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By Isobel Van Dyke
ith the return of exhibitions, theatre and live music, a burning desire for escapism and a need for entertainment that goes beyond our screens is tangible. Higher numbers of commuters are reading on their way to work, whilst pre-booking has become second nature - gone are the days of simply strolling up to an exhibition, restaurant or gig.
There is a hunger for culture, with London exhibitions leaning into this by becoming as transportive and immersive as possible. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Tate Modern or LUX at 180 Studios are two examples of curation that are so hypnotic you’re left with little awareness of space and time.
“The design of the space is as much a work of art as parts of the collection”
At the V&A, Kate Bailey’s most recent exhibition, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, takes us back in time to moments in history dating from 1513, to the beginnings of Alice in the 1860s, through to Carroll’s influence on the psychedelic sixties and beyond.
It also takes us on a direct journey to our childhoods. “It’s for children of all ages, including me and you”, said one of the gallery assistants (trying to persuade me to try out the VR experience). Bailey has done a thorough job of considering the experience of a child as much as the experience of adult visitors. Cleverly, there are details within the curation that could be missed by adults but noticed by children - heights at which you might find things for example.
One of these details included a doll-sized window that deliberately puts you in the position of a giant Alice, peeping through to a miniscule, and frustratingly unreachable, wonderland on the other side.
It seems obvious that an exhibition about wonderland should transport you there, but rather than leave it solely to the imagination through objects presented, the display becomes more abstract with each room and the design of the space is as much a work of art as parts of the collection.
The least surreal of the rooms is the first - a room setting the scene for the history and context in which Carroll found inspiration for the book. That being said, there is a Victorian Britain darkness to it, similar to the underlying feeling of unease we get from Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it is the jagged, slightly scary 19th century etchings, the solitude of pre-raphaelite painting, or the general sense of memento mori felt through early photography.
This room introduces Lewis Carroll - who’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - alongside Alice Liddell and her sisters, whom Carroll photographed and were the source of inspiration for his title character. Included in the societal context are references such as Punch, the satirical 19th century magazine for which Charles Dickens contributed, as well as a portrait by the Flemish painter Quentin Matsys of ‘The Ugly Duchess’ from 1513.
“Dishes designed by Heston Blumenthal appear in a room where the main attraction is a chaotic tea party and waterfalling chairs”
There’s also mention of The Great Exhibition, which one third of the entire British population visited in 1851 and was held at The Crystal Palace - which was destroyed by fire in 1936 (the glow of the flames was noticed by Sir Henry Buckland, whose daughter was named Crystal after the palace).
Though I spent the most amount of time in this room, my personal highlight was the inclusion of works by Max Ernst and the surrealist movement. The surrealist collection was brought to life with Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit blaring in the background, whilst other rooms were soundtracked by the ticking of a stopwatch and a little, anxious voice, clearly running very late for something.
One of Ernst’s included paintings is titled ‘Alice in 1941’, a reimagining of what Alice would look like as a grown woman, trapped inside a rock, and is based on fellow painter and Ernst’s lover, Leonora Carrington. It’s no surprise that Ernst modelled his Alice on Carrington, the similarities between Carroll’s character and the painter are plentiful.
One of the walls within the exhibition is graffitied with quotes only legible when read in a mirror. Lewis Carroll used this technique (mirror script) in his sequel, Through The Looking Glass 1872, however, Leonora Carrington was also a big fan of writing backwards. She was expelled from many schools as a child, but on one occasion the reason for her expulsion was because she insisted on writing everything in mirror script. Perhaps Alice was her muse.
Moving throughout the rooms the curation gets more and more interactive. At one moment you are on the seafront with seagulls squawking in your subconscious, the next you’re on stage with global ballet companies, performing different renditions of Carroll’s tale.
It’s rare to see food included as part of an exhibition, but when the design of a plate - particularly michelin-starred plates - has so often been influenced by a certain Mad Hatter, it makes sense to be included. Dishes designed by Heston Blumenthal appear in a room where the main attraction is a chaotic tea party and waterfalling chairs.
“The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ did not start with Carroll, but with 19th century milliners who were poisoned from using mercury in their work”
In the final section, Being Alice, we see fashion’s modern take on wonderland. The gravity defying designs of Iris van Herpen find themselves next to Stephen Jones’ millinery. Jones played the Mad Hatter in Grace Coddington’s notorious 2003 Alice in Wonderland American Vogue shoot: John Galliano played the Queen of Hearts, Tom Ford was the white rabbit and Marc Jacobs played the caterpillar. Interestingly, the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ did not start with Carroll, but with 19th century milliners who were poisoned from using mercury in their work which affected their nervous systems and changed their characters.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is filled with unexpected surprises and snippets of context that played an integral part in developing Carroll’s world. As a result, Bailey has managed to recreate her own wonderland, not quite down a rabbit hole, but in the Sainsbury wing of the V&A.
We go down the rabbit hole for a detailed look at the V&A’s exhibition, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser
By Isobel Van Dyke