11 April 2016

Exhibitionism

Exhibitionism is a maze of nine thematic galleries set over two floors, dedicated to all things Rolling Stones. More than five-hundred wonderfully peculiar artefacts are on display that have been collected over the course of the band's fifty-year career, embracing all aspects of art & design, film, video, fashion, performance, rare sound archives and musical heritage. In the words of Sir Mick himself, as echoed through the video footage in the first room, “first you shock them, then they put you in a museum”. London’s Saatchi Gallery has become the museum housing the exhibition for us shocked souls to wonder over until September 4th 2016.


As you make your way through the vivid red entrance room, you follow light vibrations of sounds which get louder and louder until you find yourself standing before more than fifty curved screens playing footage of The Rolling Stones in their early days and throughout their career. It’s a pedal-to-the-metal overview of the band’s history, very briefly covering a range of memorable moments from Brian Jones’s death and the gig 2 days later, to headlining Glastonbury and being induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Next was a to-scale recreation of 102 Edith Grove, the rancid one-bedroom hovel that Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and their friend James Phelge shared in their early days. You could smell the place before you could see it as a pungent scent - intended to mimic that of dishes melded together by hardened food left for weeks and ashtrays struggling to contain monstrous mountains of cigarette butts - was pumped into the gallery space. The tale of humble beginnings was spoken with a refreshing breath of modest air, allowing a look into how jarring their living conditions were in 1962. It’s the complete opposite end of the spectrum to demanding tour riders, spectacularly sparkly outfits and the general big and brash presence that the Rolling Stones has become. Whether exaggerated or not, the grim detail strips this presence to its fundamental basics; 5 men, and shows them as the humans that we forget have been swallowed by and lived with this mighty brand of a band for over fifty years.


Another recreation comes in the forms of the Stones’ studio world. Although the items themselves are behind a frustrating wall of glass, you can observe the studio environment with a pair of headphones on while remixing songs on iPads built into the space. The idea is total visitor immersion and it’s a nice touch that you can mess with the sound levels of different instruments to zone in and out of particular basslines or vocals. There’s handwritten lyrics, excerpts from Keith’s very detailed diaries and even a look at the first recording contract signed by Brian in 1963. With the exception of this contract, an aforementioned video and a couple of guitars, you’re not going to get much on Brian in the exhibition I’m afraid. And if it’s Bill Wyman you’re after then you’re out of luck too, unless a Vox bass amp is enough to send you fizzing with excitement.

The attention to and level of detail is astounding although very focused on things. Kitschy but cool posters, music video direction, stage blueprints, lost-in-time tour programmes, design of the NSFW album covers, Mick’s role in film production… there’s not a stone unturned (pardon the pun). I could live without knowing that Clarins lotion is used to remove the band’s make-up but hearing a detailed account of how Kali, the Hindu goddess inspired the band’s logo designed by student John Pasche was honestly riveting. A particular linking corridor stands as an Andy Warhol fan’s wet dream, the walls lined with framed portraits of Mick and their collaborations being described as “an artistic thing” but that Andy “was a guy who wanted to make money”. It’s an example of the exhibition giving the background to the story but not actually telling the story, as though to presume that we’ve heard it a million times before; which a lot of the time, we have.


The costume section contains enough garments to clothe a small, soon-to-be-glam country. The glass is gone (hurrah) and you’re allowed to absorb the shine and splendour as well as self-proclaimed extravagance of some of the outfits the band paraded about in over the years. Hats, suits, kimonos, shoes, shirts and jumpsuits in velvet, PVC, feathers, lycra, fur, silk… the clothes that you’ve seen on stage, in magazines, and in iconic photographs are meters away from you in one of the more personal areas of the exhibition. 

The smoothest transition of the exhibition takes place as you strut through a backstage area, past artefacts like the chair Mick used to sit in for hair and make-up and racks of guitars and into Glastonbury 2013. Satisfaction thumps its way through the immersive surround-sound, making you feel like you’re in the middle of the rowdy crowd with floral confetti brushing past your waving arms. When the performance ends, you snap out of your daydream, realise that those summer sunnies were just the 3D glasses and make your way back into the sterility of the Saatchi Gallery.


Last stop was of course, the gift shop, You can pick up pretty much anything bearing those plush, famous lips; from the standard poster, tote bag or a set of pencils, to the more bizarre; dog jacket, Pez sweet dispenser or a table football game for £4,750 plus delivery. This is as good an example as any that the logo itself has become a lucrative marketing weapon. As soon as we step out of that immersive concert experience at the end of the exhibition, we became walking targets, almost hypnotised by the lasting adrenaline and yearning for the seventies with our wallets at the bullseye.

The exhibition could easily be a commonsensical, airy-fairy walk down memory lane with the greatest band in rock and roll history - but it isn’t. A lot of the information and artefacts are whole-heartedly interesting and provide a fascinating depth of detail to the stories that the die-hard fans have already read and heard about. It’s as though a harmless, hoarding Stones stalker with extreme OCD has taken their most outrageously obscure objects and organised them into captioned glass cases, throwing in some iPads and really big video screens for good measure. It was an exhibition for those who already know the band and its story, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

Have a look at my full gallery of Exhibitionism images here.