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

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