Ellen von Unwerth: This Side of Paradise, on view through January 7, 2024, is an exercise in excess. Glamour, hedonism, and fantasy radiate from more than 50 photographs and video works at SCAD FASH’s immersive exhibition space. Ellen von Unwerth, a German model-turned-fashion-photographer, seems to confront the audience with a question: How much can you take?
Opulent and maximalist, the photographs feature big-name celebrities, super models, drag icons, and porn stars. They often appear mid-party, glitzed-out and exuberant, at the height of the night’s festivities. Special care is given to texture: velvet, mesh, lace, the slick sheen of lip gloss, and champagne bubbles all vie for attention. In Banana Shake, 2018, performer Allanah Starr sucks on a gold sequined banana in front of a red velvet curtain, gold and diamonds glittering around her neck. In Glamourised, 2018, Ariela De Oliveira wears shimmering eyeshadow and lipstick in a slightly blurred photograph, as a red feather boa flies up around her face. The effect is sexy, even sensual, while not necessarily intimate.
Consumption is a common element in von Unwerth’s work. Mouths are almost always open – sipping champagne, eating oysters, laughing, or pouting. Beyonce pulls a thin gold chain between her teeth; Eva Green takes a bite of sushi. Conjunctively, viewing the photographs feels like a kind of consumption, too, so saturated are the images with opulence and sensuality. Von Unwerth is also playing with a highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy. There’s Beyonce again, as glamorous as she ever was, in a run-down hotel. RuPaul, dressed in a full-length gown with Brigitte Bardot hair, poses beside a urinal in one of the exhibition’s black-and-white photographs. The casual settings serve to highlight the subjects’ radiance.
The exhibition’s curator, Rafael Gomes, takes a cue from von Unwerth’s maximalist approach in his presentation. Pink streamers, mauve carpeting, and floor-to-ceiling purple sparkly wallpaper envelope the exhibition space. Combined with interspersed pink lighting and the cacophony of sound coming from von Unwerth’s video works – which are installed in vibrant viewing rooms – the effect is almost hallucinatory. Luckily the décor, rather than distracting from von Unwerth’s work, amplifies it.
In von Unwerth’s world, more is more, and the party doesn’t end. There’s only the pre-party, the party, the after-party, and the after-after party. Light bounces off a freshly poured wine glass; a naked Lady Gaga, curled on a leather couch, smears her lipstick against her hand. There are no hangovers here, no grittiness. For better or worse, I drank it up.