From Theatres, to Exhibitions, to Restaurants: Expanding and Deploying Scenography

Our most recent session was organised by Jihane Dyer (Royal Holloway), a 2nd year PhD student, and featured presentations from Dr. Rachel Hann (University of Surrey) and Prof. Judith Clark (London College of Fashion). The session explored the term ‘scenography’, how it can pull apart and expand, and what benefits this creates when thinking about exhibitions, experiential spaces and events.

Firstly, Jihane reminds us that scenography is a technical term denoting the art of perspective representation and is associated most closely with set design in the theatre. In this sense, scenography is about communicating a pre-determined idea to a spectating audience. We were encouraged to think about how this idea can be taken away from the theatre and thought of horizontally as an assemblage of facets and agents that come together when exhibiting things and places.

Judith Clark’s presentation was entitled ‘retrieving exhibitions’. Judith trained as an architect before becoming a curator and exhibition maker. She reflects that while fashion exhibitions are well documented in catalogues, these catalogues usually only include representations of the garments shown. They rarely include, until relatively recently, a sense of how they were exhibited or ideas about the physical curation of the exhibition. The questions that Judith asks us are: what happens behind the scenes of an exhibition? And, what about the spaces between the objects? 

We are introduced to Judith’s exhibition Fashion and Heritage – Conversations at the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria, Spain (2018). Judith used a double narrative in the curation to both explain the evolution of Balenciaga’s designs and its historiography– through scenography and the use of visual ‘captions’. These captions would often reference (or retrieve) previous exhibits of Balenciaga. One example is  a miniature installation replicating a photograph from a previous exhibiton:  Balenciaga Ouvre au Noir, at Musee Bourdelle, 2019, which sits next to a dress displayed on a mannequin.  Judith notes that this image always came to her mind in relation to this dress and seemed relevant to this exhibition. It also pushes forward the theme of sculpture, and the evolution of sculptural elements in Balenciaga’s clothing.   

A collage exploring the themes and facets of Judith’s (2018) Fashion and Heritage – Conversation exhibition. Taken from http://judithclarkcostume.com/exhibitions/cristobal-balenciaga-fashion-and-heritage-conversations/.

The point here is that past exhibitions can offer information that is pertinent to the objects on display in a current exhibition. The space around the object is important, in terms of both immediate physical space and the intellectual space in which they are thought about. Time; place (both the place of creation and places of exhibition); the garment; the garment’s production, are all equally relevant in costume history. 

Rachel Hann’s presentation offered an insight into the work presented in her recently released book ‘Beyond Scenography’ (Routledge: 2019). Rachel’s first point of departure is that scenography is not necessarily an individual phenomenon but can be thought of as a process rife with multiplicity and plurality. In this sense, Rachel notes that thinking of scenography in this way allows us to move beyond the notion that scenography is exclusively a visual phenomenon, but instead a multisensory process comprised of both human and more-than-human elements that come together in assemblage to create what Rachel calls ‘feelings of place’ or ‘of world’.

Rachel Hann’s (2019) Beyond Scenography.

For Rachel then, scenography is about investigating the processes and assemblages of the tangible and intangible, and of matter and mind, that are involved in the making of world. She reminds us that we are not simply looking at the world, but instead are intrinsically bound up, or with the world. To illustrate this, she details a first-person experience of a Vietnamese restaurant in Guildford that is designed to mimic a Bangkok street market. Here, one experiences a multi-sensory dynamic of smells, tastes, and aesthetics that work together to elicit a feeling of place through artistic, and indeed culinary, means.

Thaikun restaurant, Guildford (Photo on behalf of Rachel Hann).

Both presentations here were clearly rather different, one exploring museum space and the other the notions of place and world. What we see in both cases though, is how the idea of scenography can be expanded and deployed in various ways, aiding our understanding of both of these topics in some useful and insightful ways.

We would like to thank both Rachel and Judith for their thought-provoking presentations, to Jihane Dyer for organising and convening the session, and to all the landscape surgery participants that offered some interesting questions and discussion points.

Written by Rhys Gazeres. Edited by Rachel Tyler.


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