Pinning down exactly what defines the concept of “camp” has been attempted by some of pop culture’s brightest minds, but the definition adhered to by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Camp: Notes on Fashion, the theme of this year’s annual Costume Institute show, is a tad more academic.
According to Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay Notes on Camp, camp is notoriously difficult to pin down, and even talking about it was to betray the concept. Camp is simultaneously high-brow and low-brow, instantly recognizable, ironic, above and beyond (“extra”), and presents a heightened, absurd reality. Belgian theater designer Jan Versweyveld was asked to translate an elusive-by-nature concept into exhibition design.
Versweyveld took a sleek, modern approach to the show’s design, but splashed the walls with pink light and in some rooms, Sontag’s own words. The exhibition begins in the flamboyant reign of Louis XIV in the 1600s, before moving through time to the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, ending in a massive gallery installation that places products, fashion, accessories, and industrial design objects front and center. Multicolored boxes are used to highlight clothes and items that fulfill a specific definition in the camp canon; a pink flamingo mask in one cubicle, examples of modern dandyism, Björk’s swan dress, and more.
Although the Camp show is more restrained that it could have been, given the theme, it seems positively over the top when compared to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s intentionally austere design for the Heavenly Bodies show last year.
Camp: Notes on Fashion runs through September 8 and is accompanied by a publication of the same name.