Wall-labels for the Dark Imaginings exhibit, Melbourne University

16 August 2018

Press Release:

“In 18th century Europe a revolutionary shift in literary and artistic expression took place that became known as ‘the Gothic’. Nightmarish images of barbarity, oppression and the supernatural were abstracted from an earlier medieval (or ‘Gothic’) age and fused with a Romantic focus on imagination and emotion, resulting in works of frightening and thrilling originality. Leading exponents of the gothic set their creative works in dark and claustrophobic spaces or wild, threatening landscapes and infused them with melancholy, gloom and fear.”

 

1.

A person, flayed, looms over a broken Greek krater. Their gender is indeterminate. Their head is turned to the left, their right hand wrenched around 36o degrees, like the bone has snapped but remains hanging in place like no big deal—like it’s trying to disguise itself and the extent it’s been damaged.

This person hasn’t been traditionally flayed; instead of a simple underside of flesh, simple and/or linear, different parts of the body have been individually peeled, revealing in places a cross-section of the whole, the layers re-arranged perversely. The chest musculature is gone, exposing the ribs and xyphoid, but the lungs are still covered with skin, as if skin could be taken for granted and swapped for vital organs. The legs are literally skeletal, except for the glutes and calf tendons. The face is uncanniest: a skull at all points except the nose, which is normal; the eyes, lidless, staring, real; and the lips, full and slightly smiling. Over their right shoulder, a fire burns.

 

2.

I hadn’t expected to see it. When I was 14, flying back to Australia from the UK and my Grandmother’s village—its houses dating back to the Tudors, their frames brittle, white—we’d had to stop off in Tokyo due to a malfunction. My dad contracted Noro virus and as we waited for him to recover, my mother, sister and I were free to explore. “My mother’s an artist,” I say to people, but not like Jackson Pollack. You could make sacrifices with her art, read them like entrails. This is how, in Tokyo, she directed us to a gallery of western art, vacant on a Monday, to see a Goya exhibit, advertised with the engraving I’m looking at—right now, right now—in the Baillieu Library:

A man—possibly Goya himself—unconscious on his desk, though he could be in tears. His legs are crossed. Behind him, bats, owls and a lynx circle and glower, both toward the man himself, and you, contemplating…

“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Equally, perhaps unwittingly: the dream of reason produces monsters. Goya’s motto for the engraving goes: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders.”

Lynxes, in addition to monsters, were imagined as clairvoyants—able to see through solid objects.

“Sleeping and dreaming hold a peculiarly central place in western, enlightenment thought”—you read the wall-label, studying the plate behind glass…

A man is afraid he’s dreaming—that an evil demon dictates his beliefs and rational presuppositions, that he can’t tell the difference between sleep and conscious life. Endless waking up, never fully woken, endlessly dreaming… A fear of the inability to identify self-evident boundaries: when does a boat, its planks progressively stripped and replaced, become something new? When does a colour transition into another, an absolute point delimiting the two like a cell membrane? Who is lying when someone admits they’re lying?

The fear reason creates—colonising—its own monsters, of assertion/break-down in the same breath. A split…

You’re may be reaching, you think, tracing Goya’s lines and shades. “Only through the pure contemplation . . . which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are the Ideas comprehended; (T)his demands a complete forgetting of our own person.”[1]  

Someone said this about art. I don’t remember who, but Googled it afterwards.

 

3.

The spadix resembles a wasp’s stinger, a black tooth, an upside-down spider’s leg and abdomen, like Shelob from the Lord of the Rings, glistening against the petals’ mauve. There are mountains in the background, but indistinct; the flower takes up the whole image. The petals are soft, undulating like romantic-era curtains, the white-flecked leaves blowing in a presumed gust. According to Wikipedia, farmers first thought it was a little dragon, hiding in the spathe. Comparing it with modern photos, the image has a skin-like quality. If there is a “horror to its form”[2] as its illustrator expressed, it’s this, but more… The website calls it phallic: nature as profligate, indifferent to propriety/ordering. This doesn’t seem wholly accurate. Nature, here, appropriates as callously as people do: if ‘She’, Thornton genders, full-of-himself, can adopt such traits—as though physical categorisation were arbitrary—what’s in a name/the value of a name?

The fear, you think, is in personification (evil clouds, cruel wind, a black moon), a thing taking on its own life, transcending you, contemplating itself… That what is imbued with significance (a family house, a creepy abbey, Frankenstein’s monster, a plant) looks back into you…  

The wall-label calls it the dragon arum:

A friend describes her dislike of explaining her work with a quote from the artist Robert Morris’ dream journal, which I ask to reproduce; I find it online in a collection of essays:

“A print from Robert Thornton’s Temple of flora, which features illustrations of plants in romantic, often dramatic or allegorical settings; another version of this print adds patterns of lightning and an erupting volcano…

 Thornton’s description is highly charged: the Arum lily ‘projects a horrid spear of darkest jet… her hundred arms are interspersed with white, as in the garments of the inquisition; and on her swollen trunk are observed the speckles of a mighty dragon’.”

“The wall-label has disturbed my sleep. I must get a grip on myself, or at least on the label… I must squeeze it back to its true ignoble proportions… But it is elusive as it gleams there in the dark with its Poe-like atmospherics of linguistic threat and verbal iconoclasm.”[3] 

 

4.

A pop-up book of Frankenstein in a glass case, open on the night when the Monster is animated. Victor is standing to their left, speechless. They are pallid, face grotesque as the Joker in The Dark Knight, explicitly illustrated as stitched together poorly. If you observe the differences in skin lustre from the head to the torso, you may infer the number of bodies that went into their creation. You’ve never pictured the monster as such a composite being before, nor so much a mirror of Victor, despite the Monster’s famous “I ought to be thy Adam” statement.

There’s not enough skin to cover their whole frame: the arms are taut around the biceps, their abs like crumpled newspaper, or clothes that have shrunk in the wash. The monster lunges out at you, reader and spectator, stitched together as you are…  

But in the book the monster comes to life almost imperceptively,

by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs…”[4]

(you remember putting your dog down, green fluid going into their shaved leg, asking for time alone with the body after, moving the

Here they are howling… They roar out of the page, eyes incandescent, and it almost seems justified Victor should abandon it. The gothic is always self-consciously gothic, you think: sharp-edged, medieval castles, unnatural flora and fauna, a fallen sad-boy angel. You remember a quote:  

Fiery the angels fell…

 

Burning with the fires of Orc.

You remember studying Frankenstein back in year 11, the class comprising future roboticists, Elon Musk fans and would-be lawyers. When addressing the author, some refer to Mary Shelley as ‘he’, almost like Victor himself were the true inventor of the text, as if the book itself were another assemblage, limbs that might never fit peacefully together…

H.P. Lovecraft would later write:

“some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”[5]

Lovecraft would take this and make a religion where God is dethroned by a great border-wall: segregation as a metaphysical need. You know that neo-reactionaries online style themselves as part of a ‘dark enlightenment’,

Recently you’ve seen trailers for the latest Jurassic Park movie, set around a Reconstruction-era mansion owned by a mysterious, rich, handsome businessman with a dark secret. A scientist who created the dinosaurs in the first movie is one of the antagonists, one who admitted in the previous instalment that:

X: “Nothing that we do in Jurassic World is natural; we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals, […] you didn’t ask for reality.”

Y (owner of Jurassic World): “I never asked for a monster!” 

X: “’Monster’ is a relative term.”[6]

The recent film has been described as a “gothic horror” departure for the franchise. In it they create a hybrid dinosaur, a combination of all the predatory traits of carnivore dinosaurs introduced. A shot from the trailer shows it slouching toward the protagonists through a dark vent, its outline moving in and out of shadow in time to a warning light. Its movements are irregular. In the dark it seems to have several bodies at once.

 

5.

Near the exit, two images I’ve seen before: an etching of le Hôtel de la Marine, Paris, by Charles Meryon, once La Ministère de la Marine (“The Admiralty”) during the second French empire in 1865. The sky is black and white, the needle marks in the left-plate side (at least for the neo-classical façade of the admiralty) are razor fine. On the right-hand, strange, fish-like creatures swim through the air, as if the upper atmosphere were the undercurrents of a lake. The second, a watercolour of Edgar Allen Poe, inserted into the Raven as its narrator. This insertion, possibly experiencing his poem’s claustrophobia/loss first-hand, seems to feed into the image’s sadness. Researching the two, astoundingly, I found a poem by Marion Janacek, based on the two exact images:

 

 

Poe and the Admiralty, Paris 

After Charles Meryon and Edmund Dulac

 

The sky was a realistic black/white;
Indoors, the blue of his body read The Raven, out
-loud, seeping into divan-frames like a season
Of slow floods

insulating water

As the accoutrements and décor of everything
Float, his coaled shoes oblivious,
His eyes closed as he sighs. Outside,

 Their arrival was equally realistic:
The skin of the flying fish opalescent,
The horses gushing through troposphere—laying siege
To the admiralty—were perfectly, anatomically correct.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t lie Joss, we know it’s you…

 

 

 

 

 

6.

 

You realise, after writing this, revisiting the exhibit now after 2 months, that the Goya is nowhere to be found. It was never in Melbourne. You say to yourself, curiously, almost in awe, where could it be? Where could I have left it?

 

 

 


Acknowledgements: My thanks to Marian Janacek for their permission to include their poetry/blogs in the final piece. My thanks to Chalise Van Wyngaard for her permission to paraphrase her.

 

[1] Schopenhauer, Arthur, “The World as Will and Representation”, trans. Payne, E.F.J, Dover Publications, New York, 1966, vol.1 pg. 186

[2]Thornton, Robert. New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus; and The Temple of Flora, or garden of nature. London: Thornton, 1807

[3]Picture Theory: essays on verbal and visual representation, W.J.T Mitchell, University of Chicago Press, 1995

[4] Shelley, Mary, “Frankenstein”, Penguin Classics, London, 2003

[5] Lovecraft, HP, “The Call of Cthulhu, and other weird stories”, Penguin Modern, London, 2011

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaVcjYbO3B0 “Wu explains the makeup of the I-rex”


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