Judith Clark has forged a fascinating career as a curator and fashion exhibition-maker. Currently Professor of Fashion and Museology at University of the Arts London, Judith also opened the first experimental gallery of fashion in London, has curated multiple major exhibitions on dress and much more.
In this 'Life after the Warburg' interview, we caught up with Judith to learn more about her career, why she chose the Warburg as a place to study and her plans for the future.
As Professor of Fashion and Museology at UAL could you tell us a little bit about the course unit you teach there?
I teach on the MA Fashion Curation - the only specialist Masters of its kind in the UK - within the ‘The Past and Future of Fashion Curation’’ Unit which is run at the beginning of the course, and leads up to the design of a hypothetical exhibition of dress. The unit aims to give an account of how to translate research [dress history] into exhibition-making practices. It aims to look not only at mannequins and captions, for example, but complicate it with the customisation of all aspects of the space. The Unit is often the students’ first ‘go’ at designing an exhibition.
You have curated a number of exhibitions during your career. Please could you tell us about some of your favourite exhibitions that you have worked on?
There are many favourites, for very different reasons: my first was a hypothetical exhibition of crinolines which I built to scale (1:50 I think) out of balsa wood on my kitchen table. It was captured by the filmmaker James Norton as though ‘real’ and we presented the film at the Architecture Foundation. I associate favourite exhibitions with projects where I feel a shift in my practice occurred: working at ModeMuseum in Antwerp was the first time I worked within a museum space; working with the arts organisation Artangel was freeing as their assumption is always that the project will be experimental, for example. Other exhibitions are favourites because of the people involved and the fun we had, I work with a really wonderful group of craftspeople.
Could you tell us about any particular challenges you have faced when curating exhibitions?
I love practical challenges. I put together a collection of handbags (1500 to the present) and designed the museum interior for a building in South Korea that was not yet finished. That was a challenge, but I have fond memories of it. I find that the most challenging aspect of my work is around the perception of what it is I actually do - how I combine the exhibition-making that I most value and the inevitable marketing involved in exhibiting brands.
A few years ago, you took a career break to study on one our MA courses at the Warburg Institute. What led you to taking this break and what drew you to the Warburg as a place to study?
I had been interested in Aby Warburg for many years before I enrolled on the MA in Cultural and Intellectual History 1300-1650 (which has since evolved into the Warburg's MA in Cultural, Intellectual and Visual History)and had used the library so the decision did not come out of the blue. Within fashion history it is the way fashion performs (and necessarily disowns) its references and historic quotations that was the aspect that most interested me. I was also at that time developing ideas around exhibition props/artefacts as attributes. Curating dress is anthropocentric and so it makes you think about staging identifiers. I wanted to find ways to talk and write about that project, and where better?
Do you have any particular favourite memories during your time studying at the Warburg?
I think my favourite memory was being given Emblems to translate by Guido on what must have been one of my first days at the Institute. It was certainly beginner’s Latin as we were translating the short text using the associated imagery as the enigmatic guide. I have always thought that exhibition text should be like that - not directly explanatory of the ‘scene’, but complimentary.
How did your experience at the Institute fit into your career?
My time at the Institute was utterly essential and it continues to inspire new work. I am using early depictions of the ‘Memory Arts’ to inform the design exhibition structures at this moment and I will be back in the Warburg Archive to do so.
It also allowed me the time to close read objects - an Elizabethan embroidered silk petticoat panel from the V&A’s collection, for example - and to look at the symbolism within Early Modern dress as a way of looking at contemporary dress.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
The best advice was from the late Italian stylist and journalist Anna Piaggi. She told me to squat, or ‘lo squatting’ as she called it, in whatever space I was given however small. She used one, two or three double pages of Italian Vogue every month, and powerfully set the pages against the magazine’s template. She taught me to use the available [3D] space, and to push against the institutional walls where possible.
What inspires you?
It is different every day.
Do you have any future plans you can tell us about?
I will open a gallery this year on Golborne Road in West London not far from the one I ran in the late 1990s so it is a return of sorts to the kind of space that I have always loved working within. I will build and document a series of hypothetical exhibitions to scale (1:12).
Judith Clark is an Australian/Italian curator and fashion exhibition-maker, currently Professor of Fashion and Museology at University of the Arts London, where she lectures on the MA Fashion Curation and is co-Director of the Centre for Fashion Curation. She lectures internationally on issues of dress display.
Clark opened the first experimental gallery of fashion in London (1997-2002). Since then Clark has curated major exhibitions of dress at the V&A, London;ModeMuseum, Antwerp; Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; Palazzo Fortuny, Venice; Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Simone Handbag Museum, Seoul, amongst others, and in 2012 created a permanent display of Frida Kahlo’s dresses at her home in Mexico City.