Unhappy Returns: So That I May Come Back
The title of this exhibition is borrowed from a disturbing source. “I murder”, wrote the child killer Mary Bell in 1968, “so that I may come back”. By “child killer” is meant, in the present case, not only someone who took the life of a juvenile, but also that the murderer herself was, at the time of her crime, only ten years old. Children killing children is a brute transgression of everyday life; but to claim, as did Bell, that there was a reason behind this breakdown of reason brings one to a second stage of shock. Just how exactly one might “come back” through the act of murder remains unresolved, a vampiric fantasy-claim perhaps. This presumption that the scribbled text of Bell’s note refers to a return after death is possibly unfounded; but at any rate, for a ten-year old to generate such an oddly encoded utterance, brazenly depositing it at the scene of yet another crime, suggests a rather complicated commingling of reason, fantasy, desire, and of straining for effect. There are many different kinds of return; indeed the using of Bell’s phrase as an exhibition title is itself a textual reappearance of its author. All of the works in this show deal, in one way or another, with forms of return, reiteration or haunting, in some cases with what is an arguably predatory or (negatively) “proactive” component or approach.
Albert Leonard’s pencil drawings, for example, postulate an obsessive relation to the subjects he depicts, major female Hollywood figures from the 1940s and 1950s. Here the selection of works is limited to those of Linda Darnell, Leonard’s favourite star, drawn in the artist’s intense, detailed and penetrating manner. Although based on black and white photographs typical of a certain period of Hollywood-related imagery, Leonard’s drawings activate a different and more personal realism than that supplied by the publicity stills he employs. What is returned here is a sharpness of perception, a reactivation of a now defunct model of the real. This reinvigoration of a genre of photographic realism partly comes about, I think, as a result of Leonard’s concentrated manner of working on a given drawing in a single lengthy session. This laborious action effectively demands of the viewer a concomitantly dedicated response. The assiduous copying of an image of someone one greatly admires is one way of making that image – and perhaps the person themselves – entirely one’s own.
Sarah Woodfine’s work also relates to filmic imagery, in this case to the adaptation by Rob Reiner (1990) of Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery, and in particular to a viciously deployed sledge hammer. Woodfine’s piece is assembled from MDF, Formica, a reconfigured hammer, and a mock-woodgrain drawing. There is no blood, actual or fake here, but the staged scene references a moment of great horror in the film, a piece of popular culture that Woodfine has confessed to finding particularly frightening. The medium of film, of which it is significant to note that it emerged roughly around the same time as Sigmund Freud’s concept and practice of Psychoananlysis, is a particularly powerful means of instilling fear, of fixing in the mind of the viewer, through repetition of (in this case) disturbing vignettes, traumatic – to use this term somewhat loosely – themes, feelings, pictures, poses, and no matter if the actual scenario is one of fabrication. One of Freud’s central themes is that of the uncanny, and such a category is certainly pertinent here.
Tania Kovats also addresses King’s Misery, but in its original form as a published book. In choosing to draw this object – an actual copy of the book – she opens up the work to a different type of scrutiny than that addressed by other commentators upon the text, literary critics or conventional readers, those, in other words, whose engagement with it remains ostensibly at the level of language. Kovats’ decision to represent the actual physical state of a single, particular copy of Misery , a practice she has applied to published works by other authors, raises the matter of the materiality of the book, its status, history and specificity as an actual thing, as opposed to the ephemeral (yet paradoxically stable) nature of text. In the age of the Internet and the often scurrilous claims made for the disappearance of the book qua object, Kovats shows that the book’s material existence is an important component of its meaning and use.
Charbel Ackermann is another artist whose work attends to one representational medium through the form of another, producing a series of storyboards mimicking those of Alfred Hitchcock’s, and pertaining to another Hollywood heroine, Doris Day. If Leonard chooses to draw female figures from films for whom he has only immense admiration, in Ackermann’s case it is an actor with whom he has a somewhat fraught relationship who has become the focus of his attention. Doris Day, Ackermann’s drawings suggest, is stuck in her cardboard-cutout character of happy sanitised femininity. Ackermann uses his practice as a means to criticise the stereotype, pitch it into a new realm where we may read it against the grain of its intended connotations. Ackermann’s series of prints are a dark but playful rebellion against a Hollywood stereotype.
In William Cobbing’s contribution live praying mantis occupy a space in which also resides an abstract form made from fake bones. Masters of camouflage, the mantis are here seen – or not seen – to echo their fictionalised setting. Other artists, notably the Surrealists, have employed mantis imagery, but Cobbing uses the creatures themselves. Female mantis often devour their male partner, which goes some way to explaining the somewhat loaded symbolism of the mantis as a cold, threatening, highly repulsive creature. Sustaining oneself by eating one’s mate in order to produce future offspring can certainly be thought of as a way of ensuring that a version of oneself “comes back”. It is from the film and installation work of Oona Grimes and Tony Grisoni, with its referencing of child murderers, that the title So That I May Come Back is directly drawn. Grimes and Grisoni’s piece includes a portable TV with images of derelict spaces, a dresser from a child’s bedroom, and a number of quirky figurines assembled from found materials which draw upon both children’s toys and Samurai warriors. Screened on the TV set are a series of 16mm filmed shots of urban wastelands and details of decay with subtitles drawn from quotes by children who killed. Urban wastelands are kingdoms where discarded objects take on a magical significance, marking the sites of death and rebirth.
The picture of childhood here conveyed is dark and threatening, in acute contrast to “standard” presentations of childhood as the realm of innocence, optimism and blissful inquisitiveness.
James Ireland’s work for So That I May Come Back, three lengths of transparent glass produced in colours taken from tourist-brochure clichés of brash blue skies or sunset orange, is designed to filter light in such a way as to tint adjacent walls, or anything else physically close by. Ireland has used such grids of coloured glass before but in this series of work there are over three million possible permutations of these mass-manufacture panels. In the current show the piece has been deliberately juxtaposed with Woodfine’s so that the colours it casts fall upon her work, a foil, as it were, of light, countering the febrile Gothic darkness of the exhibition. Indeed there are numerous alignments and interplays across and around the entire show, neat but chancy parallels, curious relays, impervious points of suspension: the vendettas (as Poe or M R James might have it) of revenants unknown and unseen.