Entry into Virgil Abloh’s mid-career retrospective, “Figures of Speech,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago begins with a calculated provocation: tourist or purist? According to the catalog foreword written by the exhibition’s curator, Michael Darling, the dichotomy signifies the artist’s split personality— connoisseur and aspirant—and serves as a welcome mat for all audiences to participate in a cultural flashpoint where style destabilizes class (note: the exhibition is aptly dedicated to the youth of Chicago). From this outset, the exhibition tone aims for egalitarianism.
To arrive at this seemingly accessible provocation, however, requires the observer to first pass through a retinal barrage. The exhibition’s lobby includes a floor-to-ceiling collage of images as far ranging as the epileptic singer Ian Curtis to the 9/11 WTC bombings—recalling OMA/AMO’s 2004 book-zine monograph, Content—and serves as fast entry into the artist’s ever-expanding cult of cultural clashes. It comes as no surprise that Samir Bantal, director of AMO, is credited as the exhibition’s designer. In addition to an equally satisfying collage pitting images of Le Corbusier over ARCHITECTURE and Abloh over “ARCHITECT,” one is subsumed into the allure of a retail pop-up store, titled “Church and State,” offering limited Off-WhiteTM clothing, gradient furniture, and exhibition catalogs immersed within a life-size wallpaper photo-essay by the German photographer Juergen Teller. And don’t worry if you can’t afford the catalog, there’s also a free copy machine on site. Yet, for the public to even arrive at this exquisite amalgamation of gallery-cum-shop-cum-academy-cum…, means also visiting an outbreak of satellite ventures c/o Abloh across the city that include the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center, where old sneakers can be donated and ground into a reusable architectural finish, or a temporary Louis Vuitton residency in an orange painted building within which stands a David-sized mannequin of the rapper Juice Wrld. So, to reset: the exhibition does not actually start in the lobby of the Museum of Contemporary Art, but rather, on the streets of Chicago. Even the museum’s Mies van der Rohe Way facade has been rebranded with “CITY HALL” and a black flag that breathes “QUESTION EVERYTHING” in white Helvetica lettering. Fifteen years later, Abloh and Bantal appear to have manifested Content’s flat ambition into something truly three-dimensional.