3 December 2018


The word “exhibition” always piques my interest, so when I saw an ad for an exhibition titled What is MUJI, I couldn't resist investigating.

Exterior of the What is MUJI exhibit at Yonge and Bay. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator. 

Well, what is MUJI? MUJI is a Japanese retail company that has locations across the world and sells everything from home storage to toothbrush holders.

The Toronto MUJI located in Atrium by the Bay recently underwent a major renovation, and in the interim period, the store was opened in a smaller space close-by. The store has now re-opened in its new location, also in Atrium by the Bay, but occupying an astonishing 19,110 square feet, making this store the largest MUJI store outside of Asia. The store’s old location is now being used for a pop-up exhibit What is MUJI, which is on display from November 19th to December 23rd. The “exhibition” may be a clever way to use up space before the lease is over, or it might be a marketing ploy, but either way, the “exhibition” prompts a consideration of the line between art and commercialism.

The exhibit is hosted in a storefront, which is pretty common for exhibitions in downtown Toronto, but also a sure-fire way to bring customers into the space. During the course of my visit, I overheard the exhibit attendant directing several people to the exit that leads to the new store. A reverse "exit through the gift shop" of sorts.

Once you’re inside the front doors of the store, you’re greeted by an introductory panel on a white wall – one that is reminiscent of the didactics in most white cube art galleries.

Introductory panel in the What is MUJI exhibit. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

The intro panel contains a surprising amount of depth. From detailing the history of the brand to describing the company’s ideology, which aims for universality over minimalism, “this will do” over “this is what I really want.” After reading the thoughtful introduction, I was expecting an exhibit with equally surprising insight. As it turned out, the objects on display throughout the exhibit were the opposite of surprising, but rather products from the store that were mounted with simple text that described the object’s utility. At first, I was disappointed and even a little irritated, but by the time I reached the end of the exhibit, I realized the exhibit had warned me from the beginning that I was stepping into a space of radical utility, not show-stopping art. And, as promised, there were a few times reading object descriptions where I had my own “this will do” moments where I was tempted to go into the actual store to buy an object that would make my own day-to-day life simpler. 

The umbrellas on display in the exhibit. An example of a radically useful object. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

There were also a few moments in the exhibit where the creators clearly were playing with art exhibit conventions to market MUJI products. One of my favourite “art winks” was the “Mattress with Legs.” The product, a bench-like couch, is positioned against a wall in such a way that it looks exactly like a typical bench in an art museum. It was only upon looking more closely that I realized the “bench” was actually a bed that MUJI sells. The subtly of the mattress was my “aha” moment when I realized the creators of the exhibit might actually be in on the joke, and they may be playing around with exhibit conventions to create this completely unconventional piece of marketing.

The "Mattress with Legs" display, which looks similar to a typical bench at an art exhibit.
Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

This exhibit probably won’t change your life, but for me, attending this pop-up exhibit was an interesting moment in trying to discern the line between art and advertisement. In this case, it’s fairly obvious that the exhibit crosses into the territory of full-blown commercialism, but sometimes it is harder to discern between commercial exhibits and cultural exhibits, between art and marketing.

Is this playful approach to exhibitions useful for the museum professionals, or is there a danger in blurring the line between marketing and art?

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