Museum exhibition catalogues haunt coffee tables. Photos and facts fill time while hosts prepare. Hosts return, coffee table books are pushed aside for cakes and beverages, conversations may momentarily touch on beautiful pictures from the catalogue, but with close friends, the books are quickly forgotten.
What sort of coffee table book would spark great conversation among new friends and old?
| On my course with the V&A this week, we studied the Tim Walker exhibition Wonderful Things. Tim Walker has held two exhibitions I was interested in: one at Bowes museum (I couldn’t find the catalogue), and one at the V&A. Since I can't see the exhibition, I ordered the book that accompanied it to do some research. After the almost garishly gold-lettered pink-cloth-bound tome arrived (and the babies were in bed), I devoured it in two hours.
I read it cover to cover, and wanted to go back and start again.
For people studying exhibitions, museum objects might be more or less permanent, exhibitions are not. Exhibitions are transitory; catalogues are all that is left. Most exhibitions contextualise a group of linked objects and tell stories that illuminate these objects’ pasts. (I’ve bought a few of those books.)
Wonderful Things does not do that. The objects chosen by Tim Walker form the start of a new journey. The journey is filled with collaboration and discussion. The reader is given a window through which to view the world of fashion photography. Perhaps that was why they chose stained glass for the first section. The discussion of how depth was created using stained glass and the research into the dog was fascinating.
The reader is transported by Socratic and Platonic-esque discussions. The conversation takes you to different worlds: knitting and the Bayeux Tapestry; Chinese models acting out images from a French box; Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani models working happily together based on a watercolour painting from Mughal India gifted by Dame Ada Macnaghten (p. 66). [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hay_Macnaghten]
And yet, those objects all came from British people. Tim Walker's celebration of all things foreign is no different from the original collectors. Tim Walker's hostility towards England and English people is arguably no different. The dream is to escape from England is the same as the colonialists. The portrayal of the British countryside was a touch bleak (p 87).
Unlike the colonialists, I wonder if Tim and his friends speak other languages or have immersed themselves for an extended time in small towns or villages in Asia or Africa? I wonder about the people picked to represent these ‘other cultures’ as 'perfect' examples. As Tim Walker crystallises the outward image of those permitted to call themselves ‘Chinese’ or ‘Bangladeshi’, I wonder what Tim Walker would think if he spoke Urdu or Hindu, Korean, or Chinese and heard the ethnonationalism. What would Tim Walker think if he knew that most of the world believes in a version of nationalism that makes the English far-right look central?
People in art and fashion have the power to represent who we are today and for generations to come. Tim Walker has so much power that in Wonderful Things he re-writes a childhood story to represent himself. Yet, in re-writing our stories, he puts himself in the same ballpark as the Chinese communist party. With all the ethnic hatred the communist party is stoking in China, you wonder to what extent he would enjoy this comparison. You (don’t) wonder if journalists and historians in China are consulting British people to tell our narratives faithfully? (They are not.)
Looking through windows to other worlds and using objects to spark imagination is one thing—re-writing stories to fit your own narrative is different. Why not create a new narrative?
Britain isn’t an awful place. We are incredibly lucky that the V&A conserved all these wonderful objects from all over the world.
Objects, even the Chinese Communist Party know, must be destroyed to change narratives fundamentally.
If objects cannot lie, after reading this book I leant that photographs based on objects tell the story the photographer wants. Wonderful Things would only work on a coffee table as a tool for polite conversation if people hold the same opinions as Tim Walker and his friends. If you speak other languages and think politics isn't polite conversation over coffee, Wonderful Things won't sit well on your coffee table. Coffee table books are beautiful and bland because most hosts want to avoid an argument; Wonderful Things is anything but bland.
If you are studying exhibitions, this book gives you a lot to think over. Moving outwards from objects does not conserve the memory of objects faithfully or factually. Moving outwards from objects with an artist such as Tim Walker creates new objects. And for people studying museums, it leads to a core question: what is the purpose of an exhibition? This question might be fun (for some people) over coffee. It might not be one for modern drawing rooms but one more suited to the salons of yesteryear where opinions flowed freely, and topics were discussed more deeply. What would Tim Walker and his friends think of that?
[Update] in our class with Tessa Piece who managed the Tim Walker exhibition, she recommended the book for the Horst exhibition. Piece said how she had specifically aimed to keep the cost low (£30) for the Tim Walker book, but if you were looking for academic essays to accompany the photographs, try Horst. I duly purchased it. After it arrived, I spent an hour looking at the photographs; I still haven't read a word of the text. If you're looking for a delightful coffee table book--look no further than Horst.