“Fantasy is omnipresent in our contemporary society. The exceptional history of mankind is somewhere between a fairytale and fantasy in a real world”. Lara Pan, Guest Curator fordPROJECT’S inaugural exhibition When The Fairy Tale Never Ends has been curated as an “imaginary road trip” into the realm of the creative unconscious – a “phantasmagoric” world of childhood enchantment, magic realism, fables, totems and taboos. Brussels-based guest curator, Lara Pan, offers an international range of new and established artists whose p... Read more
“Fantasy is omnipresent in our contemporary society. The exceptional history of mankind is somewhere between a fairytale and fantasy in a real world”.
Lara Pan, Guest Curator
fordPROJECT’S inaugural exhibition When The Fairy Tale Never Ends has been curated as an “imaginary road trip” into the realm of the creative unconscious – a “phantasmagoric” world of childhood enchantment, magic realism, fables, totems and taboos.
Brussels-based guest curator, Lara Pan, offers an international range of new and established artists whose practice melds fantasy with the Surreal, exploring the exotic, the abject and the dystopian in myriad forms. Paintings, photographic prints and site-specific sculptures provide an immersive, spatio-temporal environment of enchantment and provocation – a search for “secrets hidden within narration”.
When The Fairy Tale Never Ends explores a contemporary take on longstanding and well-established themes within both art and art history. ‘Fantasia’ – the imaginative response to the world and ‘invenzione’ – its realisation through composition and making, have pre-occupied artists as diverse as William Blake, Francisco Goya, Hieronymus Bosch and Puvis de Chavannes. Ideas of the occult and fairy iconography were a significant part of both British and Irish folk culture, informing the work of Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. In the 1920s and 1930s, members of the Surrealist avant-garde variously envisioned the dreamscapes of the unconscious, the irrationality of childhood and the noumenal as bridges to otherness and an alternative transcendent.
The cult of the ‘gifted’ creator or ‘outsider artist’ was also part of a wider ranging critique of supposed cultural ‘rationality’ and a response to the ‘call to order’ which followed the sacrifice of an entire generation in the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18. This hinterland is obliquely referenced by the apt inclusion of work from the estate of the late Henry Darger (1892-1973). A self-taught Illinois artist, Darger’s aesthetic was illustrated in a cosmology outlined in The Realms of the Unreal in which he developed a highly individual iconography based on personal experience and conviction.
The artistic partnership of caraballo-farman (Leonor Caraballo & Abou Farman) have worked together since 2001. Their piece, Through the Garden of Earthly Delights, references the fantasy world of Bosch whilst the light box projection of Midnight suggests hologrammatic technique as a double metaphor for Cinderella’s transformation and for the fairy tale as a social construct. Childhood fantasy is given a more conventional technical form in Natacha lvanova’s Toys, which like the work of the French painter, Henri Rousseau, employs distortion and condensed motifs as part of a
dream-based panorama. But the iconic white rabbit is that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the image’s hallucinatory distortion recalls the cadences of the Janis Joplin lyric. Another playful take on the Surreal is instanced by Vincent Olinet’s Je ne peux pas faire des miracles 11 (I can’t perform miracles). Like some Dutch vanitas paintings, we capture subjects at moments of apparent dis-equilibrium, off balance and even decay. Olinet’s dreamscapes explore the exotic and a tipping-over into decadent excess; the familiar objects of still-life painting are estranged. Fantastic dreamscapes and cosmologies are also given a different inflexion by Kent Henricksen and Kenny Scharf.
Waggishly noting his home region of rural Flanders, Belgium, Wim Delvoye has been quoted as being drawn to the “agrarian tradition with Flemish art”, but his aesthetic is highly calculated, collapsing images, motifs and symbols into a visceral and compelling panorama. Delvoye’s use of pigskin as parchment explores a reflective and hybrid variation of the Duchampian tradition of the readymade. In All American Girl #1, the American eagle, Ganesha – the Hindu Elephant Deity and the symbolism of oriental dragons and other motifs from skulls to exploding fireworks or cherry bombs, instance fusion and appropriation – defining tropes of North America’s cultural and social landscape.
Themes of hubris and instability are explored in Misala, a mixed-media installation by Michaël Aerts which revises ideas of the monumental and the commemorative. The obelisk, fashioned from Technic aluminium and flight packing cases, implies metaphors of flight and the migratory; whilst the balls and chains variously connote constraint and anchorage to location or place – the traditional civic and social purpose of the ceremonial forms which Aerts imaginatively subverts both here and in other works.
But When The Fairy Tale Never Ends also themes darker narratives and taboos within late modernity. As with the duality and ambiguity of fairy tales, these works situate a contemporary flipside of cultural critique; abjection, the commodification of childhood and the casual objectification and trading of human sexuality. Paul McCarthy’s work from the White Snow (2009) series offers a subversive take on childhood fairy tales through the disjuncture of its title and the scatological re-rendering of a familiar fantasy icon. Like the animals in the woodland clearing we become complicit in the act of looking – and perhaps in the disavowal of having done so.
Los Angeles-based artist, Gretchen Ryan is known for her highly mimetic and meticulously observed canvases which feature the contestants of child beauty competitions and pageants. The genre of portraiture, historically referenced to history painting and to the commissions of the sitter, is given a different inflexion by Ryan. In these paintings, there is no peripheral or contextual detail to frame a narrative other than the atomised child subject in whose eyes, make-up, hair glitter, costume and demeanour we look for clues.
Panni Malekzadeh’s oil on linen work, Peep Show (2010) offers a panoply of images through its virtual re-invention of the ‘conversation piece’ – a genre of painting which previously combined socially instructive subject matter for parlour room discussion and moral improvement. But Peep Show charts a more uncertain cultural and moral landscape. The neon signs and lurid iteration of ‘Girls, Girls Girls’ identifies a particular milieu as does the S&M face mask worn by a book-reading juvenile behind the couch. Sexuality is signified by as something objectified, available, but also performative – defined and negotiated in the act of consumption. Equally unnerving are stereotypical images of childhood innocence; the spectral presence of a young child’s silhouette with a toy and the teenage girl hugging a pet horse.
Robert Lazzarini de-familiarises the decorative through the subversive use of pattern. On first glance, at looking at gingham fabric or wallpaper nursery designs, we might think of family, home and a safe or nurturing environment. For example, the dress worn by the child star Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or the fairy tale animals of Babes in the Wood. But optical distortion, often with sprays of blood, suddenly confuse the cultural reference; what is being themed is allusive in other directions – perhaps David Lynch’s twist on small town life in Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet or even Donna Tartt’s macabre murder novel The Secret History, set in New England.
A different cosmology is explored in Valentina Battler’s Part II Temptation and Part III (3) Hell. Taken from a series of works titled ‘Transcending Reality,’ they are a visual interpretation of, and a poetic response to, the Symphonic Dances Op.45, the last work completed by the Russian composer, conductor and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Battler has described the series as a “communion” and “co-creation”, not just of the composer’s symphonic piece, but also as an evocation of Hell and suffering evident in Dante’s Divine Comedy and perhaps hinted at in the fatalism and lyricism of Rachmaninoff’s final work itself which themes the imagery of the Dies Irae, the ‘Day of Wrath’ from the Latin Requiem Mass.
Eleanor Antin’s chromogenic print The Tree is from the series The Last Days of Pompeii (2001) in which episodes from classical history are put through the blender of Hollywood re-makes, salon painting and opulent photographic pastiche. The choreography suggests the decadence (and death) of luxury villa gardens on the slopes of the Bay of Naples and under the shadow of Vesuvius. Another subversive take on classical metamorphosis is suggested by the Brock Enright and Alex Eagleton vases. Each contains a question and its answer. Between the two vases is a CD with a soundtrack to each sculpture. This CD acts as a gasket protecting the lips of each vase. In order to listen to the soundtrack, one must break the piece. In order to find the question and answer, one must also break the piece.
To a post-Freudian age, the world of fairies and magic might suggest displacement and disguised desire; the world of the irrational as a salve and escape from the workaday and the logic of the Enlightenment.i But as the themes visualized in this group exhibition suggest, fantasy, taboo and abjection remain powerful thematics within contemporary art
practice. Like the suggestive narrative of Braco Dimitrijević’s Story 1969, When the Fairy Tale Never Ends fashions “a bridge between worlds” – one of possibility, elided half-truths and the realisation of an entire imaginary.
Dr Grant Pooke FRSA
i ‘Victorian Fairy Painting’ by Jeremy Maas, in Victorian Fairy Painting, Royal Academy of Arts, London, The University of Iowa Museum of Art and The Art Gallery of Ontario, 1997, p11; Fairies in Nineteenth Century Art & Literature, Nicola Bown, Cambridge University Press, 2006.