A question I think about often is the befuddled response a reporter gave on live television when covering the previous American president: “What does he mean when he says words?” I was reminded of this recently by another epic conversational breakdown, an exchange between Virgil Abloh and his “hero” Rem Koolhaas. What had been meant as a meet-and-greet of two generations of highly recognizable designers culminated in an exasperated Koolhaas throwing in the towel. The transcript ends with Abloh’s blithely unaware request for information on the American suburban mallscape and Koolhaas’ final refusal: “I am not thinking about that.”
Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is a similarly baffling refusal to think or look beyond the surface. What you see on the long plywood tables is exactly what you get: empty, branded file boxes, a ladder painted turquoise, yellow store-bought evidence markers, traffic signs, and lots of fashion items: sneakers, T-shirts, a see-through suitcase, some Astroturf. The work follows Abloh’s practice of appropriating well-known designs by others, adjusting them minimally, and selling them at a hefty markup. Everything is branded with his signature Helvetica phrases in quotation marks (“QUESTION EVERYTHING”), so-called one-word poems. In the center of the large hall a cartoonishly bad empty wooden house wraps itself around the columns. This “social sculpture” is supposed to allude to David Hammons’ “negritude architecture,” a vernacular refusal of architectural perfectionism.
It is not surprising for a man who went as far as trademarking his own name, that the basic hardware-store-grade tables in the show are upcycled as “sculptures.” If you refuse to know anything it’s easy to invent “everything.” It surprises even less that the show’s branding throws around a plethora of superlatives. But what do phrases like “questioning authority” or “challenging norms” really mean? Can you have a conversation with such a limited vocabulary? Perhaps the answer is simple. To borrow the words of another genius of literary fashion, the aforementioned president’s wife: “I really don’t care, do you?”
Virgil Abloh. “Figures of Speech”
Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY