Platon Helps the Met Communicate Across Cultures and Time
Art is communication. Artistry is a conversation that crosses cultures. In the absence of language, or in a crowded room, the best way to communicate ideas and experiences can be through artistic expression. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's latest blockbuster exhibition, "China: Through the Looking Glass," examines the West's development of experiencing China and China's artistic influence over the last century and a half. Referencing Alice's trip to Wonderland, the exhibit uses the couture works of some of the world’s most beloved designers, as well as films and objets d’art, to show us our own historical responses to China's rich visual and social history.
In our contemporary age we've reached new heights of communicating across borders. Our digital progress has shrunk the world, making the farthest distance between two people the space between a typist and a keyboard. But that doesn't mean that all communication is easy and complete. "We have more information than ever before at our fingertips, we’re going through high-speed globalization that continues to increase by the minute. Stats and figures can move at the speed of light but culture does not," explains photographer Platon. "It’s much more complicated. And it is creating a kind of cultural indigestion." This back up is something that Platon is acutely aware of, working in the space between culture and politics, using his photographic reach to teach the world about human rights struggles and political instigators. It was because of that contextual sensitivity that the Met commissioned Platon to shoot the entire catalogue for their exhibition. “Artists are able to have a dialogue between cultures," says Platon. "Often when the politicians put up barriers between us, artist still continue. We’re free to exchange ideas without any political consequences and I think that’s just such a beautiful dialogue." Through the Artistic Direction of Wong Kar-wai and curation of Andrew Bolton ("Who is the most extraordinary collaborator I’ve ever worked with,” says Platon) this exhibition is set up to display that dialogue that has been going on for the last century and a half.
The show includes a vast array of pieces from the Met's own vault, in cooperation with The Costume Institute, the Louvre's vault, and the private archive of Yves Saint Laurent (that was shot at Yves Saint Laurent's headquarters, a highlight of the project for Platon). All these pieces come together into a distillation of how the West has taken inspiration from China's history and turned it into its own expression. “The show is probably one of the most complex and large-scale, ambitious shows they’ve ever done," Platon says about the almost two hundred distinct pieces that are being exhibited. "It’s a dialogue between the cultural history of China and how the West has been inspired by that history and how it has interpreted motifs, ideas, colors, textures, forms, and philosophy." In some pieces the inspiration is obvious to Western eyes, the reflection of an urn's pattern on the lining of a dress, but as Chinese designer, Laurence Xu, explains, there are fundamental differences between western and Chinese fashion. “Shape is very important to the West, their fashion focuses on the human form. But Chinese clothes are all about visual impact and are typically very colorful. We use a range of colors in just one design, but western dresses use block colors. We’re more bold with colors than the West.” Those differences are apparent in this collection by the Met. The usage of these themes by the designers and pieces highlighted in the Met show may be lost to the Western eye who has become accustomed to writing off bold shapely choices as costuming and exaggerated couture. But the designers who understand his heritage let the inspiration flow freely.
It is the essence of this fundamental difference that Platon employed to his advantage. So many of these pieces were far too delicate to put on human bodies, either because of their age or their cultural value. Damage could not be risked. Instead, Platon and the Met used mannequins as the models. Rather than seeing these static displays as a liability, Platon used them as a beneficial element. “My ambition was to make it sort of human and animated and not be restricted by the still life, and that’s exactly what we ended up doing,” says Platon. “All of these really have power and move even though it’s a mannequin.” By focusing on the inherent human element within the garments, the movement in each image is drawn from the work of its creator rather than an exterior construct for the shoot. In many ways, this makes the representations more pure, more focused on the curated pieces and the central message of the show. And that is what is most important when all is said and done.
"My job was to create a living document of the entire exhibition because the exhibition comes down after a few months and then you’re left with just a book," explains Platon. When the pieces go back into their respective vaults, what we have are the photographs Platon has shot paired with text provided by the museum in the pages of a book. The in-person examination available to museumgoers will expire, so Platon's presentation becomes that much more crucial. He becomes our eyes, seeing this show definitively for everyone who will have to miss it. It's a responsibility that Platon understands and is proud to undertake.