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Issue 41 June-August 1998 RSS

Anna Gaskell

Casey Kaplan, New York, USA

Consider the suggestive confusion between wonder and wander - as if getting lost and digression were at the root of amazement, of change, even of knowledge.

Anna Gaskell’s work has little to do with either. Her bright colour photographs of Alice (sometimes Alice has a Tweedledum twin) in her blue pinafore and yellow cotton dress, jumping in the air, swimming through tears, playing with flowers - oh, yes, fiddling with her hair, wide-open mouth and lips, and giving her twin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation - were displayed, sometimes large, sometimes small, gratuitously suggesting the fictional Alice’s size-shifting. All were unframed and laminated behind slick plastic. Actually, the physical facts made the work look even worse than the images themselves might have been. I think the kindest word for the look would be municipal.

There is a point at which a project becomes so indebted to its source that, rather than being an elucidation or complication of that source, it is merely an illustration. Gaskell’s show was full of illustration and disappointing because, all appearances to the contrary, it condescended to its source. Somehow Gaskell attempted to convince us that it was she who lent Lewis Carroll and his tale ‘psychological complexity and convulsive violence’ and ‘weird hijinks’, instead of the other way around. There is nothing wrong with illustration; it can lead to some surprising and funny revisioning, such as that accomplished by William Wegman and his Weimaraner menagerie revamping various fairy-tales - but Gaskell displays no such humour. What’s most depressing is that she shows us nothing new - about Alice, about Carroll, photography, or girlhood then and now - certainly nothing as humorous, menacing, politically acute and psychologically haunting as John Tenniel, from whose original illustrations she has borrowed heavily.

This was evident in the work’s conservatism. Gaskell did not significantly alter Alice’s costume from Tenniel, from its Victorian nascence, and relied on the safest and softest kind of premeditated épater. If she had chosen really to explore the trauma of girlhood, things would have been a lot more disturbing. Even her shot of Alice holding a pair of false teeth near her crotch fizzles; a vagina dentata with no bite. (Unlike the original Cheshire Cat, who at least had the courtesy to appear as well as disappear completely, there was no actual pussy in the show.) Yet what teenagers, girls and boys, go through now, can and will disturb - and, yes, thrill: look at Harmony Korine’s Gummo, watch an afternoon talk show, read the news.

At least since the publication of Lolita, it is not possible to understand Alice as the same book it was when it was first published. Gaskell’s work is a retreat from the turmoil of now, but consider how different it could have been. Whether or not they ever literally or explicitly name Alice, much of the radically different work of Karen Kilimnik as well as that of Richard Kern (and even Sally Mann) is a gloss on what Alice was, is, has and will become, what she looks like now, what she does: she gets fucked up on drugs - she sips potions (Drink me!) and nibbles cakes (Eat me!), acts which trope her psychic chaos - she primps, she gets anorexia nervosa or sticks her finger down her throat to vomit up her being, she worries about shaving, about her attraction to the wrong boys, the right girls, she bleeds, or in many cases certainly hopes she will soon.

Privilege is Gaskell’s real subject, the games privileged girls play. But she refuses to explore or admit to the privilege which led her to identify with Alice, which is analogous to the privilege which led Alice Liddell to the Rev. Charles Dodgson, him to become Lewis Carroll, and to be sympathetic enough to her situation to write his tale. Gaskell acts as if teenage girlhood can be about wonder for every one of those going through it: cleaned, pressed outfits, peaches-and-cream-glow of skin, playing in the manse’s copse, playing with a camera, playing with Victorian fictions and dreams, so proper. Everything so proper is the reason most contemporary Alices begin to pierce themselves, get tattoos, mark themselves with brands or begin to dress exactly like the Alices all around them and disappear.

Bruce Hainley

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First published in
Issue 41, June-August 1998

by Bruce Hainley

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