I leave my house on such a ghastly, windy, horrifying day? Elementary, dear Watson! Educate yourself! Blow up a train! (that is a train of thought: break out of your daily pattern and go out into the wide open world! Explore!). Yes, yes, I know, I know, I've already spoiled my intentions in the previous blogpost, but can't we all just take a step back and be wondrous. Be wondrous of the world. Be wondrous of Antwerp and all the stones they haven't left unturned. Curiosity perhaps? Or renovation work? (Although how do I dare to poke fun at Antwerp, because has someone lately been to Amsterdam? They know how to drill too, I'll tell ya!). Antwerp is lovely and idyllic and -as I said- totally worth a visit... after they've re-turned all of the stones, that is...

So why was I in Antwerp again? Good question! To go to a museum, naturally! And not just any museum, but the ModeMuseum (MoMu). Did you know there are 63 museums in the Netherlands with a costume- and/or fashion collection but there are none, zero, njente actual fashion museums... (with an exception perhaps of Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (bags and purses museum), but like, that's not actual fashion fashion). Interesting, right! Gives you food for thought! (Why no fashion museum in the Netherlands??!). Anyway, the Belgians do have a fashion museum: MoMu! The saviour of all my problems! Because when you're doing research into the way fashion (items of clothing) are being re-presented within a museological environment, you do need a museological environment where they re-present fashion in the first place. As you might understand, an actual fashion museum is prefered above a museum that does fashion on the sidelines. Firstly because a non-specialised museum mostly uses the fashion exhibition in a different way than a fashion museum would (that's generally to say: use it in a way to gain more visitors/attention opposed to their 'regular' exhibitions on pots and pans; which could still be lovely and mind blowing, but the subject in itself is much more 'niche' and less attention grabbing (sorry)). Secondly because non-specialised museums aren't -hypothetically- as involved/up-to-date/specialised in their fashion presentation as an actual specialised museum would be. This statement is based on a comparison between non-specialised Dutch museums and a specialised Belgian museum. I mean, I wouldn't dare to say such a thing about, I don't know, the V&A or the Met. But don't take this in a way that I'm saying that non-specialised Dutch museums are doing an absolutely appaling job, because as said: the fashion exhibition within a museum that has a wider perspective within their walls mostly use the fashion exhibition as a way to speak to a larger audience. These exhibitions are the fun fair of the museum. These exhibitions are there to make the museum shine. These exhibitions are created by people who put their money where their mouth is. Most noticeably in this category I think is Maarten Spruyt, who actually is a (fashion) stylist 'specialised' in making (museum) exhibitions. On top of that I raise you the famous photographer Erwin Olaf who curated a fashion exhibition called 'Catwalk' for the Rijksmuseum. Although, as the through-and-through critic that I am, I think there are many fingers to be raised at this exhibition (and also those made by Spruyt). Although, again, I'm just a very critical person and most people are just 'fine' about it... Anyway, let's go back to Antwerp and MoMu...

Until the 26th of February 2017 you can see the Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia exhibition at MoMu. The exhibition, as the name already suggests, is based around the paintings of Rik Wouters. Wouters was the only Belgian painter who used impressionist painting techniques to depict homely-scenes around and about Belgium. His muse was his wife Nel (that's to say: almost all if not all paintings he made are of Nel). Besides Wouters' love for the homely, the exhibition also uses the 'utopic search for the good life' as an important starting point. Think Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Life in Woods (1854) and the current slow-movement (where handicraft, durability, ethical responsibility and going 'back' to the roots of things are being held high). The exhibition is packed with famous (Belgian) names and dresses (Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Martin Margiela do I need to say more?). The exhibition is a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Rik Wouters' death (any excuse to throw a party).

During my visit I specifically looked at the way they re-presented the primary features of a clothing item before musealization has taken place within a musealized environment (musealization: the process of an object going from economical/users 'worth' to a cultural 'worth'. Or as Kenneth Hudson has put it: "A tiger in a museum is a tiger in a museum and not a tiger." In this case it is: A dress in a museum is a dress in a museum and not a dress). So I looked at the way they used certain presentation techniques (light, sound, decor etc. etc.) to 'bring back' for instance the embodiment or body bound-ness of a dress ('an item of clothing is made for the body, without a body there is no clothing item'). In this case the embodiment can be seen through the many different mannequins they used to display the garments. Hereby the body isn't 'brought back' but the dress has been filled by a particular mannequin that supports the shape of the dress (and thus replaces the shape of the body) and therewith gives it a certain 'personal identity' (the mannequin can be distinguished from another) that supports the story or timeline it's being placed in. Most notably in this case is the room with the kids mannequins, whereby on the one side there are hyper-realistic mannequins in modern brightly coloured clothes. And on the other side there are very classic (basic) mannequins in oldfashioned neutral coloured clothes (also: notice the big pile of brightly coloured toys on the one side and the small pile of more neutral coloured toys on the other side. This way you could say a story is being told about the period it re-presents and the 'people' that go with it. Through the contrast between one window and the other within the same room, the visitor is being transported into a timecapsule that tells you visually a story from both sides at the same time).

For those who've been to the exhibition (or looked it up online), I think there'll be no disagreement when I say that the Dirk Van Saene room is the best room of the whole exhibition. It looks pretty in pictures, but it really is something you should experience yourself. The whole exhibition is quite bright/light and connected with oneanother (the rooms flow into eachother with not much differentiation between them except for the clothes or theme on display). However the Dirk Van Saene room is placed secluded in the arch of the exhibition space (the exhibition space is shaped like a triangle). You first have to go through a very dark tunnel to come into the dark rounded room that is the Dirk Van Saene room. Against the wall there are mannequins slowly spinning around (unsynchronized). Each one of them is lighted seperately (a top tip: after looking at the garments, start looking at the shadows they cast on the wall, it looks like there is a real person turning very eloquently in front of you. It's magical and a very soothing experience). After you've made your first steps forward into the room, you suddenly notice a difference underneath your feet. The hard and smooth (and cold) floor is being replaced by a soft circular rug that goes into a seating (especially designed by Dirk Van Saene for the exhibition). The touch of the rug in combination with the secluded darkness surrounding you, makes you experience the room and the clothes entirely differently from the rest of the exhibition space (I guess because there are more senses being addressed. I really wish they had some music playing in the background instead of the soft buzzing of the machine that spins the mannequins around to really bring me into a different 'zone of existence'). The darkness and soft touch heightens a feeling of coziness (especially when looking into the middle of the rug, which is also highlighted through lights and depicts a bright yellow sun shining fiercely). You can get really close to the mannequins as there is no glass seperating you from the item of clothing. Because they spin around your eye detects more and more after every spin. It also gives you the opportunity to look back and forth between the garments on display which I think is nicer than the mannequins moving on the catwalk from Catwalk at the Rijksmuseum. At Catwalk the mannequins were being 'chased down the catwalk' synchronized. This feels a lot more dynamic (partly this is also because of the way the clothes and the mannequins have been set up. It's a lot more 'natural' so to speak).

If I said that I loved the exhibition I would be lying (again: I'm a very critical person). But I think they've done a pretty good job in capturing the idea or even philosophy behind the exhibition. I only wish they had included the items of clothing more into the story instead of mentioning it sort of like 'oh yeah, these designers did this and this and you can see that now here'. Because you can, see it there, but it would be -I think- more interesting if the two worlds colided more with eachother (the paintings are -literally- in front of the glass and the garments behind it. The mirroring of the glass sometimes made the images morph into eachother, but still they felt -and were- seperated. A significant stone that's left unturned).

[EDIT 25/11/2016: Last Wednesday I interviewed the exhibition curator and she told me that this exhibition isn't really centered around the body or the way an item of clothing is being worn. It's more a note/story on society. The exhibition goes into sustainability and the paintings of Rik Wouters. And indeed, the clothes on display were in this way supported through the exhibition texts and the visuals or themes presented through Wouters' paintings. But still I wish they were more intertwined with one another.]


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