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Hair by Sam McKnight at Somerset House


Follow lipstick red arrows pasted on the floor of Somerset House round winding steps down the rabbit hole, and you will emerge in the world of Sam McKnight’s ‘Hair’. The exhibition’s first piece is a styled wig, disembodied and backlit, hanging in a glass case. The piece has no accompanying caption or explanation; the hair is expected to speak for itself. Set high upon the wall, there is an air of hushed reverence around this hallowed hair, setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition.

These standalone hairpieces repeat throughout ‘Hair’, and I found it difficult to know exactly what to do with them; there is only so long that you can peruse a wig and try to decipher its significance. Repeatedly, the way that we view art is challenged by this hybrid of history, documentary and aesthetics.  You might expect the hair in question to be used in art; the exhibition’s marketing displayed pop-art style images of Tilda Swinton with different hairstyles, each metamorphosing her striking blank face. Instead the exhibition houses memorabilia tracking the rise of the importance of hair in the fashion industry, and even more importantly than that, the rise of the man behind it all: Sam McKnight. It is a bit like visiting the museum of a great figure in history, with carefully preserved objects that they once touched, and testimonies from big names about their life. The tools of McKnight’s trade are displayed in glass cabinets, newspaper clippings following his career are pasted to the walls, and a huge monochrome portrait of him flourishing a hairdryer smiles genially down at adoring fans. By the end of the exhibition, where clips of a documentary about McKnight show him speaking between shots of him staring wistfully at the camera in a bed of flowers, it all starts to feel a bit self-aggrandizing. When I visited the exhibition, McKnight was there for a question-answer session; underwhelming in comparison to his screen self, he cooed that he could not possibly pick a favourite model for fear of ‘getting in trouble.’

It is an interesting insight into the obsessive world of the fashion industry. The exhibition repeatedly tells you of McKnight’s work with the big names and faces of the fashion world: Kate Moss, Vivienne Westwood, Naomi Campbell.  Countless polaroids display him gleefully posing alongside models, designers and royalty, while placards praise his intimate personal connections with them. Again and again, McKnight’s contact with celebrities is stressed, as though our estimation of him should elevate by proxy. One room of the exhibition houses larger than life images of models that he has styled, and the power of the shots succeeds in drawing us into the fixation and obsession characterizing the world of fashion. A video follows, with a wall of shifting optical patterns opposite a slow-motion clip of a model waving her hair in front of a wind machine. What sounds simple becomes mesmerizing with Byörk’s seductive voice as backdrop. I found myself bewitched, transfixed into following the movement of each strand of hair.

The show cleverly explores how the fashion industry blurs multi-billion dollar industry with art. Vogue covers from only a few years ago become artistic artefact, 190 of them lined up across two walls to show how extensive is McKnight’s influence. The effect is pure pop-art. Mixed-media makes the exhibition a variable feast to walk through, hinting at the power of technology that is presented as a change maker in the industry, as social media transforms images into snapshots that, in McKnight’s fearful words, ‘can be tapped, ‘liked’ and discarded in seconds. An exhibition that strays close to being a shrine to hairdresser and hairdressing emerges as a bid to document and preserve the ‘golden age’ of the industry.

By Charanpreet Khaira

Hair by Sam McKnight
Somerset House
2 November 2016 – 12 March 2017

Björk Digital at Somerset House

Photo by REWIND VR

Over her three-decade long career, Icelandic artist Björk has always blurred limits; genre limits between experimental and pop music, verbal limits between language and scat singing, formal limits between music and visual art.

‘Björk Digital’ is an embodiment of this blurring, for the exhibition is an unclassifiable show that is in equal parts tech demo, cutting-edge visual album and performance art. The exhibition is built on tracks from her latest record Vulnicura (One Little Indian, 2015), a self-professed ‘complete heartbreak album’ after the artist’s separation from her long-time partner. The first five of the six rooms that comprise the exhibition are different types of virtual reality presentations, each set to one of the tracks from Vulnicura.

First there is ‘Black Lake’, set in a dark room with projections on opposite walls and surround sound. Björk stumbles around a volcanic landscape as blue lava bleeds from the rocks around her. Her powerful interpretive dancing has her beating her chest until she dies and is reborn in lush green hills. The changing quality of sound is fascinating, and has viewers walking around the space trying to hear every note of the haunting track.

In the next three rooms viewers sit on stools with virtual reality headsets on, moving from the gorgeously sad beach of ‘Stonemilker’ to the nightmarish ‘Mouth Mantra’, filmed from the inside of Björk’s mouth as she sings the most terrifying track from Vulnicura. While the ideas are perfect, unfortunately they are ahead of the technology; the images are low-resolution and the immersion is broken by visible pixels.

This is not a problem in the penultimate room, that is also the most  technically demanding. ‘Notget VR’, instead of using wireless headsets with smartphones in them, wired headsets hang from the ceiling, and viewers are invited to walk around the space. An initially life-size glowing outline of the artist grows and grows, endlessly pacing forwards as she spits out her words to angry strings. Not cowering away from her goddess-like apparition is difficult; the immersion is total.

While Vulnicura is a narrative album, the songs are here presented out of order. This has a jarring effect; while ‘Stonemilker’ is a heartbreaking attempt at keeping a failing relationship together, it comes after ‘Black Lake’, a song from the pits of post-breakup hell that has a clear turning point towards positivity in its closing minutes. The presentations must be thus interpreted as separate pieces, which means that some of the album’s momentum is lost.

Another problematic element is the placement of the rooms themselves. Paradoxically, what is supposed to be the most immersive form currently available consistently breaks the immersion that the artist works so hard to achieve. Aside from the unavoidable awkwardness of having to place heavy equipment on your head, and having to endure an explanation on how to adjust the focus and volume for each piece, the rooms are also separated by corridors and are on different floors, which causes drastic changes in lighting levels. This layout seems to be a result of the exhibition being spread out over Somerset House’s New Wing, and it would certainly benefit from a smaller, more contained space.

After the virtual reality rooms, visitors are led to the ‘Cinema Room’, in which over twenty of Björk’s music videos play on a large screen, with crystal-clear sound quality. While the videos are consistently thought-provoking and well presented, they highlight again the technical limitations in some of the virtual reality rooms.

What this room does reveal is that virtual reality seems to be the technology that Björk has been waiting for. Her videos have always placed emphasis on movement and immersion. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993) directed by Stephane Sednaoui, for example, has Björk performing on the bed of a truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. It is difficult to think of a scene more suited to being filmed in virtual reality.

While Björk is the focal point of each piece (no other person features in any of the virtual reality videos, and very few others in the cinema room screenings) it is important to remember that ‘Björk Digital’ is a quintessentially collaborative project. From the directors of the videos, to the talented session musicians and multiple producers of Vulnicura, to the virtual reality boffins who make Björk’s wonderfully bonkers ideas possible, these are people working on art that is not technically perfect, but original and necessary.

‘I wish to synchronise our feelings’ sings Björk on ‘Stonemilker’. This goal becomes easy when the artist is standing in front of you, life-size, staring into your eyes, bearing out her soul just inches from your face. Briefly, you can forget the heavy contraption strapped to your head, and that the image has visible pixels. ‘Björk Digital’ uses virtual reality well, and does more than enough to be moving and establish a true connection between artist and viewer, despite its technical limitations. It is yet another success led by an artist who is always looking forward.

By Ludo Cinelli

Photo by Nick Knight
Photo by Nick Knight

Björk Digital
Somerset House
1 September – 23 October

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