Reacting to Contemporary Art: Tim Walker’s Story Teller at Somerset House

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I’ve found myself at various galleries in the last month during some of the downtown I was having from theatre. Influenced by my sister who studied art at university and through to an MA, the contemporary art world has always found a place in my heart. Several years ago I had my first experience at the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall before it moved to their new premises on Kings Road. There beneath the mahogany panelling and wooden floorboards I saw a whole collection of art that I would later find out was once part of Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition that launched the Young British Artists that have become household names today. I was transfixed with Emin, Lucus, the Chapman brothers, Saville, and Harvey (to name but a few), each one resonating with my teenage self, each one sparking some kind of fire inside me.

Since then I’ve been attracted to contemporary art, finding a home for myself in the Tate Modern and being a repeat attender at the Saatchi Gallery. I’m by no means an expert, but I do have a certain love of it. I’ve always been amused however at the reaction that the contemporary art world is faced with from society – often the remark of ‘I can do better than that’ is so often met with my remark of ‘well, why haven’t you?’. Nonetheless, where contemporary art divides spectators, I find myself increasingly drawn to it.

I base my reaction to art on two factors:

1. Talent – If an artist has talent it should be immediate. From fine brush strokes to conceptionally delivered with punch, an artist’s talent is what should make their work shine.

2. Reaction – The crucial response to art for me is how I react to it. By reaction I refer to the moment I see and experience it, and what it does inside me. If I gasp, get angry, cry or just feel something, then the artwork has done it’s job.

Beyond this, I do my best to stay clear of perceived judgements upon artwork and artists. Just like my method for approaching theatre, I rarely read up on artists, and if I follow certain galleries or artists it is because I’ve experienced them once and seen their talent or felt a reaction. Beyond names and gallery spaces, I approach like a blank canvas waiting for an artist to make an impression.

After some rather laborious exhibitions: the Barbican Centre with Random Internationals Rain Room (yes, clever to stop rain, but not worth the 2 hour wait); the yawn-inducing White Chapel Gallery with Mel Bochner’s If The Colour Changes and the amusing, if slightly small exhibition of Sandretto Re Rebaudengo: Maurizio Cattelan (love the squirrel!), I was beginning to lose hope. Then by miraculously force I found the reaction I was looking for in Somerset House’s latest exhibition Tim Walker: Story Teller.

There is so much to praise about Walker’s exhibition of photography and large scale figures that it’s hard to know where to begin. Having seen the marketing posters on the tube, and being prompted by a jubilant tweet from Gary Hills I coaxed a friend into attending, and my word was I glad I did. Walker who has risen through the fashion ranks is now a regular photographer for the likes of Vogue and is British born. He uses the far extremes of the imagination and creativity to push his work into the beginnings of grotesque and quirky nightmares, without actually stepping into the screamish qualities of horror. Larger-than-life, distorted realities and Alice In Wonderland-inspired themes seem to resonate from every photo he takes. Walker isn’t afraid to show some creativity and to think big, no wonder he appears so frequently in Vogue with the eye for glamour and extremities depicted in Story Teller.

My reaction to Walker’s photography was a mixture of awe and laugh-out-loud moments. His setups and framing devices sees the strangest of creatures and ideas realised for the perfect image to be captured. There’s plenty of insects of giant proportions, or dolls and skeletons that tower over models or play suggestively with them. Walker creates a sense of fantasy and play, giving life to fashion by creating an aesthetic that is completely bizarre and mesmerising in equal proportions. If truth be told his work is distinctly theatrical, gay and flamboyant, and I love it even more so because it is done with such style. I strongly urge any theatre creatives to take a look, you can’t fail but to be inspired by some of the set ups imagined by Walker and his team, and wonderfully realised too.

It’s not just the art itself that impresses, but praise should be duly noted to the staff and curators at Somerset House for bringing Walker’s exhibition to life. With such a bold and impressive series of photos the curators have done well to stay away from just conventional wall mounting, instead offering crates stuffed with hay and props from within the photos to exhibit the work. There’s all kinds of ghoulish creatures hanging from the walls and quotes are printed on the corners of walls or spiralling from ceilings so that you twist and turn to read them.

As an exhibition Story Teller is spellbinding. It depicts the workings of Walker’s mind and creativity with a cheeky smile and playful touch that draws the spectator completely into a magical world. So rarely do I find myself not only struck by the work, but laughing and bathing in its playfulness as I did during the hour I spent wandering through Somerset House. The talent that Walker has is clearly evident, and my reaction was even more evident – I’m still smiling now.

Disappointed I was at some of the current offerings of contemporary art in London, I most certainly wasn’t expecting to find a hit from fashion photography. Not that there is anything wrong with this mind, but how close it borders between art, marketing, fashion and advertising does make me wonder if it’s contemporary art at all. Regardless, it’s on until January at Somerset House, and I can’t urge you enough to see it.