In the V&A’s latest exhibition Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, it is the museum itself that takes centre stage. Known for his fantastical sets, fairytale-esque scenes, and dramatic yet delicate costumes, Walker has been preparing for this exhibition for three years and his journey has taken him through more than one hundred of the V&A’s public galleries, to Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood, onto the roof of the South Kensington site and even underground into the labyrinthine Victorian tunnels beneath the museum itself.
The finished result – the completed exhibition – reads like a trip to Oz, Narnia, or Wonderland, with the V&A’s objects providing a plethora of potential keys (sometimes literally – one of my favourite displayed artefacts was Chamberlain’s Key) to the elusive shrinking door. Walker himself flits between the roles of Alice and the white rabbit – himself lost amongst the beauty and complexity of the V&A’s archives, but also leading us deeper and deeper into his strange, otherworldly visions.
Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors step inside a small white room with hand-blown glass letters hanging from above. Spelling out ‘Wonderful Things’, these letters are illuminated by a rainbow projection and after passing underneath them we are eased into Walker’s wonderland, as the first room appears, at first glance, to be a typical gallery room – clean, white and minimalist with framed portraits of notable figures hanging on the walls. But a closer look – both at the room itself and at the photographs – reveals a subversion of this traditional model.
Huge drips of white paint leak from the ceiling, almost camouflaged against the crisp, clean walls and in addition to the large photographs framed in clusters, the odd one or two is tucked away behind a display case, almost sitting on the floor. The photographs themselves demand a similar attention to detail: a brief glance at Walker’s portrait of Claire Foy – with her puffed-sleeve Alexander McQueen dress, her long white gloves and her tiara – and we immediately recognise her as the Queen in The Crown, but upon closer inspection we notice her uncharacteristically sceptical facial expression and the single cigarette hanging limply from between her perfectly made-up lips. Other memorable portraits ranged from a witch-like Margaret Atwood wielding a huge feather quill and wearing a heavy black cape, to Joanna Lumley, her light yellow feminine Chanel suit contrasting with her exaggerated Patsy Stone-style beehive and the crude image of twenty cigarettes crammed into her mouth.
The level of detail in this room draws visitors in and we become absorbed in Walker’s world. But the white rabbit beckons us on, and we proceed to nine more stunningly decorated rooms, each one an ode to a different V&A artefact and all designed by Shona Heath. One much darker room takes inspiration from a sixteenth-century stained glass panel depicting Tobias and Sara, and is laid out like a dilapidated church, complete with gothic arches and damp-looking walls. The glowing colours of the stained glass – a perfect contrast to the dull grey tones of the set – are echoed in Walker’s images, including his fluorescent photographs of Grace Jones and his picture of Zuzanna Bartoszek, in which a stained glass pattern is projected over her body, clothing her in light and making her glow like a part of the window.
Another of my favourite rooms draws upon the largest photograph in the V&A’s archive – an image of the Bayeaux Tapestry. Flouting the traditional ‘look but don’t touch’ rule of the museum, this room seems interested in the tactile, focusing on the handiwork involved in the creation of the real tapestry. A central, semi-circular wall displays Walker’s photographs: a chain of them has been pasted together in a long, tapestry-like strip and each one is set inside a small padded cell, with loose material such as string, rope and cushion stuffing surrounding the subjects, who are dressed largely in red, blue, brown and green clothing that references the colouration of the tapestry’s stitches. The wall itself is also covered in a light, beige fabric and looked as though it has been quilted. Indeed, a gentle prod confirmed its satisfying, squishy texture.
In Wonderful Things Tim Walker and his team pay homage to the museum as a site of history, creative potential and inspiration, while also subverting its conventions. By looking through the lens of Tim Walker’s camera, we glimpse the possibility of a new sort of platform for showcasing fashion and fashion photography within a museum.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things at the Victoria and Albert Museum is curated by Susanna Brown and designed by Shona Heath. Tickets are available until 8 March 2020.