As you descend the folding spaceship-esque bright white staircase deeper into the Victoria and Albert Museum’s newest, most cavernous, of gallery spaces, it is something akin to a drug or concoction slowly taking effect, pulling you down, away from the order of above, and into an otherness, out of time, out of place. A tumble down the hole.
The first room of this vast exploration of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a Wunderkammer of objects, drawings, text and obscurities. It’s an exciting place to land after the journey down, and you have very much landed. It’s a bumpy landing, and all the better for it – there is no real soft introduction to Alice and how she came to be, so much as a disconnected scattering of cabinets, wall works, books and mechanical objects, all of which in their own way talk to the story of the author, character, and political and social period which they existed in.
This packed room has all the ingredients of Carroll’s inventive worlds in one place. There is a Victorian brass and mahogany globe of the stars and the earth, showing a new scientific exploratory mindset and new ways of trying to map the unknown. A dodo skeleton, in all its tragi-comic form, its extinction a product of man’s destructive tendencies, a symbol of existential threat wrapped up in comical, absurdist form. There are drawings, board games, mementoes from the Great Exhibition, clocks and assorted objects of the time which found their physical or conceptual being wrapped up in the Alice stories. And amongst them, all are the sketches, notepads, scribbles and ideas by the author and his illustrators, intermingling with the experiments, energy, science and art of the day.
After this opening room, the visitor’s own adventure follows a more structured pathway, being taken theme by theme through broader contextual and reimagining of the stories, interspersed with large theatrical set pieces, no doubt with half a mind on a more 21st-century storytelling – Instagram. It’s that wider context of Alice, where it diverges from the story and becomes inextricably folded into each generation’s art, fashion, music, cinema, science and storytelling which feeds the thematic hooks. We see how Alice has been reinterpreted from stage to screen, with clips from silent screen to Tim Burton, cells from the Disney classic to the costumes and set designs for various theatrical interpretations.
High fashion makes an entrance. Photography by Annie Leibovitz and Tim Walker sits displays of work by Vivienne Westwood, Viktor & Rolf, Thom Browne and Stephen Jones’s hats. Japanese fashion playfulness brings it up to date, with Yosuke’s ‘Punk Lolita’ and Kumiki Uehara’s ‘Sweet Lolita’ looks reminding of the internationality of Alice, and how something borne of such o quintessential Victorian Englishness can be so adaptable across culture and place.
The set pieces which intersperse these themed rooms offer a little break from the countless objects and ideas projected hung and vitrined, but they are often underwhelming and are simply passed through as a coda rather than offering any kind of aesthetic moment of curiosity. They may be set up for selfies and sharable moments, or as a distraction for kids who may find some of the cultural artefacts a bit too remote, but they felt a bit like an afterthought to pack out the vast gallery.
But, whether you have read the source material or not, it’s a rabbit hole worth descending into, packed full of objects – possibly even some impossible ones…
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is open 22 May 2021 - 31 December 2021
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Tickets are £20, with concessions
For further information please visit the V&A
Words by Will Jennings