8 January 2018

Youth Culture Commentary

The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes was an exhibition curated by Raf Simons which was held at Fondazione Pitti, Florence and opened 15 years ago this week. It turned a critical, illustrated spotlight on adolescence; a territory of transition crisscrossed by the most varied creative energies. In the present, 'youth' is often spoken about as a mere as a marketing demographic or a disembodied wash of colliding newsfeeds, so I'm revisiting the exhibition which presented youth more as a practice or a methodology – something that's teeming with questions and always becoming. 

Boasting a series of iconographic materials which began in the 1960s and moved up to when the exhibition opened, it revealed clothes, behaviour patterns, novels, and visual artworks created or inspired by the transnational tribes that are teenagers. "We wanted to make an exhibition that sucked people into the atmosphere of teenagers — without judging them," said Simons who, then aged 35, told the New York Times he did not want to define adolescence as a period 'between 12 and 19.' It aimed instead, to examine the mental and psychological state of adolescence, treating it as an existential condition with an overwhelming impact on lifestyles and trends.

Adolescent Extremes was also an opportunity for reflection on the increasing importance of teenage tribes in our society – a society where the obsolescence of concepts of sexual and demographic identity reflected social changes in progress in a violent, contradictory manner at times. Simons conceptualised "the fourth sex" as belonging to adolescents who at this stage in their life, are not boys or girls and not yet men or women. They are closely connected to the present, yet symbolically contain the seeds of future.

In the exhibition, adolescence was presented as not just a phase of passage in human life, but also a mental state, an existential condition with an overwhelming impact on lifestyles and trends.  Observed and studied by experts of all kinds, monitored in their behaviour patterns, adolescents represented a decisive segment in the strategy of consumption. Fashion watches the teenage universe closely both as a source of inspiration and as a crucial target group, whilst contemporary art explores, exploits and analyses the myth of the eternal adolescent. From the rebellion of the historical avantgardes, through the counterculture of the Sixties, to the doubts and uncertainties of Generation X, contemporary art has treated adolescence as an indispensable point of reference, coming to grips with its radical gestures, its violations and impatience.

The exhibition, installed at Stazione Leopolda by a group of young architects, the Cliostraats, shed light on the strength, weakness and promises of the "fourth sex". The book/catalogue offered a kaleidoscopic montage not only of the images in the show, but also of supplementary iconographic materials, such as images from art, fashion, teenage icons and legendary films. The volume was also an anthology of the most interesting writings on the theme of adolescence, in which a mixture of poetry, literature, current events, journalism and essays, gave form and colour to all the contradictions and ambiguities of highly romanticised period of life.