Wandering under the bubbles that spell ‘Wonderful Things’, I left behind the corridors of the V&A and stepped inside Tim Walker’s creative mind. The labyrinthine exhibition space, with its kaleidoscopic colour scheme, embodied a playful childhood escapism, captivating my inner daydreamer. This is how I want the whole world to look, I thought.
Swathes of designer fabric engulf familiar faces, juxtaposed with peppermint-coloured cats, gigantic skeletons, leopards on stilts, Cadillacs and dragons. Margot Robbie lies in an empty bath in a similarly empty, clinical space. She is clothed in various shades of pink attire, white Mary Janes, a tulle scarf preventing her voluminous beehive from flying off her head. A de-shelled boiled egg lies in a frying pan in her white-gloved right hand. Because – why not? This is the delicious sentiment that much of Walker’s work seems to conjure: because why not.
The curator, Susanna Brown, explores the architectural potential of photography through her innovative display. She encourages the viewer’s curiosity and agency to twist, peak and peer through holes and magnifying glasses, to stoop and study photographs hung at their feet. She forces us to be children, and reminds us of the joy of our fearless creativity, which the real world so harshly persuades us to suppress.
This exhibition marks Walker’s third solo show hosted by the V&A, a museum with which he has an intimate relationship. Ten new series of photography respond to Walker’s personal highlights from the museum. Not only is this exhibition an homage to Walker’s imaginative brilliance, but to the gloriously inspiring collection: as Walker articulates, ‘each shoot is a total love letter to an object from the V&A’.
Perhaps my favourite room in the exhibition is enchantingly entitled ‘Box of Delights’. The photographs it houses respond to an embroidered casket from the V&A collection, dating from about 1675, intricately designed and embroidered as was custom for young maidens to boast their skilled needlework. For Walker, it reminded him of ‘how we, as human beings, need to build a private world that we love.’ We all keep our secrets, but where do we put them? What would that place look like, that hideaway where we stash our deepest, most furtive thoughts and truths? For Walker, it’s a magical garden with a unicorn. And to me that sounds about right.
There’s a beautiful narrative present in Walker’s series. And perhaps that’s because he isn’t purely a photographer: he’s a storyteller. James Spencer, the model behind the shoot, plays the protagonist in this enchanted tale of escapism. The dreary hailing english countryside represents his reality, and the magical garden his deepest dreams and desires. ‘It’s an intrinsic human need to have this privacy and your private world is somewhere where you can become anything you want,’ Walker tells us. So Spencer becomes a variety of characters: a clown in a frilly period dress, a dancer with a feather hat, a greek marble statue – whatever he wants.
The pink wallpaper, the purposeless ballustrading skirting the room, the pink TV, and indeed the music and sound by Samad Bouguhalam morph the viewer’s experience of this series into something deeply immersive and overwhelmingly immediate. Walker and Brown together have unlocked the key to the viewer’s connection, creating a space which surely resonates with every visitor, young or old. Walker’s charismatic dreamscapes seem to transcend time.
This theatricality extends to the process of production. Brown has described being on set as ‘a little like watching a play’. It seems there is a smidgen of delightful make-believe in every aspect of Walker’s photographs, yet their roots in reality make them feel just about attainable. The link to Hieronymous Bosch, to paintings that we know and love, to physical objects from history, to Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Grayson Perry – certainties that we read about and see around us all the time, make his surrealist visual playgrounds feel like maybe, just maybe, they could be real. As Amanda Harlech, fashion consultant to Walker, cogently expresses, ‘Tim is a dream catcher’. And he makes those dreams feel alive.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things has been extended to 20th March. Book your tickets here.