14 March 2016

Curating a Masterpiece: McQueen's Savage Beauty

Today marks one year since the opening of Savage Beauty, the exhibition that had everyone ranting and raving about its splendour and theatricality. Whether good or bad, it became an exhibition that a lot of people saw just so that they could say they'd been. While so many recited near-identical monologues of how they were nearly brought to tears by the haunting Kate Moss hologram, others boasted about how many hours they spent in the Cabinet of Curiosities as though it was some kind of competition. Sonnet Stanfill was part of the curatorial team that delivered the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, lead by curator, Claire Wilcox. Sonnet took us on a walk down memory lane, talking us through each individual room and how they curated the exhibition that went on to break the museum’s box office record - selling 480,000 tickets during its 21-week run. It's clear from Sonnet's conversation that this is an exhibition that has changed the way that the V&A thinks about itself, and equally changed the way that people think about the V&A.


On the Met's original exhibition...
"The original version of Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty took part at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011 and it was brilliantly curated by our ex-V&A Colleague Andrew Bolton, becoming one of the Met’s top 10 most visited exhibitions. When Martin Roth became Director of the V&A, he was very intent on making sure that that exhibition came to our museum so he and Claire Wilcox worked together to make sure that happened. The V&A felt, as the home of fashion, that it was fitting that we honour his work so we really did welcome the opportunity to re-stage this exhibition. The V&A’s iteration was about 30% larger than what was on show at the Met and we were also really pleased to add lots of new content and a couple of new stages to the exhibition."

On McQueen's relationship with the V&A...
"McQueen had become a regular visit to the V&A and to our fashion archives. He gained inspiration, both through looking at garments in our permanent collections and our archives but also by walking through galleries within the museum. McQueen loved the William Morris room and the Cast Courts where he said he’d like to be locked in overnight. He presented 2 fashion shows in the V&A as part of our fashion in motion series, the first in 1999 and then again in 2001. Another collaboration with the museum was again in 2001 for the exhibition, Prodigal Fashion."


On the scale of the exhibition...
"This was the largest retrospective of McQueen ever held, larger than what was on show at the Met. We supplemented material from that project with additional loans generously given by friends, former models and colleagues. All together in terms of object members, there were over 244 garments and accessories and 66 of those were new additions. There were over 35 film screens within the exhibition and each section of the project had its own specially commissioned soundscape. What this created was a totally immersive and theatrical museum-going experience."

On the entrance...
"It began at the entrance gallery where you saw an image of McQueen’s own face morphing with that of a skull and it set a dark mood, set the tone for what was to come. The photograph was taken by his nephew, Gary James McQueen and as the audience went through the exhibition, I think this served as a good beginning because it did suggest the darker side of McQueen’s aesthetic." 


On London...
"The first exhibition gathering after you passed that image was a new section of the show entitled London. We felt that it was important to situate McQueen’s work within his home city so you saw a number of garments from some of his earliest collections on show and as a backdrop, a very large-scale screen showing catwalk footage from those catwalk presentations. It was a double-height gallery, the screens were absolutely dwarfing and there was quite a loud sound track. I think too that the volume level of the galleries and the soundscapes that people experienced was quite overwhelming for some people. When you were walking through the galleries, you couldn't really have a conversation with someone while you were looking at the objects on show because it was so loud."

On Savage Mind...
"This is the sparest section of the exhibition, deliberately so, to focus the attention on the garments – on the cutting construction of some of those tailored pieces that I think show the visitor the debt that McQueen owed to his time on Saville Row. In particular, there's this jacket which is from the collection It’s A Jungle Out There where he’s taken a photographic reproduction of Robert Campin’s 14th century piece The Thief to the Left of Christ and he’s cut it up and reassembled it like a jigsaw puzzle. Through the seaming and the cutting construction and also those dramatic pointy shoulders, you see some of the important themes of McQueen’s work showcased in this one jacket. Again, this was a very minimal gallery, there was no film and you could only hear a bit of sound from the room behind. It was a very spare, relatively quiet space compared to what was on show in the rest of the exhibition." 


On Romantic Gothic...
"We them moved on to a portion of the gallery that was really elaborate, really over the top entitled Romantic Gothic. McQueen’s gothic sensibility was another recurring theme throught his collections but a romantic, Victorian-type gothic influenced by Edgar Alan Poe and Tim Burton. He often referenced Victorian tailoring techniques and silhouettes and he was said to be inspired by Victorian garments in Isabella Blow’s dressing up box. He knew his history and the V&A pay interest to his deep intrigue in studying the cut and construction of Victorian garments. When he came to see the garments in our permanent collection, he understood them immediately. We also featured, like the Met, a very large, gold casket in the exhibition which included 5 example from his Posthumous collection, which was shown after his death. This was from the A/W10 collection, one of the highlights was a gold feathered jacket in the centre which was made entirely of hand-painted goose feathers."


On Romantic Primitivism...
"The idea of primitivism, tribalism and interest in the aboriginal world was something that inspired McQueen throughout his career – summed up by the exhibition title Savage Beauty. McQueen loved nature documentaries like Blue Planet and he had a subscription to National Geographic Magazine but his work was never literal, he absorbed influences but wore them lightly. This was a portion of the exhibition that was new to the V&A so this wasn’t part of the Met’s original staging. It was a small, circular room lined with what looked like skulls and bones made of resin. On the ceiling was this rounded oculus screen that was showing a film by John Mayboray and was accompanied by this very immersive soundtrack. The film sequence was a story of this girl who had fallen off a ship and was drowning, being dragged down to the ocean depths by her gown so you saw this scene repeated and accompanied again but this very haunting, watery soundscape. It was a very claustrophobic gallery, it was very dark and that was another really important part of the visitor experience. Not just changing the pacing of the sound and moving image, but also the lighting."


On Romantic Nationalism...
"This was another of the few galleries that had no film. The production galleries were so high-spec; the wood-lined floor, plinths, walls… it was designed to suggest a kind of Baronial Hall. This is where I’d make my home, bring my sleeping bag because with the lighting, the mood, it was beautifully finished and again very, very high production value. The sound in this room was so appropriate to the staging because we included the musical score for Handel Sarabande suit, Harpsichord in D Minor so it was this very lyrical, quiet space."


On the Cabinet of Curiosities...
"This section was where the V&A came closest to achieving the same sense of drama as a catwalk show. This was a room that would cause most curators to tremble with fear because it’s a double-height space, 6 meters high. Some curators would fit a dropped ceiling and ignore the space outside but here, Claire Wilcox super-sized the Cabinet of Curiosities that was at the Met by using the double-height space and celebrating it. Within this portion of the exhibition, there were 27 film screens and each of them were showing a different loop of catwalk shows so you could almost see an encyclopaedia of McQueen’s catwalk shows in this one room. Interspersed throughout the gallery were mainly accessories designed for the catwalk shows by jewellers like Sean Leane and milliners like Philip Treacy. Some pieces were rotating on turn tables and it was an all singing, all dancing, completely overwhelming experience. This was where many people came and lingered for a very long time, simply to absorb the information that was on show. In that one space, there were several different soundscapes going on at the one time; you could experience something completely different on the other side of the room. It really was almost like an exhibition in itself, that one gallery."


On the infamous hologram...
"What may have been the most haunting moment of the exhibition was the recreation of the amazing fashion moment when Kate Moss appeared as a merely life-sized apparition at the finale of the Widows of Culloden show. For that, you see an image of the glass pyramid where this Pepper’s Ghost technology was used with film and mirrors suggesting a hologram apparition. The V&A recreated that, as did the Met but we made it slightly larger and it had its own dedicated space. After that explosion of stimulation in the Cabinet of Curiosities section, this was a small, quiet, dark little space with a very haunting, contemporative piece of moving image. Again, a changing of pace, changing of lighting level and changing the experience."

On Voss...
"This part of the exhibition also used moving image, particularly a filmed reproduction of McQueen’s catwalk presentation where fetish writer Michelle Olley is lounging on a chaise longue. She is actually covered with moths and butterflies and attached to a breathing tube while naked and very voluptuous. It’s a recreation in itself of a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph. It was another way of showing our audience and illustrating what an actual McQueen catwalk presentation would look like." 


On Plato’s Atlantis...
"The last gallery of the show was focused on McQueen’s last collection when he was alive, it was SS/10. The catwalk presentation had a very futuristic narrative where he described an age when the ice caps had melted, the sea levels had risen and the human species had to adapt to an underwater world. As the models progressed down the catwalk, their features changed, their hairstyles changed, and they had these prosthetics on their cheeks that suggested a different facial structure. Of course, the models worse the famous armadillo boots that looks a bit like crab claws. This whole world was depicted on the catwalk. What was extraordinary too was not just the garments on the catwalk but the technology involved, it was the first catwalk show to be live-streamed onto the internet via Nick Knights SHOWstudio. You can see enormous cameras that were mounted onto traintracks that zoomed up and down the catwalk at the time, streaming the imagery live, also filming the audience at the same time. In a way, it was heralding a new age in terms of fashion. It’s hard to image now in 2016 that this wasn’t something that was done forever but it really was at the forefront of the process of showing fashion. I think it’s fair to say that no-one had ever seen anything like this before, it was so innovative and new and the digital prints that McQueen used as well were startling. They were photographs of actual lizard skins, reptile skins that were then transposed onto textiles so at the time, incredibly forward thinking."


On the conveniently placed gift shop...
"This portion of the exhibition (Voss) tried to achieve high drama through both moving image and the overwhelming volume of the sound track. It had this thumping beat so it really sent the visitors out of the exhibition on a high - perhaps no coincidence that they exited into the V&A shop where I think they probably spent a lot of money."

From start to finish, Savage Beauty was about more than just fashion. It was more than just sending models down the catwalk - they were elaborate narratives and the clothes served as a vehicle for McQueen to progress those narratives. It was a beautiful ode to a beautiful man who created beautiful things. The extravaganza and spectacle factor that this exhibition achieved was so astronomical that it now has the curatorial team trapped in a bubble of cushy uncertainty. In the wave of a project like Savage Beauty, there's a burning question blocking the path of not just Sonnet and her colleagues, but people working in galleries and museums within the wider creative network. It's creating a pressure that requires immediate action from curators and innovators who are asking themselves and ask each other; what do we do next?