When you enter the Triennale Di Milano and pay for your ticket to Rick Owens’ first retrospective in his 23-year career, you’re given a pamphlet containing text and quotes from Owens, along with photos and a key for which pieces are on display. “Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman” is an amalgamation of things he’s created—clothing, furniture and various ephemera and accessories from his illustrious career displayed in illuminated glass cases. To walk into the exhibit, you must pass through a diagonal slit cut perfectly between two white walls. Here, you’re in a dark room, illuminated only by a series of track lighting you’d see at a concert or fashion show (and surely Owens has put on shows that have blended both together) and the natural light just beyond, creeping in from the next room over. I pass through these beams of light as a young man in a Rick Owens bomber, T-shirt, cargo pants and sneakers takes a selfie in the midst of it. I wonder how many Owens fans have travelled to Milan specifically for this exhibit. I made a day trip to Milan from Paris for it.
From the pamphlet, written by Owens: “‘I would lay a black glittering turd on the white landscape of conformity.’ I wrote this shamelessly bombastic line over 20 years ago and it’s a very simplistic summary of what I initially set out to do. Over the years, this defiance softened into a more tender expression. If I could ever so slightly blur the rigid parameters of what is considered beautiful or aesthetically acceptable I will have fulfilled any potential I had to make a positive contribution this world.” Firstly, I note my friend Chris Wallace—who happens to be friends with Owens and his wife, Michèle Lamy, and whose writing and opinion I respect deeply—told me Rick Owens is the best writer he knows. As I flip through the pamphlet, I realize why he bestowed this praise upon Owens. But in a more literal sense, I look up and see a black sculpture that starts against the wall and twists from here throughout the exhibit all the way to its end, and I can’t help but think this is the “black glittering turd”. In fact, Owens says, “…for now, I’ve installed a black glittering primal howl of ego, self-doubt, love, rage, and joy in the Triennale di Milano.” It is made from concrete, dried lilies, strands of Owens’ hair collected from his brush over the years and “earth from the seaside in Venice where [Owens] will someday be buried.”
Walking through the exhibit, I’m taken by the clothing—long gowns that hint at antiquity and the future simultaneously, pony hair footwear, garments atop those gowns and flowy shirts I shudder to call “outerwear” because they are so much more than jackets. Owens’ women’s collections really are something other-worldly. And frankly, I’m both intrigued and a little uneasy—the stoic gazes of the mannequins, in tandem with the darkness of the exhibit, and the positioning of those mannequins in a way that makes you feel so small and reverent, is intense. Anything I’m feeling I’m aware is intentional. Owens is an absolute genius. As I walk, I can hear techno getting louder and louder: a quick Shazam tag provides me with this gem. If you’ve ever gone to a dance music venue, be it a club or warehouse, you hear the music pounding from outside. There’s a feeling of anxiousness and excitement all at once for what’s next, for the possibilities of the night. Again, Owens hits on this as the music grows louder while you walk.
The music is coming from the end of the exhibit, where various shows of Owens’ are projected on big screens. There are a bunch of camel hair seats of various brutalist shapes you’re invited to sit on while you watch and listen along. I’d be remiss not to add that while they don’t look super comfortable, they are some of the coziest, softest furniture I’ve ever sat on. The shows cycle through in black and white from Owens’ Spring/Summer 2014 women’s and men’sshows, as well as his Fall/Winter 2012 women’s and Spring/Summer 2012 men’s shows. I watch this three times before deciding to leave. On my way out, I read through the pamphlet one last time. There are two quotes that I’m still thinking about. The first: “I’ve always said that the creative expression is the opposite of death…it’s hope,” which is simple, but powerful. The second: “I think it’s all about the titillation of imagining the monster we could be if we just let ourselves go. We’re all fascinated with corruption. And the more glamorous the better.” The exhibit is going through March 25th, and if you have the possibility to see it, you must.