I’ve always found the debate over high and low culture slightly stale and irrelevant. Contrived stand offs between Bob Dylan and Beethoven bore the pants off me. Besides, I’ve swallowed enough post structuralist critiques of elitist hierarchies of value to know that popular culture is a valid subject for intellectual reflection. Plus, Put Yourself In My Place is, like, one of my favourite songs ever. So the debate about whether the V&A should put on a show about Kylie Minogue struck me at first as a non-issue, pandering to the worst kind of lazy middlebrow snobbery. Then I went to the exhibition...
Kylie: The Exhibition consists of a display of stage outfits and costumes, ranging from the mechanic’s overalls she wore in Neighbours to the bizarre Dolce and Gabbana designs of her current Showgirl Homecoming tour. Alongside these are displayed Kylie’s record covers, tour artefacts, videos, a re-creation of her dressing room and a vending machine of Kylie endorsed mineral water.
Aside from a number of text panels, there’s little commentary or interpretation and the objects are displayed in a flatly literal manner. Such labelling as there is makes a pretty lame and unconvincing case for why Kylie Minogue’s costumes should be in the V&A in the first place. Words like ‘icon’ and ‘phenomenon’ are bandied about but these terms are now so lazily over deployed as to be almost meaningless and their use here seems particularly half-hearted and pointless. The costs and logistics of putting on Kylie’s tours are listed but not contrasted with anything that might make them make more interesting or compelling or anything other than blandly impressive. Her dressing room is re-created but not to make a point, just to fill up some space. The labelling for this reaches a zenith of banality. It is, we are told; “…very special, a home away from home”. Even better than this is the information that: “..road cases are the best way to transport her extensive wardrobe”. Gosh.
The exhibition has been bought in from Australia where it was originally shown at The Arts Centre, Melbourne. It comes across as shallow hagiography without even the spitefulness of heat!, or the inadvertent vileness of Hello. It is, rather, the authorised biography.
Like her latest persona, Kylie: The Exhibition has a camp “Darling! You look fabulous” quality. This is only heightened by the cod surrealism of her Showgirls tour and her recent entry into the tragic diva hall of fame by becoming officially A Survivor. But the show achieves Susan Sontag’s definition of campness as an attempt at seriousness that fails. It wants to be culturally relevant and daringly iconoclastic, but lacks the courage or savvy to know how. It is also shamelessly sycophantic and utterly without critical reflection.
This is not about pop culture’s place in the museum. The V&A is full of pop culture already after all, and has a distinguished history of putting on exhibitions about costume and design. I didn’t dislike this show because I thought it too lowbrow, or too commercial or too vulgar. I disliked it because it was dull and po-faced and vaguely moronic. There is a thoroughly bathetic moment at the end when as you leave, you find yourself inadvertently wandering into the Medieval rooms of the V&A. From Kylie’s gold hotpants to Trajan’s column in a few steps. It’s not a flattering comparison.
Just before leaving, there is one more tribute to Kylie: a wall on which you can stick little heart shaped personal tributes. Thus in a faintly sinister way, you’re not even allowed express anything but love for Kylie. Alongside sycophantic quotes from the likes of Manolo Blahnik, Peter Huntley of the V&A has given us the benefit of his insight: “Kylie’s fun to sing along to.” Thanks Peter.