Tim Walker’s wild, fantastic world
“Tim Walker: Wonderful Things” on view at the Getty
by Bondo Wyszpolski
The title of this splashy and colorful exhibition was taken from the diary of Howard Carter, the archeologist who in 1922 uncovered the tomb of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Asked what he was seeing as he peered inside, he replied, “Wonderful things.” Or perhaps Tim Walker thought he said “Wonderland,” because this eye-opening show puts one in mind of Aubrey Beardsley, “Alice in Wonderland,” Cirque du Soleil on acid, and more.Prior to the work going on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, from late 2019 to early 2020, Walker (b.1970) had gone through its vast collection and was inspired by 10 items that in turn led him to create 10 shoots and one film.
The exhibition, in slightly altered form, is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum through August 20.
“For me,” Walker says in the catalogue, published for the London show, “beauty is everything — that’s what I crave, that’s what I admire, the infinite variety of beauty.” And also, “The shoots that we’ve done for the exhibition and book are attempts to communicate my encounters with the sublime. They’re attempts to convey both surface beauty and the deeper emotional thing. It’s an attempt, but I don’t think I’m ever completely satisfied.”Walker employs various camera effects, from fisheye lenses to an array of filters and soft focus, but what should be pointed out right away is that he also has a technical team that’s larger than what you find in many feature films. This includes set designers, fashion editors, seamstresses and tailors, hair stylists, makeup artists, costume designers, and a long list of models, almost all of whom, with the exception of actress Tilda Swinton, who is 62, and the late April Ashley, who died last year at the age of 86, appear to be in their 20s and 30s. In short, this is a highly collaborative effort by a youthful cast and crew.
Each photo shoot (“Illuminations,” “Pen & Ink,” “Cloud 9,” “The Land of Living Men,” etc) is represented by several images but prefaced by interviews, in the form of conversation, often between Walker and one or two of his key collaborators. Sometimes, though, they’re mostly patting one another on the back for a job seemingly well done.
Each session appears to be well thought-out in advance before giving way to serendipity and some degree of spontaneity. One criticism that I have is that, as mentioned, almost all of the models are quite young, and they tend to be stuck with that blank, runway model expression, which gets a little old hat. No, I’m not expecting smiles or grimaces, but the dead fish look runs its course fairly quickly.And then there are the outfits, which often have a bohemian, thrown-together thrift store look, although much of it recalls the “flower child” garb of the late 1960s. I think to myself, what if they’d collaborated with someone along the lines of Guo Pei, whose “Art of Couture” exhibition which recently closed at the Bowers Museum featured the most elaborate gowns and dresses that one can possibly imagine.
The sets, like the outfits, often seem haphazard as well, but most of them are initially striking, such as “Pen & Ink,” which is inspired by a line block print by Aubrey Beardsley,” and “Lil’ Dragon,” which was inspired by an 18th century Chinese snuffbox. Regarding the latter, which utilized UV lighting, the effect is like that of being inside of a dimly lit nightclub with glowing colors, and reminiscent of some blacklight-heavy dark rides in an amusement park.
The models, Ling Ling and Xie Chaoyu, are enhanced by their dress and facial jewelry. To put it another way, this is Björk territory.Prefacing “Lil’ Dragon” is this observation by Zoe Bedeaux, who is described in the catalogue as a “Creative shape-shifter,” cultural commentator and so on: “Clothes have a language. They are texts within themselves. It’s exciting when you take something from one context and place it in situ within the set and it starts to speak to you in another tongue.”
The catalyst for the shoot with Tilda Swinton was a display case where her jewelry had been, and so the absence of the objects thus allowed Walker’s imagination to fill in the empty space. However, in another instance of less is more, we are shown too many images of Swinton holding her hands close to her face, with enormous rings on her fingers. The rings (not her fingers) seem too big and too loud.Oddly enough, my favorite image in the book is one by Sir Cecil Beaton of Dame Edith Sitwell, which he took in 1962. It’s actually comprised of three tightly spaced photographs, from slightly different angles and sequenced upon one another. It precedes “Why Not Be Oneself?” which is the Tilda Swinton shoot mentioned above. There’s a calmness and serenity to it, along with Dame Sitwell’s distinct facial structure, that somehow makes Walker’s own work look a little too stagey. Although Walker’s imagery, on first look, is utterly stunning, I went from being enamored to doubtful. For instance, it lacks the aesthetic genius of Rodney Smith (1947-2016), whose monograph by Paul Martineau I recently read and wrote about. Despite its wild colors and strange settings, Tim Walker’s imagery seems frivolous the longer one studies it.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is on view through August 20 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Details at getty.edu. ER