Exhibition Review: Eckhaus Latta: Possessed
Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), August 3 – October 8, 2018
It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t even need to purchase a ticket to view Eckhaus Latta: Possessed, the first fashion exhibition to be held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 21 years. Held in the only public (read: free) gallery at the Museum, just a stones throw away from the Whitney’s own museum shop, Possessed is a carefully considered study in how fashion can be exhibited in today’s quickly evolving museum world, the real and perceived lines between art and commerce, and the role of surveillance in retail.
The first solo museum exhibition for Eckhaus Latta, the fashion brand started in 2011 by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, Possessed is designed to be a commentary on the retail experience, split into three distinctive spaces. The exhibition opens with a series of editorial photographs, similar to those employed by fast fashion retailers. A stark contrast to the cool-kid aesthetics that normally pervade Eckhaus Latta’s campaigns, these highly stylized photographs feature industry leading models and vibrant colors – a tongue-in-cheek play on the traditional shopping experience. The exhibition continues with a fully operational retail space, offering a wide range of Eckhaus Latta apparel and accessories available for purchase – displayed alongside art objects from a variety of emerging and established visual artists. Finally, a dimly lit gallery serves as a makeshift security room, complete with a wall of televisions broadcasting video surveillance of the shop.
In hosting Eckhaus Latta: Possessed, the Whitney Museum is essentially solving one of the greatest challenges associated with exhibiting fashion. Unlike traditional art objects on view in museums, mounted on walls or encased in glass, fashion is meant to be experienced in an entirely different way. If a garment isn’t being worn, isn’t set into motion by the body, isn’t layering that body with meaning – is it really fulfilling its purpose? Possessed allows visitors to not only touch and feel the works on display, but indeed asks them to put them on, to embody the Eckhaus Latta lifestyle, to bring to life the very garments on display and thereby fulfilling the purposes those garments were designed for.
Set in my traditional fashion exhibition viewing ways, I declined to try on any of the pieces on view. However, I found myself reaching out to touch the garments on the racks, examining the screen-printed sweatshirts as I would while shopping. With seemingly little effort, I was no longer viewing an art exhibition; but rather, I was transported into an oddly decorated retail space. But therein lies my greatest qualm with the exhibition. If museum visitors can enter into a space clearly designated as an exhibition space, but then interact with that space as they would a traditional retail market – where exactly is the line between commerce and the art, between capitalism and creativity?
The garments displayed in traditional fashion exhibitions are typically older, carefully preserved because they were culturally significant or belonged to any number of important historical figures. But the fashion on display in Possessed? A special collection designed specifically for the exhibition. Reworked and repurposed shirts and sweatshirts act as what the Whitney Museum calls an “introduction” to the Eckhaus Latta label , and bright decorative socks serve as an affordable entry-point to the brand. For the Museum to knowingly describe the fashion on display as an introduction to Eckhaus Latta, it intentionally blurs the line between where the shop begins and the museum ends. A significant relationship between art and capitalism is not only suggested, but rather thrust into the faces of museum-goers – exploited even – in a way that benefits both the designers and the institution alike.
As I thumbed through the clothing racks at the variety of designer goods available for purchase, I wondered how this space was any different from the Museum shop no more than a hundred feet away. The exhibition effectively serves as an Eckhaus Latta pop-up shop, interspersed with various art objects and a surveillance display to elevate it to an experience that supersedes a traditional retail space. But the question still begged to be asked -- namely where the money being raised from these sales would go. Are shoppers supporting the museum or the designers with their purchases? If the designers do not see any profits from sales, the exhibition could be viewed as nothing more than an elaborate marketing campaign disguised as art exhibition. And this only adds to the cultural dialogues taking place today which state that a museum exhibition is the latest must-have badge of honor to legitimize a brand.
To name this exhibition Possessed further confounds the Whitney’s motives in hosting it. Whether they intend for visitors to be driven to obtain more possessions and make a commentary on capitalism and fetishism, or if they are commenting upon the way in which the public is possessed by fashion, is unknown. The final security-center space of the exhibition brings to mind the constant connectedness of the consumer today. Whether in physical spaces or browsing online, valuable data is gained by various forms of surveillance that surround us every moment of every day. However, the public is often so focused on acquiring more material possessions and being in the “right” spaces that the surveillance is often overlooked or knowingly ignored completely.
Possessed flips the traditional fashion exhibition on its head. Now, visitors can not only view the works on display, but they can touch them, try them on, and even more significantly — they can buy them and take the art objects home with them. But the exhibition also highlights a need for institutions to distinguish between their mission to safeguard and present the objects that are vital to the culture, with their aims to raise funds in order to continue supporting those missions. Eckhaus Latta: Possessed brings to light that the museum world is evolving much quicker than it ever has before, and at a time when generating hype and retaining customers and visitors is paramount, brave new methods of exhibitions are a surefire way to bring in a large and ever-connected audience.
 Lew, Christopher Y. “Eckhaus Latta: Possessed – Group Dynamics.” Whitney Museum of American Art. 2018. https://whitney.org/essays/eckhaus-latta.