Capitalizing on the Spectacle: Virgil Abloh's 'Figures of Speech'

Virgil Abloh’s ‘Figures of Speech’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is an exhibit that mixes art with fashion, but most of all, it appears to critique, investigate, and subvert commodity fetishism, while using the same language. Abloh is the creative director for Louis Vutton, but his career includes launching ‘Off-White,’ a brand that wraps into it fashion, homeware, and luxury items. No clothing items sell for under $1000. This statement appears on its ‘about’ page: “a fashion label rooted in current culture at a taste-level particular to now. With a specific opinion and not necessarily same with vision seasonal men's and women's collections are offered.There is a product offering of the brand also in the realm of furniture and ready made goods to further reinforce an approach to lifestyle” (about page). This verbal ambiguity about what ‘Off-White’ represents carries over into the artwork that Abloh produces. Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle predicts this type of art, and Abloh is a prime example. 

Society of the Spectacle talks about the condition of a late-capitalist society in which exchange-value has become more important that use-value. Not only that, in such a society, we feel we need items merely because of the appearances those items give us. As a case in point, a major component of Abloh’s first fashion label, Pyrex, is simply appropriating Ralph Lauren Flannel Shirts, painting ‘Pyrex’ on them and the number 23 - an homage to Michael Jordan - and reselling them for $550. If Abloh did not collaborate with Kanye West, this behaviour might be criminal. However, the MCA Chicago proudly displays these knock-offs as “genre-bending” and the chief curator assures us that “[h]is projects have unfurled with intention, precision, critique, historical awareness, cultural sensitivity, and rigor, and when taken out of the buzzy, frothy context of luxury fashion, celebrity mannequins, and hip hop one-upmanship, a very measured vision emerges.” So, I will examine this claim, while drawing on the theory of Society of the Spectacle and The contemporary Cargo Artist as Cargo Cultist by Hal Foster as a grounding framework within which to consider the work of Abloh and other artists who blur the line between high-end designer culture and critical work. 

Abloh’s installations unconsciously build upon the history of ready-mades, Conceptual Art, and the unification of art with commodity by artists such as Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Jon Kessler, and Barbara Kruger. According to Foster, all of these artists deal with commodity-signs by breaking down the distinction between art and commodity. The essence of this is: everything in culture has an arbitrary value (Marx’s sign value). And where does this value come from? It’s assigned by those designing the commodities and reinforced by the consumers. In Debord’s conception, this value goes beyond Marx’s idea of exchange value. The value is conflated with a certain look, a certain style, a brand -- and this conflation produces the society of the spectacle. One of Debord’s definitions of the spectacle is “an identification of all human social life with appearances” (9). This includes art spaces.

Abloh is actually aware of how art has been coopted by the spectacle and he capitalizes on this in ‘Figures of Speech.’ In a video interview released by the MCA, he states: “The crescendo is after a lifetime of learning, and sort of the push and pull of how pop culture dictates taste, is I’ve been identifying with the power of advertising, how that, at its essence, is what drives culture, it drives taste, it drives decisions, it drives everything from an election to what you’d have for lunch...a lot of my fine art is about demystifying and communicating again, to a tourist and a purist, these powerful loaded images are in some ways more impactful to society than ‘art’.” He’s right. However, impact on society and critical depth are not the same. Artists such as Barbara Kruger subvert the fetishization and control of the female body by mainly male-run advertisers through feminist messages inserted over the images. In this sense, she also capitalizes on our worship of appearances to capture attention, but then she exposes the hidden misogynistic messages contained within the images. Abloh’s fine art appears to share the same strategy of subverting advertising. His piece, You’re Obviously in the Wrong Places, also uses text, a neon sign, and image, four statues of adolescent black males cast in all-white. In a similar way to Kruger, he’s exposing the hidden message communicated to him by the white world of high fashion. Unlike Kruger, however, who has a clear feminist ideology underpinning all her work, Abloh’s art only dabbles in making political statements. “Figures of Speech” for Abloh, is a way for him to expand his consumer-base. In fact, the MCA opened a pop up store, aptly named “Church and State”, to sell Abloh’s products. Because of the multi-disciplinary aspect of the show, “Figures of Speech” benefits the MCA by drawing people from across the visual arts, architecture, fashion, music, graphic design, etc. The exhibit is a retrospective of all of Abloh’s creative endeavors, from being the creative director at Donda, Kanye West’s industry, art directing Jay Z and West’s album Watch the Thone, creating his experiment brand Pyrex, launching Off-White in 2013, and becoming the creative director of Louis Vutton in 2018. Hence, the end goal of the exhibit is to create greater hype around Abloh’s name by earning him credibility with high-society museum-goers who might otherwise sneer at his streetwear. 

I don’t dislike all of Abloh’s fine art. Some are thought-provoking; like his piece ‘Options,’ in which he (or a team working for him) arranged 16 yellow evidence-markers, which reference the 16 shots fired into the black Chicago teenager Lacquan McDonald. The question with this work becomes: can it have an impact in the midst of an exhibit designed merely to scratch the back of one of the biggest cultural producers in our current moment? This is also Debord’s question. Can a real political statement be appreciated in the midst of (and in this case, with the material of) fetishized commodities? Debord argues that even revolutionary or anti-imperialist propositions are coopted because they can be turned into the spectacle itself. I can take a picture of those evidence markers and share it on instagram, and instantly its message is not only diffused, but hijacked to communicate something about me. Not only that, its being surrounded by fashion-wear and other items from Virgil’s brands dilutes its power because it becomes part of the consumable brand. 

While I appreciate some of the things Abloh is attempting to communicate through his installation, ‘Figures of Speech’ becomes merely that, a series of ‘figures of speech’ rather than an integrated show that carries real ideational or relational power. Even if it did cohere around a series of powerful concepts, its drained of its power because it situates every meaningful attempt to pull back the curtain on ‘real life’ within the name-brand of Virgil Abloh. Abloh himself is the real subject of the exhibition. All the objects in the exhibit are there to increase his publicity and to support his creative direction. This is what Debord calls the personalization of advertising. Brands derive their legitimacy from association with celebrities. It’s the same reason we see Abloh running across the runways at his fashion shows. His name, his god-like presence, is the sign value that makes this exhibition, like his other creative endeavors, marketable. And that is the case regardless of the quality of either his fashion design or his fine art. 

Works Cited

Virgil Abloh’s Pyrex Vision Brand is Still Alive, Leach,

A Brief History of Virgil Abloh’s Meteoric Rise, Yotka,

Virgil Abloh's "Figures of Speech" Exhibition Gets a One Week Extension (UPDATE), Estiler

Figures of Speech: With His 1st Museum Exhibition, Virgil Abloh Says 'I Was Speaking About Race the Whole Time’, Kai

Foster, Hal, “The Contemporary Artist As Cargo Cultist,” Alain Bois, Endgame: reference and simulation in recent American painting and sculpture, Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967

Andrew ManningComment