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I went to the Whitney and all I got was this conceptual t-shirt. The premise of the Eckhaus Latta retail exhibition at the Whitney, like the nonexistent t-shirt, left me empty handed. I couldn’t afford the hand-painted beaded skirt or the sweatshirt screen printed with poetic text, but I enjoyed taking a free selfie in the double-sided mirror, framed by an embroidered assemblage. When I posted the image on Instagram a friend commented, “capitalism can be such poetry sometimes.”
Designed as an interactive retail shopping experience highlighting the work of Eckhaus Latta, the New York and Los Angeles-based fashion label, Possessed was not quite an art show but was 100% a store, equipped with clothing racks, display tables, and hanging garments for sale. The installation, which was tucked into a gallery space behind the Whitney’s elevators, was organized into three zones and claimed to address the culture of consumerism and the intersection between art and fashion—at least this was what the beautiful shop clerk told me.
The first zone featured a series of light boxes with standard marketing images: a stockinged foot pressing an onion to the floor was juxtaposed with a shot of a model flipping her dyed-orange hair. The second room was the store, speckled with a collection of clothing (again the swan-like attendant) “curated for this moment.” Despite a flimsy conceptual premise, the display was quite beautiful. The walls were painted a fragile and muted Tiffany blue and a curated playlist hummed through the space. Each garment featured a clear plastic card which read, “SPECIAL MUSEUM EXHIBITION PRODUCT,” along with a cardboard-brown price tag. A knit sweater vest bejeweled with jade stones was $3,250 (only $2,925 for museum members!) and a pair of socks was $75, a price point reserved for the well-heeled. For a work of art, that’s somewhat affordable, but for high-end retail, that’s on the upper register.
All the mirrors in the store were double-sided and alluded to a third room, which was themed on the “culture of voyeurism and surveillance.” Here one could watch unwitting strangers in the second gallery trying on sunglasses in a theater-like atmosphere. On the wall, an installation by Alexa Karolinski featured a series of CCTV videos looping all at once, and showed the footage from every camera installed on the grounds of the Whitney. It was a neat trick that didn’t thrill: here, the surveillance state was one we imposed on ourselves.
Eckhaus Latta: Possessed on the whole self-critiqued with low risk and low overhead. The politics of consumer culture were highlighted but the nebulous space between art and commerce was left to the consumer, or rather, the average museum guest, to untangle.
How crucial is it that art distinguishes itself from fashion? The exhibition included 20 works of contemporary art that were interspersed throughout the showroom (including works by Jesse Reaves, Torey Thornton, Martine Syms, and Matthew Lutz-Kinoy). Even as every element of Eckhaus Latta: Possessed was custom, bespoke, and couture, finding the actual art on view—aside from outfitting the room as a matter of novelty and design—proved difficult. DREAMS in a Paralytic Ileus (2018) by Amy Yao was listed on the accompanying wall text as a trash can and functioned as one. Glazed in beach tones, her ceramic sculpture wrapped its knotted, branchy arms around the circumference of a plastic waste bin filled with an empty seltzer bottle and a discarded museum ticket. When I asked for a check list, the shop clerk explained that each garment had a price tag. I meant the artwork, which wasn’t listed for sale. This was a museum after all. Still, it was difficult to imagine these artworks outside the context of the store. Textile Curtain for dressing room (2017–18) by Susan Cianciolo, for example, was a patchwork dressing room curtain made with plastic shower curtains, cotton, silk, and paper. It was exactly what it said it was. Both Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, the namesake designers behind the brand, are included in the artist roster, further blurring the liminal space they created with this store-like exhibition, at the intersection of fashion and contemporary art. When art is both self-evident and utilitarian it defies categorization, especially when it refuses to replicate itself as commodity. The parasitic nature of the project’s conceptual framework disallowed the gorgeous garments and accompanying artwork to truly embody their own conceptual space.
The promise of rarity, of possessing a one-of-a-kind piece plucked from an exhibit in a museum, adds to an item’s retail value. Much of the machinations behind contemporary art have become indistinguishable from that of a luxury brand. High-end retail makes the garments less touchable, while wearables (in art) make an artwork more touchable; Possessed rested somewhere in between. Being of the moment is an opaque but urgent concern for fashionistas and for would-be contemporary art stars, both concerned with overlapping economies, both concerned with a certain brand of social capital.
The elegant shop clerk was interrupted by a customer:
“Where is it possible to buy something?” a woman asked, pointing to the rings.
“Here,” the radiant shop clerk replied, gesturing to the room.
“Here…right here?” she asked.
“Here,” he said, “in the gallery.”
He moved his silver-painted nails from their resting position on the counter and gingerly lifted a plexiglass dome, like the lid of a cake stand, to reveal glittering bits of jewelry. As he listed the price of a ring, the bass of the music deepened and swelled, denying me from hearing the astronomical price.
Originally published in Carla issue 14