Through the Rabbit Hole
Kendra Reynolds, one of our Youth Arts Correspondents, reviews our current exhibitions, Juniper by Shona Macdonald and Creature Comforts by Lauren Scott.
Walking through the upstairs galleries I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Like Shona Macdonald’s picture Gateway, in which her protagonist Juniper gazes with inquisitive purple eyes into a tiny doorway that appears to be mounted on a tree, I stood in awe surrounded by the fantasy exhibitions that make up part of the annual August Children’s Month.
Yet, these exhibitions are not just for children. Juniper’s root-like arms that blend with the barky entrance of the gateway reminded me that these magical works offer us a chance to get back to our roots and vivid childhood imaginations which are often stunted by the worry of our mundane everyday lives.
However, there is also an astounding darkness in this art, as the picture Tangled Throne implies. Here, a person is locked inside a tree with only her face and hands free from the foliage that engulfs her: perhaps the person whose mind Juniper is negotiating, for Shona tells us that Juniper has “just woken into this place, with only fragments of another’s memory to guide her”. Whilst the branches growing from this person are adorned with colourful lights, not all is merry and harmless in this magical realm. Shona labels it “dark and menacing…snapshots of the various fantastical, obscure and predominantly threatening places Juniper encounters”.
The artist’s interest in what she calls “magical realism” seems to echo here how a cruel reality (real world place names like ‘Sweden’ and hierarchies of ‘Kings’, a word written on Juniper’s dress, with smaller animals looking in fear at larger ones with spears and sharp long noses) impinges upon the child-like fantasy world. The innocence of acceptance and equality is a contrast provided in The Lost Marshes of Juniper’s squirrel-like friend reaching out his hand across the rooftops and the little mice carried across the treacherous marsh by winged companions, adds to the brilliance of the exhibition. As I wrote in the visitor’s book: “hauntingly amazing!”.
In the corner of the room I saw a sign stating that the artist has hidden a rabbit in each one of her pictures and an invitation for children to seek them out. Yet, for adult viewers a much greater search is apparent in the artist’s statement which outlines a journey undertaken by Juniper and her creature friends to discover their origin and purpose. I couldn’t help feeling like one of Juniper’s companions travelling with her through this weird world, making up my own narrative in my head as I went along. A member of the cleaning staff snapped me out of my daze when she noticed how entranced I was and nodded knowingly to indicate that she too could empathise with the sense that you could sit there looking all day into these portals and continue to find something new hiding in every nook and cranny. The detail is unbelievable.
From the signs of the stalls in Night Circus, including ‘Award Winning Eyeball Cake’ and ‘Beastly Bites’, the monster juggler’s apparent innocence until you notice he’s juggling human-like heads, eyes which peer from small crevices, to books entitled ‘The Emotional Life of a Slug’ and ‘The Truth About Scarecrows on Other Planets’, every detail adds a startling depth to this amazing planet. And, despite Juniper’s apparent search for an escape, she, like myself, seems to linger inquisitively and with a certain reluctance to leave this realm behind! All I could say to my parents when jumping back into the car: “I’m going back to see that again!”, with my enthusiasm clearly suggesting that there was no room for negotiation, my dad simply looking at me wide-eyed and muttering “Alright”.
I’d be kidding you if I pretended to capture everything about this exhibition, there simply are not enough words, but there is a couple which really stood. Trapped haunted me from the moment I laid eyes on it: in this picture Juniper looks into the pleading gaze of her squirrel friend locked inside a jar. It appears to be some sort of science experiment storeroom, which fits with the lab depicted in Emanation and Transmission. It reminded me of the times we live in and its attempts to dissect everything and understand them rather than appreciating things for their simple beauty.
Shona deliberately defies our attempts to make sense of her world, literally depicted in The Glowing Field of Confounded Fruit and its signposts pointing off in vague directions to locations as appealing as “Harmony and Sparkly Things” or as repelling as “Often Smells Like Fart”. Eerily the book titles in ‘Trapped’ signal the fate of the imprisoned animals, which though blurred, seem to read as “Using Spoons For Eyes”, “Trembling With Blood”, and “Struggling with Hapless Turkeys”. This sense of a damaging power or force lingered for me throughout my journey through the pictures.
Even in the first image Pinnacle City, it depicts beehive slots for small busy creatures as the foundations of an elaborate city occupied by robed and masked figures (the same ones that hold the spears in other images). One thing which stood out for me was the text about ‘Israel’ and ‘Kings’ that makes up Juniper’s dress in Trapped, and it seems fitting at the present time with the violence raging overseas: Juniper and her cross-species gang in their innocence, manage to work their way through the problems of this realm and it is only a corrupt adult force that complicates their simple acceptance of the beauty of this world and each other. The whole thing highlighted for me the simple beauty of a child-like mind that our society seems to have lost. Shona’s art acts as a powerful reminder.
Yet, back in the ‘Wonderland’ of these exhibitions, my mind boggled from Shona’s ‘Perplexing Perplexities’, I was happy to seek a more cuddly contrast in Lauren Scott’s Creature Comforts. These figures compliment the animals from Shona’s exhibition perfectly and continue the slightly dark strand through her inspiration from taxidermy and dead animals. Luckily for me she too prefers the “veggie alternative” of fabric and textiles!
Lauren also captures beautifully the ruthlessness of humankind’s hurtful impact on animals and nature, with the hare’s red threaded scars on his impressive ears supporting his attached statement: “You can lead a fool to wisdom but you cannot make him think”. Humour is something Lauren aims to capture in her exhibition and I personally giggled reading this quote, mentally creating my own interpretation of a posh and slightly sarcastic tone for the majestic, but slightly irritated, hare as he curses the mindless driver of the car who ran over him (admittedly I made that scenario up in my head too, but for me it seems to fit!).
A similar scenario played in my mind when viewing the lunging Mr. Hedgehog, whose belly hung out over his display stand, wearing his adorable dungarees with the caption: “No matter how hard he tried, Mr. Hedgehog could not get himself out of his sticky situation” – situated beside each other perhaps Mr. Hare is irritated at Hedgehog’s lack of logic! The detail of Mr. Hare astounded me (I was almost slightly hesitant taking a close-up picture of the intricate detail of his feet in case he came to life and tried in vain to lead me to wisdom before inflicting his irritation upon me!).
The third large figure prowling at the other side of the gallery was the fantastic Mr. Fox in his remnants of a tail coat jacket, short cuffs and collar with his mantra: “It is better to regret something you did than to regret something you didn’t do”. Whilst this is amazing advice, the dubious nature of his sly smile is slightly unnerving and made me think “what did you do?!” – I was thankful anyway that he was separated from the already war-scarred Mr. Hare whose superior air wouldn’t fit well as prey for Mr. Fox’s sharp teeth and menacing gaze.
These two exhibitions work on so many levels to give visitors an experience no matter what their age or interests. They are staying here until the end of August and I cannot stress enough how much you would be missing to let these slip by without seeing them in all their beauty, humour, sadness, and magic. I could have stayed there all day like Juniper and her friends in the midst of their ‘Library of Perplexing Perplexities’. To capture every detail is impossible but I appreciated the fantasy space they provided as a retreat from this world for an hour. So whether you are bringing children along or embracing your inner-child, this is an event that your imagination will not want to miss!This entry was posted on August 22nd, 2014 at 3:55 pm by Desima