When one considers new media, multi-media, contemporary media art and local art museums, The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art does not come to mind immediately. However, while contemplating a local new media art exhibition to critique after surveying the current art scene in my area, it was my recall of a hologram projected within an exhibition I attended there that made my choice clear: Savage Beauty Alexander McQueen May-August 2011. Although I did consider critiquing local exhibitions on the art of video games and one entitled “Dear Diary: Update on All” examining the diary’s evolution from private to public via social media, Savage Beauty lives on both in my mind and online. In my opinion, it still references new media, multi-media, performance art, technology, art + engineering, memory and identity, in astounding and as yet unparalleled ways. The use of screens, projections, TV monitors, soundscape, and the inclusion of its haunting hologram, affected me deeply and lastingly.  

In the words of Klaus Biesenbach, Director, MoMA PS1 & Chief Curator at Large, from Randall Parker’s interview with him on Pipilotti Rist, “art can be beautiful” but “good art…has a disturbing quality, it makes you stop…and examine what is real in your life”. This was my experience in attending Savage Beauty on its closing night. Both the exhibition as a whole and seeing the hologram are experiences I’m still processing on many levels, and that have forced me to confront the reality and perception of art, culture, fashion, narrative, beauty, design, violence, nature, death, curating, genius and media. Here is the hologram:

The exhibition was a “happening” in and of itself. I can vouch for this. As I wound my way serpentine waiting on line both outside and
then through the entire museum, the line was buzzing with anticipatory energy. I myself had a close encounter with Anna Wintour, Chief Editor of Vogue, who smirked at my outfit while she bypassed me in line, startling me as I’ve heard this a compliment of sorts, coming from her. Having stood in line for 3 hours, I finally entered at 11:00pm (The Met kept the museum open for 24 hours, to accommodate as many final visitors as possible.) Finally inside its confines, I became fuzzy on museum policy and took photos to capture what I was immersed in, until I was reprimanded by a guard. The rooms were packed and warm with body heat, the crowding was scary.

I will let curator Andrew Bolton lead you through Savage Beauty:

The curator’s video illustrates how powerful this exhibition was to see in person. I can speak to this power because I became obsessed with the “McQueen Tartan” pant suit upon sight (it appears on the far left of the screen at 3:38 in the Romantic Nationalism room) a rare phenomenon I’ve only felt toward fashion a few times prior. I had the simultaneous, visceral feelings upon viewing it that “I would kill for it and wear it every Christmas for the rest of my life”. The divergence in these radical urges that came up in me from viewing a garment, is a testament to the art of seduction and the “dark arts” magic of McQueen. This exhibition is clearly not pretty dresses on mannequins. This is the work of a master tailor at war within himself, subverting his craft, and fashioning (all pun) art from this internal conflict.

An example of this struggle is the display of Dress No. 13 from McQueen’s 1999 No. 13 Collection. In the finale of this collection’s showing, it was worn by a model/ trained ballerina teetering on a rotating platform while being attacked, i.e. “shot” with paint by two robots, built by Fiat, that took one week to program. The concept was inspired by an installation of the artist Rebecca Horn, and the result, I can assure you, is much more than mere Pollock couture (my phrase). I have to think Billy Kluver & Tinguely would have appreciated the “man vs. machine” engineering concept and de-construction of the formerly pristine dress. Here is the finale:

The darkness and tension of the runway ultimately peaked in real life with McQueen’s suicide by hanging himself in a wardrobe, in February 2010 at the age of 40, on the eve of his mother’s funeral. Even his death was self-orchestrated performance art complete with metaphor, one could say, though too painful and shocking for the industry he worked within and those close to him, to presume this. His untimely death, a year before the Met show mounted but already well within the planning and curatorial process, then became a ghostly presence in the final exhibition, like a modern-day Macbeth.

McQueen remains one of the rare exceptions in fashion with his work being described in art terms. Both a conceptualist and a formalist, narrative was of the utmost importance to him in his collections, putting him on a par with contemporary artists of note, in my opinion.  Also an obsessive blogger, McQueen was ever examining his work and seeking ways to engage the public in his work, as many contemporary and DIY artists do. In 2010, he live-streamed his collection “Plato’s Atlantis” an outlandish array of monumental designs, that left me stunned upon seeing those selected for display at Savage Beauty.

In a tortured irony, with his own surname acting as pun, the House of McQueen posthumously dressed the bride Cate Middleton for the British royal wedding in April 2011, one month before the opening of Savage Beauty, in which McQueen holds the English to account for their Scottish genocide, through his highly controversial 1995 Highland Rape collection, shown within the exhibition. A maddening dichotomy, befitting a queen, indeed.  

The only negative comment I have about the exhibition, is that I believe the hologram should have been projected “life-size” as it had been at the 2006 Widows of Culloden Collection runway show. Here is that moment:

That said, it was extraordinary to view it miniaturized projected in a glass and wooden box. While the hologram can be easily chalked up to a “special effect” bordering on mere entertainment like the hologram of Tupac Shakur that was projected at the Coachella Music Festival in April 2012, I daresay: who among the artists we have studied in Catalysts/MoMa has NOT manipulated media, technology, material, and viewer to serve the narrative, the concept, the vision, the social and political agendas–the art?

For me “art” is the feeling that’s left, the memory of something newly experienced that remains over time.  Such is the case I make for Savage Beauty as a new media exhibition at The Met. #McQueenRules

Researched & Written by Carolyn A. McDonough for Catalysts/MoMA Spring 2014

Referenced and Related Links:

Conversations: McQueen’s Savage Beauty [Curator Andrew Bolton in dialogue talks about McQueen’s creative producers]

Designer as Dramatist and the Tales He Left Behind

Alexander McQueen in All His Dark Glory


  1. Carissima Carolyn! You describe with powerful and deep thoughts the ‘Savage Beauty Alexander McQueen May-August 2011’ exhibition and your art idea. It’s so awesome everything you’ve written and I’m thankful to you for having had the opportunity to deepen the Alexander McQueen’s art research! Grazie mille Carolyn!

    1. Carissima Gabry! Prego, prego e mille grazie a te, veramente, per il tuo entusiasmo e la tua energia verso la mia critica! I’m so happy to deepen your art research into McQueen. I thought of you when I recalled the hologram, and seeing your laboratory in your video self-portrait, as I’ve come to know your dedication to art & technology. Perhaps you will create such a hologram in the future…?

      1. Thank you very much Carolyn! I love so much all your comments! P.S. Certainly! You gave me a lot of exceptional ideas! I’ll talk about the project with my coworkers and if they agree, we may make some hologram..
        Carissima Carolyn, grazie ancora per la tua ricerca, e le suggestioni e idee meravigliose che mi hai evocato con la tua critica sul progetto di Alexander McQueen!

  2. McQueen can definitely be disturbing, but also beautiful, and many other emotions. Since his tailoring skill was known as and is extraordinary, his work commands a lot of respect across-the-board. I’ll never forget seeing and experiencing the hologram, I’d travel the globe to see it again.

  3. Randall Packer made the following comments in our
    CATALYSTS class, which I post here with his permission:

    Carolyn, you have certainly opened up a world for me. While I am familiar with the work of Alexander McQueen, I didn’t attend the Savage Beauty exhibition and I probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to do so. Now I realize how much I didn’t know about Alexander McQueen. His relationship to technology does, as you describe, touch on many of the issues we have explored in Catalysts. From the Human-Machine dialectic with robots to the Kate Moss hologram, I can see how McQueen was deeply involved in a relationship to technology that went far beyond fashion. Although I found the ballerina a little on the precious side, the robots were brilliant! I loved the way they danced around her, as though engage in foreplay, before naughtily applying paint to her dress. The hologram was extraordinary in its otherworldliness. It felt like some kind of ghostly apparition, particularly in the way it faded in and out of focus in the beginning and the end.

    Your description of the work, poetic in its own right, is a wonderful testament to your experience of Alexander McQueen, as well as the social environment that swirled around him. I’ll never think about Alexander McQueen in the same way!

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