At last, a show with ma. I’ve been waiting for it for a long time—ever since I first heard this Japanese word, which embodies a subtle but profound idea.
Ma means the space between things. Think: the negative space in a drawing, the line breaks in a poem, the pause between musical phrases. Or think bigger and imagine the space between the planets or even the stars.
Ma is what we all need more of in this modern world. Designer Rei Kawakubo surely felt that when she called her show at the Met Museum, “The Art of In-Between,” and when she worked with curator Andrew Bolton to design the exhibition, which is a sculptural study in space.
Kawakubo’s designs are displayed in a series of variously-shaped boxes, or pods. These provide the works with neutral backgrounds and serve to isolate them somewhat from the surrounding hubbub.
But, sadly, ma is hard to come by at the Met Museum these days, no matter how deftly a show may be designed. The building is packed with amusement seekers—the swarming, selfie-snapping hoards who won’t, and maybe simply can’t, take the time to stop, stand still and use the lens of the human eye to imprint one image at a time on the human brain.
If ever there was a designer to make you stop, look and think, it’s Kawakubo, whose clothes are not so much things to wear as sculptural and cultural objects to meditate on. Her heavily-constructed garments gleefully distort, even deform, the body, prodding us to contemplate the meaning of beauty. Yet, more than simply philosophical, they can be terribly and darkly funny.
Several clusters in the show even made me laugh out loud. A group of acidic designs on the themes of Birth, Marriage and Death featured asymmetrical bridal outfits, with raggedy lace and chains raining down from floral wreaths. They suggested nothing so much as Miss Havisham’s decaying world in Great Expectations, gone fiercely punk.
Another group, featuring lumpy, white dresses, seemingly constructed from bundled and knotted sheets, conjured piles of dirty laundry and the worst of “women’s work.”
It would take a woman designer to think this way and dare to make such work. But maybe only a Japanese artist could insist that we need an interior architecture that creates the space to help us stop, look and contemplate.
Bring on the ma. We need it.
Rei Kawakubo: The Art of In-Between May 4-September 4, 2017 – The Met Museum 1000 5th Ave, New York, NY