The Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ exhibit takes you tumbling down a rabbit hole into the wonderful world of Alice in Wonderland. As you descend the stairs, adorned with colourful quotes and a card display suspended in the air, you enter a dark room filled with all sorts of eccentric oddities and mad contraptions. After all, the atmosphere of Kate Bailey’s curated exhibit is one that perfectly captures Lewis Carroll’s most iconic sentiment - “We are all Mad here”.
The exhibition marries both elements of Lewis Carroll’s life and biography, alongside the expansive and imaginative world he’s created. From the very start, Lewis Carroll is emphasized as a penname and the rest of the exhibit is dedicated to demystifying and decoding the cryptic author behind the wonderland. One of the most fascinating details include his neurological disorder of dysmetropsia, later renamed the ‘Alice in Wonderland syndrome’ (AIWS), in ode to him. This condition distorts one’s perception of objects to seem larger/smaller or closer/further away. With this interesting piece of context in mind, it is easy to see the parallels to Alice’s growth and shrinking within Carrol’s story.
The best element of the exhibit is just how immersive and interactive the artworks are. From dazzling light shows to mirrored funhouses, archival films on display, to even an exciting VR experience, there is so much on offer to bring the wonderland alive and make you feel at one with the art on display. Truly a bursting spectacle of mediums and brushwork that delivers a feast for the eyes around every corner and bend.
The showstopper piece and most memorable star of the show must be awarded to none other than the Mad hatter’s tea party. This included an arrangement of precariously stacked chairs, alongside a tablecloth dangled from the ceiling to the ground, which was projected with vibrant, changing colours. This impressive and breathtaking setup is accompanied by sounds and voices from the characters to create a 4-dimensional experience of surround sound. You truly do feel like you have been transported into the world of Wonderland. There’s something special about reveling in the whole essence of nonsensicality, that really brings out and appeals to one’s inner child. Whether it’s engaged in looking through pinholes, climbing into a small house, spotting the white rabbit, or turning and winding up knobs to make a drawing move, the exhibit celebrates escapism through “playtime” and fun. This aspect is so refreshing, especially in a time like ours, where the constraints of adulthood and global affairs so often strip us of creativity and colour, in favour of a much duller and depressing reality.Politically, the moral messages of Alice in Wonderland have always been one about dissent and upheaval over the tyrannous Queen of hearts and her system of political pawns (the stacked cards).
An exhibition like this in today’s day and age reminds us of these important themes of identity, imagination, curiosity, freedom and most strikingly the challenging of corrupt systems of authority. If all that wasn’t enough, the exhibit also explores how the cultural icon of Alice in Wonderland has been adapted and interpreted over the years since its creation. The exhibit showcases the many reimagined variations of Alices across time and space, with differences in costumes, ethnicity and even in some cases story-lines. In addition to adaptations, the exhibit also highlights the work of remarkable figures who were inspired by Carroll’s world. One such was the renowned surrealist Salvador Dali. Dali’s work most famously featured melted clocks, and this correlates perfectly with the frequent references of time from the integral character, the white rabbit.And of course, one of the most famous and obvious examples of a modern artist transfixed by Caroll’s ideas was the legend himself - Walt Disney. Adapting Alice in Wonderland was always a key fascination for the filmmaker, animator and director. In fact, some of his earliest work included filming a live action Alice in Wonderland in 1923 but it was later cancelled.
Another interesting adaptation to see was how the iconic characters of wonderland have also influenced the world of fashion. Carroll’s characters have inspired several pieces on the Vogue runway. I was particularly enamored by the ‘Infinity Dress’, by Iris Van Herpen, which was a moving feathered outfit inspired by the themes of space and time in the Alice in Wonderland story. My friends and I were equally inspired and even decided to “Disney-bound” cosplay as some of the iconic characters from the story (Cheshire cat, Alice, Mad Hatter, the Queen of hearts, Cards, the White Queen etc) which I highly recommend!My only criticism for the exhibit was that it felt a little too short and ended rather abruptly. I had so much fun exploring it and I wish it could have gone on for a whole lot longer. Regardless the whole thing felt like a dream that by the time it finished it felt like I, just as Alice did at the end of the story, simply woke up.
The exhibit is only on till the end of December, and I would urge you to get your tickets while you still can!
Image 1, 2 & 3 : courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London