A concrete form floating in an abyss, as if suspended by dark magic. A curated collection of records sounding rhythmically from a 200-track jukebox, artfully disguised as an audio speakeasy. A brilliant burst of colour in a balloon-blanketed room, like the most joyous, elaborate birthday party. A red trunk encased in an oversized glass bottle, both a confusion and a fascination, mystery and illusion combined.
From the poignant and profound, to the weirdly wonderful and eccentric, these are just a few of the concepts showcased at the Louis Vuitton ‘200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries” exhibition. Having toured from Asnières at the Louis Vuitton Family House to Los Angeles, then Singapore, in late October it finally arrived at its fourth and final destination, the former Barneys store on Madison Avenue, New York City.
Something of a trend this year (take ‘Tiffany & Co’s Vision and Virtuosity’ and ‘See LV’ as other examples), the travelling exhibition is a triumph of out-of-the-box creativity and artistry, as the House challenged 200 artists to reimagine their signature trunk as part of their 200th anniversary celebrations. Not one to shy away from pushing the boundaries, it is one of Louis Vuitton’s most ambitious projects, collaborating with lesser-known up-and-coming artists to leading brands like Marc Jacobs and Pat McGrath, to family favourites like the Simpsons and Dynamo.
We visited the exhibition at its final stop of the tour in NYC, summarising below our main insights, what we felt resonated the most and how the experience could’ve been enriched.
Insight 1 – Discovery by dreaming
Featuring three floors of immersive rooms, the exploratory nature of the space loaned itself to self-guided discovery. The lower level’s ‘Warehouse’ showcased dozens of trunk designs, all stacked together, juxtaposing one artist’s interpretation of the trunk with another’s. Free to wander and observe independently, during each rotation around the room you would discover something which hadn’t been seen previously – a dawn of new ideas forming each time.
Most interesting, was the lack of context surrounding each concept, a place card with the artist’s name being all there was. Even though there was something initially unnerving about the lack of information – like that modern-day conundrum where you feel more comfortable being told what your opinion of something should be – it was actually thought-provoking, prompting you to be more open-minded and subjective in your observations. Whether it matched the artist’s interpretation and vision or not was beside the point. Each trunk was powerfully vague in context, encouraging imagination and for you to conjure your own conclusions.
Take Trunk 6/200 as an example, Kate Daudy’s ‘Louis the Sheep’ concept. Yes, you could make assumptions about links with nature and sustainably-sourced wool, but there were deeper mathematical connotations; the random chaos of a numbered flock of sheep – 199 to be exact! – and associations with the good shepherd, the sheep as a universal symbol of good intent and approachability.
Or Trunk 11/200, the concept of Jean-Michel Othoniel, one of the poster-concepts of the exhibition. With its hypnotic exterior, glistening in golden hues – a yellow brick wonder that Dorothy would find hard to resist – it hints at wealth and indulgence, the path to achieve a goal when you dare to dream. Again, this was true but with more emotional significance – hailing from India, each glass-blown brick on the “Trunk of Hope” is reminiscent of the stacks which line the streets in the nation, waiting to be turned into houses. It speaks to the people of India, encouraging them to never give up the hope of owning a home.
It was fascinating to see how an ordinary object, like a trunk, can become a living art piece; each crafted story unique to the observer, based on their own personal emotions, feelings, and circumstance in that moment.
Insight 2 – E-escapism
Even though there were no information placards, each trunk did feature a QR code to scan. Transporting you to a concept-specific page on the LV200 website, custom-built for the exhibition, you could learn more about the artist, their backstory, and the inspiration behind their trunk. Yet, we didn’t observe a single person scanning the codes. Not for lack of wanting further information. Instead, it was noticeable that visitors had a natural gravitation towards the staff at hand to pose their questions.
This could have been for a multitude of reasons. But ultimately, using your phone in this environment just didn’t feel natural. In a space that was so exploratory, with such an inspiring energy and atmosphere, engaging with your phone brought an undesirable interruption to the experience. Of course, hosting this information on a website opened the exhibition to a wider audience, beyond those who were able to visit the experience in person. With the staff being so incredibly knowledgeable, whilst exuding brand love and ambassadorship, why would anyone choose to engage with their phone versus a human? It felt like one of those instances where a digital touchpoint had tried to replace a human interaction which didn’t need replacing.
It was the expertise and enthusiasm of the staff that was ultimately one of the most memorable parts of the exhibition, accentuating the need for human touch to remain a priority in such environments.
Insight 3 – Equipping visionaries
Through the lower-level timber-style ‘Warehouse’, to the hall-of-trunks in the upstairs dreamscape of vibrantly coloured spaces, or in the dimly lit private viewing rooms, what was most inspiring to see was each artist’s different interpretation of the brief. To leave not feeling moved or compelled to share would have been a disservice to the significance of what Louis Vuitton had orchestrated and achieved with this exhibition.
Each trunk was heroed to give it the space it rightfully deserved, giving you time to dwell and digest. What, on paper, was quite a simple premise, to showcase the artistic work of visionaries, was also equipping visionaries.
Louis Vuitton had realised the profound impact that the exhibition might have on each individual and so chose to facilitate it. Frequently prompted by the staff “what has your favourite trunk been so far?”, you were encouraged to be in a continuous headspace of absorption and reflection. Whether the concept resonated with joy or compassion, intrigue or simply wonder, LV then gave you the tools to express it. The basement ‘Residency’ area was a workshop of creativity, where you could then design your own miniature trunk.
Ending the immersive story with visitor involvement was a worthy conclusion to the exhibition. Just as each artist interpreted the brief differently – from AR, paint, words, sculpture, video and performance – so did each individual visiting. So, when the time came you felt ready to express it, overflowing with ideas, inspired by your own vision.
A ‘celebration of the future’ as it had intended to be, Louis Vuitton not only dared you to ‘dream the improbable’ at the exhibition, but then stirred you to action it too.