My trip to other Wonderlands

Friday Forum: Creating Wonderlands, V&A

Are you a fan of the Adventures of Alice in Wonderland? Have you ever seen a film, read a book or even seen a play about Alice? If so, the V&A´s latest exhibition is a perfect day trip for you, taking you away from reality and totally immersing you in all things nonsense and fantastical. 

On Saturday, May the 22nd the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is opening its doors to the public for the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser Exhibition. In celebration of this diverse and fully interactive show the curators organised a series of talks given by the exhibition contributors on the 30th of April entitled Creating Wonderlands as part of their weekly educational program of online Friday Forums. 

Since Macmillan´s first publications of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking glass (1871) the book has taken the world by storm, sparking the imagination of its readers and those of the creative industries. Obviously, Sir John Tenniel was just as responsible for this as Lewis Carroll, essentially creating both a visual world as did Lewis with his words. Later came many more famous and not so famous illustrators, artists, film makers, translators  and so on who have aided in the immortalisation of this beautiful and timeless children’s classic. 

Alice, her friends in Wonderland and the magical land they venture together in has been a fountain of creative inspiration for decades. 

The Friday Forum was the perfect introduction to this rich legacy and also posed this curious question; What will our future wonderlands be like?

For a mere 35 pounds, I had exclusive access to behind the scenes of the upcoming exhibition. I could harass the illustrious speakers during the talks with my millions of questions and also I could introduce myself along with a selfie in the Coffee Room (a chat room for other visitors). Saying that I was the only one who posted a selfie! Not sure if that was cool or not. Also, I wasn’t obliged to watch the talks in real time, I could watch the recordings at my own leisure, which by the afternoon I had to, as my hubby was growing restless and it was time to go out and live in reality.

The first round of talks were given by the Senior Curator of the exhibition Kate Bailey, who I thought had a really pleasant manner and made me feel right at home. I was amazed at how  much dedication and work she had put in and it must have been a real labour of love as work on this show started back in 2018. 

One of my favourite speakers and one of the most important in fact, seeing as I´m not sure when I´ll be in the UK to see the exhibition, was Theatre designer and installation designer for the exhibition Tom Piper. Tom, with great enthusiasm, showed us the original floor plans/installation design for the show and explained in detail how he tried to stay true to the story as much as possible but also took in account of the book and the authors origins and incorporated that into the walkthrough installations such as turning a victorian pier into a Caterpillar or recreating a version of the Oxford Library as well taking more of a modern or minimalist approach on creating the corridor that gets increasingly small featured in the chapter Down the Rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland. I felt I got a really good sense of what’s to come and in some ways had my own personal walk through the exhibition which satisfied my curiosity to no end. 

I got very hungry during Head Chef Tom Allen´s introduction to The Mad Hatters Tea Party at The Fat Duck: cooked up by Heston Blumthel. I was especially amazed by the Mad Hatter´s dissolvable gold pocket watch made from beef stock which you would dip into a crystal clear consomé inside a glass teapot. Do you know it takes countless hours to make just one goldwatch? I´m already planning my 50th Birthday at their restaurant!

We were taken to the digital age with talks from Emma Hamilton who along with her team created a visual reality theatre experience Alice. Sadly, this project has been shelved until they can find means to make it widely and publicly available to us mere mortals. 

Theatre designer Rae Smith talked about her collaboration with Damon Albarn, most famously known for Blur and his avatar band the Gorillas, on recreating a Wonderland that was more about the gaming world for young adults. Using Damon’s daughter as inspiration the play  took you to the world of Ali, a young girl living in a grey concrete world and how her avatar Alice and her friends from her virtual world  begin to spill into her reality. Rae´s talk ended with the profound message that despite the blow taken to theatre due to COVID and in my opinion arts funding cuts that came before, Theatre and the Arts were here to stay. Yes, we have launched into an online world much faster due to the pandemic, but in reality we miss human contact and real life experiences. 

In my opinion V&A´s Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is just the medicine and after taking such a bitter pill and postponing it for almost two years, you now can have a real life Alice experience. Some of the many curiosities include an exclusive collection of original illustrations lent by the Disney Library. I was gutted to hear that only Disney employers have access to the library, hence why this is such a privileged and unique opportunity to see them at the expo. I learnt about the evolution of the animated movie Alice starting early in the 1920s and how each illustrator successfully or unsuccessfully captured the story.

Lost in translation was a hot topic and I was glued to the screen when Dr Ida Hadjivayanis appeared. She was for me a breath of fresh air in her manner and was really chatty and exuded warmth through the camera. She took us through her unique experience of translating the second edition of Alice’s Adventures in Swahili and answered my poignant question about losing some meaning in translation. She along with countless translators of the 174 languages that the book has been translated into, has had to think very creatively around this issue and also adapt the book to their cultures at the same time staying true to the story. Not speaking Swahili myself, I found the illustrations from her edition to be a good example of this, seeing as Alice is a Swahili child, the characters are dressed in Swahili traditional attire and the animals have been replaced where appropriate to be animals native to the country. It was true what she said! We don’t really know about the translators and now I realise what an important and prestigious role they play in giving us the chance to read the book in our own tongue. Thank you Ida! 

The Friday Frockers would have had a ball with the trip into fashionland with Dr Kiera Vaclavik from Queen Mary University of London and author of Fashioning Alice which is available from the online shop at the V&A. Here as Simon alluded to before where we take Alice out of Wonderland and she becomes the soul focus. Essentially there is nothing really extraordinary about her look, in fact she was first depicted in traditional victorian dress of her time, like every other little girl. What made her fashionable was the way in which her look or those of the other iconic characters were appropriated, reconstructed or deconstructed. It was the playfulness of her look, an almost Peter Pan quality(where we never grow up) and the quintessential englishness that inspired designers and photographers.

When Illustrator Chris Riddell was faced with the overwhelming challenge of illustrating Alice, he decided to  imagine he was the very first person to illustrate her, that way he wouldn’t feel that all the ghosts of famous illustrators before him would be breathing down his neck and as a result he was unburdened and essentially free to illustrate the story as he saw fit. 

Finally, after the talk by Simon Ings, English Novelist and science writer, I began reflecting on how I´ve translated, adapted, illustrated and interpreted Alice, her friends, foes and wonderland. It´s true as he put it that we have adapted the story to meet our own ends and in doing so we lose the heart of the original story. This is not to say it’s bad just that Alice can be used as a springboard to launch our own Wonderlands or use as a familiar frame to wrap our ideas around but it will never be the original story nor a true depiction of Alice. Only Lewis Carroll has ownership of that! However, her legacy lives on and we are free to either reinvent our Alices and Wonderlands at will or be total puritans and simply read the originals thus imagining ourselves as Alice on her grand adventures down rabbit holes and through looking glasses just as the Maths Professor intended.

Special thanks to the V&A and speakers for giving me such a wonderful experience.

Copyright. © 2021 Lucy Jane Lilley

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