Alice in Wonderland

Tate Liverpool
4th November 2011 – 29th January 2012

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

Alice in Wonderland at the Tate demonstrates the potency and longevity of Lewis Carroll’s creations, which started with a small illustrated notebook, handwritten and entitled A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day. The “Dear Child” was Alice Liddell - aged ten in 1864 when she received the gift. The manuscript was later published with illustrations by John Tenniel and Queen Victoria is said to have been one of its greatest fans. In 2009 President Obama threw an Alice in Wonderland themed party and in 2010 director Tim Burton’s film, based on the two Alice books by Lewis Carroll, was designated the ninth highest grossing movie of all time.

Pool of Tears

So, how to assess such a fan base, such sustained influence? In the ground floor part of the exhibition the artist Mel Bochner (b.1940) has established a line exactly nine feet above the floor. This is how tall Alice became at one point in her adventures. It references the theme of physical change experienced by the developing child and introduces the idea of a raised point of perspective. Was Alice the first character to cry a pool of tears over her body? Another installation, by Jimmy Robert (b.1975) consists of mirrors, a poem and a Japanese screen. The mirrors are on the floor so we are presented with an unfamiliar facial angle; also one of the mirrors is curved, so there is some distortion. Whereas the mirror deludes us into thinking a world exists within and beyond its frame a screen implies something hidden though not inaccessible. Alice entered the rabbit hole without hesitation to encounter uncertainty, illusion, transformation, verbal ambiguity and illogicality.

“When I use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean,” Humpty Dumpty.

Seen from a certain angle Robert’s mirrors reflect a suspended installation of neon words by Jason Rhodes (1965 - 2006). The viewer perceives them visually as shapes as well as being aware of their verbal resonance and seeing them through a mirror on the floor changes the size and angle of vision. The words are also reflected in the glass windows on the door side of the exhibition. In the room they are all above the nine foot line; in the reflection some are below the line. This may or may not have been intentional in the curatorial decisions but it adds another comment on the insecurity of “reality” as experienced by Alice. Annelies Strba’s (b.1947) images of a sleeping child in the unsettling colours of dreamland punctuate this part of the exhibition and evoke the wonderland of the dream state and of the subconscious mind. One is reminded of the Sleeping Beauty’s withdrawal into transformative sleep, undergoing the changes of mental and physical adjustment necessary for sexual maturity.

Photographer and Writer

These then are some of the themes explored by Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898): a trailer to the full-length feature on the fourth floor which offers a comprehensive look at the context, talent and influence of the man who was admired by the Pre-Raphaelite circle because of his photography which, alongside the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, provides us with images of the Liddell family. There is one of Alice, taken in 1860 when she would be six, lying down like the child in the Strba work we have just seen. Posed like paintings and distanced by time and deterioration, these photographs by Carroll and Cameron have a dreamy, otherworldly feeling we associate with an aspect of the Victorian psyche. There has been a lot of controversy about Carroll’s sexual proclivities; it has been maintained that his interest in little girls – some photographed in the nude – indicate that he was a paedophile. Carroll only took the photographs when the parents were present; seen from a Victorian perspective, the nudity of children was associated with innocence and the Victorians had a special interest in having their children photographed as innocents, so high was infant mortality. But the debate continues.

The work of Graham Ovenden (b.1943) shows a strong affinity with Lewis Carroll’s photography and iconography. His interest in emotion and in mood is apparent in the eerie atmosphere created by the colour language in his studies of facial expression and reaction in a pubescent heroine. Peter Blake (b.1932) was drawn to the “magical realism” of the stories and his set of illustrations, created from photographs of friends’ kids wearing hired costumes, reveal a strange, dreamlike depiction of the world of childhood fantasy that Carroll and Cameron would have recognised. Michelle Stuart (b.1938) has produced a series of images including a girl and a boy and some stone images of various creatures in which colour has been de-emphasised, giving a darkly disconcerting resonance.

The publishing phenomenon that Carroll’s books became is also examined. The original manuscript, the author’s rather restrained ink drawings, the proof sheets for the mouse’s Tale in the shape of a tail, all have a touching potency, as do John Tenniel’s (1820 – 1914) drawings. Robert Smithson (1938 – 1973) uses text and found images of eyes in his 1961-3 work Untitled (Tear) - the tear drop being formed by the word tear written downwards – an obvious reference to the Pool of Tears and the Long Tale in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“All those who have preserved a sense of rebellion recognise in Lewis Carroll their first teacher in the art of playing truant.” Andre Breton (1896 – 1966)

Carroll’s influence on the visual arts, (the British Surrealist Group was known as the Children of Alice) as well as the “psychedelic” painters of the Sixties, has been well documented. His creation of a fantasy world where things are never as expected, where anthropomorphic creatures abound, logic is questioned, time has no meaning and where there is an omnipresent sense of unreasonable threat and mental instability had obvious appeal for those who had discovered Freud and Jung or Timothy Leary. In his 1958 work Presence d’Alice Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) portrayed this world in poem and image: the painting shows a junction which is either the fragmentation or convergence of light and colour; the poem fixes the strangeness of juxtaposition.

At the junction of two signs,
one for a school of herrings and the other for a school of crystals
thirty-three little girls set out for the white butterfly hunt,
the blind dance in the night,
princes sleep badly and the black crow is to speak

Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) made twelve illustrations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and although unmistakeably Dali-esque they do not have the claustrophobic sense of sexual self-absorption one usually finds in his work. The Alice figure recurs throughout the series, skipping away from what Dali termed “the crutches of reality” to disconnect herself from the ordinary world. The short film Destino was a 1946 collaboration between Dali and Disney not completed until 2003. We are in the unnerving landscape of dreams: long shadows, statues, metamorphosis and surface cracks. But the Disney element of balletic movement and witty transformation balances this and one feels enlivened rather than oppressed by it.

Lewis Carroll’s work had an obvious attraction for the creative minds of the psychedelic Sixties; “chasing the white rabbit” meant using hallucinogenic drugs and Adrian Piper’s (b.1948) The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (1966) takes the viewer into the heightened colour and unnerving optical effects of drug use. The shapes and juxtaposition of the colours cause the eye to impute movement in the same way that Bridget Riley’s work does.

“Two days wrong!” sighed the Hatter… “It’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.”

But Carroll’s work had an influence on conceptual artists too. Torsten Lauschmann (b.1970) has produced a film of a digital clock in which the digits are changed by hand, thus reversing the trend from manual to electronic in a witty and playful way. The film lasts twenty-four hours but the physical changing of the digits will take longer than that so the film will have to speed up some of the process. Carroll’s notion of the variability of time recurs in the work of Dali too. Samantha Sweeting’s (b.1982) film of a dead rabbit being reanimated does apparently reverse time at the same time that it questions perception and our ability to suspend disbelief. With AA Bronson (b.1946) we are back with the mirrors. Through the Looking Glass (2009) consists of twelve mirrors each comprising 60 leaves of transparent plastic and each having a quotation from the book, barely visible. The point is one’s own reflection in concentrated quest of what is written plus all the variables of light level and extraneous reflections. Some people try harder than others! This difficulty with communicative understanding is a theme in Carroll’s stories also addressed by Joseph Grigeley (b.1956) in his work 167 White Conversations (2004): a collection of messages written by friends anxious to remove ambiguities in their communication with this profoundly deaf artist.

Wonderland and Metropolis

In terms of politics, Carroll’s work is subversive, questioning as it did and still does the rigid view of reality as fixed and understandable and controllable. No matter what atomic physicists say about it, your average politician will still have none of that. More specifically, the image of Alice has been used for political comment. Oscar Kokoschka (1886 – 1980) painted Alice im Wunderland to mark the Austrian Anschluss - the adult Alice representing the naïveté of the Austrian people. A recent artist, Bill Woodrow (b.1948) created a sculpture called English Heritage Humpty Fucking Dumpty (1987) in which the tragic-comic figure with optimistic red bow-tie, sitting on a tipsy vaulting horse with clocking-in machine, doubles up as an image of the precariousness of industrial progress. Nalini Malani’s (b.1946) black-tached painting Alice (2006) shows a “wonderland” overlooked by high rise buildings in which there is a strong sense of pathos in the depiction of threat and the powerlessness of indecision.

This is an intellectually demanding exhibition; Alice would have found much of it dull. Worth the effort if you can melt time.

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