Review of V&A’s Night Fever

Flashes of colour pop against the black walls. John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever transcends across the darkened room, mixing pleasantly with a Boiler Room clip of pulsing beats mixed with classical Indian singing.

The V&A’s acclaimed ‘Night Fever: Designing Club Culture’ exhibition is a far cry from the drab months of lockdown.

The exhibition takes you on a journey through the origins of club culture in the 1960s, to the emergence of deep house music in the 1990s. It also emphasises historical background in demonstrating how club culture and design are interlinked, showcasing a range of interior design, fashion and technology.

Beginning with 1960s disco, the exhibition features Italian club designers’ futuristic looks and space-age decor which is charmingly kooky. Whilst clubs may denote a sense of exclusion, this segment conveyed the international seeds of club culture.

The 1970s is introduced with a bang, and whispering, unplaceable, sounds. An iconic Studio 54 photo is emblazoned across one wall, where Grace Jones and other famous figures are frozen in time alongside intriguing and unknown strangers, perfectly encapsulating the element of mysteria.

Crazy 70s clothes galore are also studded throughout, including a denim jacket customised especially for BLITZ club in hundreds (or thousands…) of brass hair pins.

Huge glowing photos of various clubs lead the way to the 1980s – their vibrancy breathes new life into the iconic photos of The Palladium and Area New York. Paradise Garage and Larry Levan’s timeless influence is also brought alive, through featured memorabilia.

The 1980s aspect might be my favourite era in club culture, with the emergence of rave culture and house music.

It’s impossible not to feel the era’s zeitgeist as you wander around, and its contextual sensations of hope for the Iron Curtain’s demolition and increased freedom to express sexuality.

The role of British clubs in shaping rave culture is also included. The coming of the New Romantics, in the early 1980s, saw the emergence of clubs such as The Kinky Gerlinky as places for members of the LGBTQ+ community to express themselves. The Haçienda’s story is featured, from its founding in a shipping warehouse, to its role in the evolution of acid house, and its tragic demolition two years after it was forced to close due to gang warfare. The iconic smiley symbol, and the memories, are however rendered immortal.

The next room focuses on the globality of club culture, from Belgium to Beirut. Tiny replicas of famous clubs around the world including Berghain (or the outside of it at least) are featured.

Beijing-based artist Chen Wei’s installation, of clubbers entranced by the music, is a staged interpretation of the club. Their absorption on the dancefloor reflects his desire to capture the condition of oblivion. It also effectively represents the performative element of club culture – where they were places to see, but also be seen at – and, for me, bore similarities to the huge photo of Grace Jones and friends. Visually striking and unsettling, there is a sense of being drawn in.

But the true gem is the Can You Feel It installation by designers Grcic and Singer. Essentially a mini-club, shiny mirrored walls reflect the dazzling light display, as part of an interactive homage to the evolution of club music through the decades.

Maybe it was the way in which the installation reminded me of an upmarket lockdown utopia – or that Logic by the Final Frontier was playing in the 1980s section – but it was a beautiful and therapeutic experience.

It served as a reminder that, despite the magnificence of the internet and the sense of connection it offers, being able to experience life as it really is – through interaction and the senses – is unparalleled. As great as an online experience would be, like the nature of clubbing itself, you need to be immersed for the full experience.

Whilst the historic nature of the exhibition suggests a focus on the past, it works as a respite for the tumultuous present. The intimate insights into happy crowds of people throughout the ages, listening to music and dancing, projects a hopeful future of people living life as it should be lived.

The Nightfever: Designing Club Culture exhibitionis available until the 9th January 2022 at the V&A Dundee.

Tickets are available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/exhibitions/night-fever-designing-club-culture/book

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