My first memory of a Tim Walker photograph was Lily Cole in a blue gown. It was magnificent as its train trailed down a spiral staircase to the floor of a derelict room. You know the one. Then there is the plane made of bread, Humpty Dumpty and all the Kings’ men, the Alice in Wonderland series with Natalia Vodianova… and who could forget the pastel Persian cats? Those felines sparked an intense search on how to ethically dye animal hair. The answer (which I know you want) is to use beetroot juice or food colouring. The Tim Walker exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum is aptly named Wonderful Things, an ode to the museum’s collection of around 2 million artefacts. It was commissioned when the institution saw the photo series created around the painting, Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch. True fans of the Vogue photographer will appreciate the consistency of his whimsical imagination, especially in the first room of the exhibition that is dedicated to this era of Walker. However and refreshingly, the curation takes great care in reframing his work around the handful of museum items that have piqued his interest. Simply put, you won’t be bored.
The Victoria & Albert museum showcase runs until the 8th of March, presenting some of Walker’s newer work that contributes to timely conversations on diversity (of all types in the Chapel of Nudes) and Britishness. The first room is simply adorned with bubble letters ‘WONDERFUL THINGS’, lit with dancing rainbow light. It’s like walking in on the aftermath of a birthday party, when everyone’s left and the disco ball is slowly spinning above. Speaking to Tim Blank in a podcast for the Business of Fashion, Walker says the name comes from the discovery of Tutankhamun’s grave. And although very alive and kicking, the exhibition nods to the treasures that the photographer has left in the wake of his career.
Voyeurism is a heavy theme. As you enter the mind of the artist through the immersive set up, not only are you gazing upon the work but investing yourself into his psyche. From sex in the pink latex curtained room, where miniature images of Kate Moss in the Toy Shop invite you to come intimately close, to the magnified peep holes exploring the male nude in the form of Michelangelo’s David sculpture. And where would longing be without control? The maze-like exhibition leads seamlessly from one room to the next, where a dark room stands in stark contrast to the neighbouring, hazy pink hospital lighting of the Chapel of Nudes. Here are hellish images of a very gothic, androgynous Grace Jones, captured as if she were a ghostly spirit floating in the darkness. It’s this ephemeral representation of lust that compliments the physical, magnified images of nudes next door.
Wandering through the sensorial space, you get the feeling that you’re in the very folds of his brilliant, juicy brain. Many of the protagonists of his modern fairytales are friends, not always traditional models. You’ll uncover the likes of Tilda Swinton (who has her very own citrine hued room, inspired by Renishaw Hall) and Greyson Perry. Take his recent portrait shoot with author Margaret Atwood, where collaborating with other creatives has been a personal love. And within the display, his study of Oliver Bailey portrayed with immense physicality and in the style of Francis Bacon.
As for his relationship with the museum, the gravitational pull towards British history and society becomes obvious. The inspiration for each theme is displayed and encased as an artefact, physically separated from the rest of the art. Victorian life features in Aubrey Beardsley’s ink and paper illustrations, known for his eroticism and art nouveau style. It inspired Walker’s shots of silhouetted cats, harps and floral swirls that unfold from the models. Compared to the extremely complicated work he is well known for, this graphic style arguably stands out the most in this exhibition.
Exotic allusions follow, where Walker presents his take on Indian mythological art in the form of models with elongated limbs, swaying in vibrant floral meadows. This was first seen in Vogue 2018, The Confetti Flower Fields. And atop the triptychs and gallery walls are a parade of cartoon animal sculptures dancing above the dark room. The visual might be compared to an outer-body experience, as icons from the photographs enter our space. The LSD saturation of the editing and contortion from the camera lens only accentuate this sensation.
Take the needlework box, a symbol of female domesticity and conservatism. It is what Walker says is ‘the most poignant article’ in the exhibition. In the floral wallpapered room where it lies, the photographs depict James Spencer as he explodes into the foreground of his Lancashire residence, dressed in women’s fashion. Filling up the space, he is bold and unashamed, as if his self-expression is pushing beyond the confines of pink conservatism. Contrasted with the photos of his friends on nights out, hung along a bannister like family portraits, it calls to question the notion of identity, family and clothing. Within this room, almost like a Barbie box, is a rather imposing Elizabethan dress.
When it comes to Tim Walker, the sheer body of work in a single exhibition, let alone his lifetime is enough to fill a module or two of an art history degree. If you’d like to petition for the Courtald Insitute to offer this, please sign here. Jokes aside, whatever level of art fiend or fashion obsession you have, the entertainment of an exhibition like this is enough to appeal to anyone with retinas. Not to mention, we are witnessing a living photographer in our age, creating art of this immensity, which is being celebrated at the V&A for his Wonderful Things. Name one reason you wouldn’t visit.
21 September 2019 – 8 March 2020, admission is £15