By raiding the V&A’s archives and permanent collections, fashion photographer Tim Walker has created an immersive exhibition that’s enchanting and full of promise.
Wonderful Things seems a fitting title for the Tim Walker exhibition at the V&A. The collaboration with creative director Shona Heath makes for a magical, immersive experience, full of tantalizing intrigue and promise. The exhibition unfurls around the visitor like the rooms of an exquisitely detailed doll’s house, and we imagine ourselves amongst Charlie Bucket, Dorothy and Alice as we boldly explore the many technicolour imaginaries of Walker’s fantastical Wonderland.
Yet something about the work – perhaps the fact that Walker’s photography is inextricably stitched into the fabric of fashion – almost burdens the visitor with an obligation to like it or else feel they’ve missed the point. It’s fashionable. And in this, I found myself quietly resistant.
Walker’s love of photography stemmed from his experience of working with the Cecil Beaton archive as a young adult. He went on to study Photography at Exeter College of Art, before shooting his first (but far from last) fashion story for Vogue aged just 25. However, for this exhibition, Walker took inspiration from the V&A itself – Wonderful Things stages 10 new photographic projects (as well as some of his earlier work) in response to the V&A’s collections, stores and archives. In a pleasant twist on standard exhibition practise, all of the signposting within the exhibition is written by Walker himself, so that we have the impression of entering into the artist’s mind as he talks us through the works.
It was the first two exhibition rooms – not the V&A inspired shoots – which I found disappointing. But let’s begin with the positive. The first, a surgically bright white room with shiny plastic drips oozing from the ceiling, includes some fantastic portraiture of famous faces against uniform white backdrops. Joanna Lumley appears in her best Patsy, twenty cigarettes shoved optimistically in her mouth. David Attenborough’s eyes and cheeks exude pride in beautiful creases as he holds up his elephant bird egg. Margaret Atwood, in the heavy felted wools of a witch of yore, brandishes her pleasingly curved feathered quill as she eyes us sharply from beyond the lens.
On ‘The Wall of Muses’ hangs a joyous shot of Grayson Perry. Perry dons neon lime green platform shoes and a billowing dress of pinks, purples, greens and blues, depicting figures and swirling patterns in a gloriously chaotic rainbow. The figures are likenesses of Perry, who poses hand on hip, head turned right, stood astride a candy-cane striped bicycle in garish yellow and powder pink. The purse on the handlebars tells us that Perry is ‘dolled up’, as indeed the sleek 1920s cropped bob and colourful rouged lips and cheeks are inclined to suggest. The exaggerated eyebrows drawn as single thin arches mark the upper boundaries of another rainbow, this time made of eyeshadow. This photograph is not just a nod to Perry’s colourful identity, it is a jubilant celebration of play at its very best: colourful, imaginative and all-out. And why shouldn’t identity be playful?
Yet in the same room hang images such as that of two Japanese models dressed as geishas astride H-4 flying machines. I get that the scenario is fantastical – it is totally out of context, contrasting ancient tradition and modern technology – but there is a sense that when so much of Walker’s work centres around clothing and the other-worldliness of dress, this image verges on exoticizing an otherwise traditional outfit as though it were equivalent to the many bizarre and intentionally outlandish items shown in the same room and designed specifically for the world of Western high fashion. The traditional clothing becomes mere costume for the models to wear to gimmick effect. This whole approach sat uncomfortably with me, and just seemed a little thoughtless.
The following room was the biggest disappointment. The ‘Chapel of Nudes’ was a frankly boring series of largely female nudes in highly eroticized yet problematically performative scenes of sexual exposure, hung in a boudoir-esque pink light. There is little that is imaginative about the feminine sexuality portrayed here. A shot in a round frame with a barrel distortion looks up from the knees of a naked woman, reclining on a silken seat. Her sex – which is of course completely hairless – is lit up by the light passing through a glass of wine rested on her hip. In reality the pose exudes discomfort, but happily for her voyeur, it allows for full exposure without any extra chins and – thank heavens! – her eyes are closed, or almost closed, so that we might gaze upon her undisturbed. A few women avoid this fate, but these are of course largely women with small breasts, infantilised braided hair and accentuated diminutive bodily proportions (such as the shots of Cierra Skye). The notable exception is the series of snaps of Beth Ditto who exudes confidence and self-satisfaction in her nude portraits – but why should we not extend this privilege to the lesser known subject?
It is safe to say that Walker’s work is much more interesting when it comes to the homoerotic. A later brilliant series captioned The Land of the Living Men depicts nude men in late summer British countryside scenes to a soundscape of birdsong. It evokes a quiet, natural, but still charged nakedness, which ditches the performative orgasmic gaze in favour of something more self-assured. This series is accompanied by a wall of fish-bowl peep holes which give us distorted glances into a hidden room, where a copy of Michelangelo’s David stands gigantic amonst rolling green hills, emphasising the robust and ancient essence of the male nude. And to think, the female nudes were so uninspiring!
Indeed there are many very wonderful pieces in this collection. The sense of wonder is largely aided by Heath’s enchanting set designs and the use of soundscapes throughout. The Illuminations collection sees us sauntering through a pitch dark chapel to the sounds of a single voice in religious song. Alongside a stained glass window from the V&A’s collection are a series of photos which have the glow of plastic Christmas sweet wrappers. Here we find Grace Jones, glowing in a ball of yellow light against an intensely black background, a rainbow prism halo crowning her head and jolting against the violence of her immaculately bared teeth. The next room is a shock of monochrome, where models and fabric seem to merge in art nouveau inspired vectors. The images play on shadow, negative and silhouette, and each pose seems to slide around us like a modern take on Jamiroquai’s iconic Virtual Insanity music video. Cloud 9 is a dazzling showcase of photographs inspired by India. The surfaces of the canvases are reflective and shimmer in powdery bright hues, recreating the light of the paint-filled air on the day of the North Indian Hindu Holi festival. The sense of festivity is ubiquitous, as the models dance and pose in the gloriously sunny British countryside.
One of my favourite rooms – the Box of Delights – celebrates the vibrancy of the queer London club scene. Taking inspiration from a 17th century embroidered casket from the V&A collection, which opens to reveal a miniature garden, the photos in this room recreate miniature worlds. The room is drowned in pink, and a catchy rhythmic refrain plays overhead. Around the visitor, models (notably James Spencer) are caught dancing, voguing amongst beautifully orchestrated gardens of surreal plastic flowers and crumbling disfigured statues. Their worlds evoke Dali, De Chirico, Tim Burton. The dancers don fantastically outlandish dresses and billowing bloomers inspired by a Court Mantua dress from the V&A collection, and revel in the freedom of their barely boxed up microworlds. Indeed, we as visitors have the impression, as we move through these rooms, of entering into the frames. No wonder the infectious beat stirs our instinct to dance.
According to curator Susanna Brown, Walker somewhat dubiously describes himself as having ‘raided’ the V&A’s collections like ‘early discoverers of Tutankhamun’s tomb’. The salvaged booty makes for quite an impressive collection, and the resulting artwork is a delightfully energised and striking collection. The issue is that in such a major exhibition, it seems a given that the artist would be conscious of contemporary challenges to historical fashion and art practises. It is assumed that his work somehow inherently counters these issues. Yet I sometimes struggled to reconcile this with what I saw. I was as underwhelmed by many of his depictions of women as I was inspired by his invigorating explorations of the queer subculture of the London club scene. Walker’s work is in many ways brilliant, but with so much hype around his innovative approach, it’s hard to avoid disappointment in those moments when his fashion photography fails to break the mould.