Victoriana: the Art of Revival (7 September – 8 December 2013), at the Guildhall Art Gallery, starts with peacock feathers and ends with letterpress prints, both indicative of the Victorian age. This is a fascinating exhibition, which juxtaposes taxidermy with prints, installations and mechanical art with sonic guns and provides the opportunity for interactivity, not through digital means, but by projection from one floor to another. There is much fun to be had, but there is also a serious side. Grayson Perry explores the idea of a mentally ill Victorian farmer’s wife, who has lost her children. Perry stares out of the frame of the photo, challenging us to identify with her pain, yet we can still see that it is Perry that challenges us, rather than a mock Victorian image.
In Ligia Bouton’s work, William Morris, the nineteenth century socialist and pioneer for craft and a return to rural values and way of life, becomes ‘William Morris Man’, who is pitted against another nineteenth century designer, Owen Jones. They ‘do battle in a style that draws upon the recent surge in popularity of the graphic novel’. This work, as with many in the exhibition, plays with the intersection, and interconnection, between Victoriana and contemporary art and society.
Many of the displays present images which appear at first fun, but on closer examination, prove to contain disturbing elements. Miss Pokena in her ‘Trophy Chair’ gives us one such piece. Inspired by her native New Zealand, which allows her a fresh perspective on the ‘strange allure of England’, she presents what appears at first to be a comfortable armchair, but which displays at the back the entwined bodies of foxes. This work, together with Polly Morgan’s ‘Why do we Wait 3, 2006’ demonstrates that there is a renewal of interest in taxidermy. Indeed, according to the label, Morgan has been credited with its revival, particularly under a glass dome.
A thought provoking and beautifully produced set of photos is presented by Yinka Shonibare. Taking on the persona of Dorian Gray, but using Albert Lewin’s 1945 film, rather than the book by Oscar Wilde, we see how Shonibare is exploring popular culture, letting it lead us in a way similar to the graphic novel, through the story to the ultimate demise of Gray. The colour image in the centre, the only one amongst black and white images, is the most shocking, not least because of its isolation.
Many of the objects aim to comment not only on Victorian attitudes to women, children, etc. but also contemporary ones. Nick Knight demonstrates that women are just as constrained in their clothes, what society expects of them and how they should be seen, as their Victorian compatriots. Knight’s image uses Victorian clothes to illustrate how they are ‘representative of the disabling fashions worn by women’.
Tentacles, octopus and Cephalopods are as evident in this exhibition as in Steampunk literature. Yumiko Utsu’s ‘Octopus Portrait’ and Dan Hillier’s ‘Mother’ demonstrate how beauty can be subverted by tentacles. They play with the idea of a ‘dark underbelly of animalistic influences’, themes evident in much Victorian literature,
Mention must be made at this point of Herr Doktor, or Ian Crichton, without whom no Steampunk or Neo-Victorian exhibition would be complete. He is represented by two works, his ‘Space Helmet’ and his ‘Steam Pistol’. Both demonstrate the fun, and wit, of Steampunk. His Helmet is described as ‘stylish, comfortable, and fully adapted to hostile environments’ demonstrating that style need not be compromised wherever you are. If you are in a hostile environment, the Steam Pistol will prove handy, especially against un-earthly opponents’.
Paul St George, with his ‘Geistlich Tube’, connecting two floors of the exhibition, and his ‘Non-circular Gears’, together with Simon Venus’ ‘In Two Minds’, provide the interactive element. The opportunity to gaze into a tube in the hope of seeing others, or perhaps even a ghost, to turn gears, or push a button thus enabling a mechanical stage and a range of objects to move is too much for most people, young or old to resist. I certainly enjoyed watching other visitors approach the objects displaying fascination, hesitation and ultimately a childish enjoyment in seeing paper objects move within the tiers of a mechanical theatre.
Some of my favourite prints were by Otto von Beach. His ‘Victoriana Alphabet’ had many people, myself included, laughing out loud. One wall spells out, as you might see in a child’s alphabet book, the letters V,I,C,T,O,R,I,A,N,A, with accompanying images and what each letter stands for (V is for voluptuous automaton!). On the opposite wall, the rest of the alphabet is spelled out. These together with Stephen Kenny’s work, who not only only exhorts us to drink gin, but reminds us of a ubiquitous Victorian character, Spring-heel Jack, and who is at the forefront of letterpress revival, provides a fitting conclusion to this exhibition. It is wide ranging, thought provoking exhibition, which demonstrates both the fun and serious intent behind Neo-Victorianism and Steampunk in particular.
The exhibition is accompanied by a range of events, including regular tours. A further accompaniment was the Steampunk Symposium, held on Saturday 30 November and organised by Lisa Mullen of Birkbeck, University of London. I was delighted to present a paper on Steampunk identity and the event also included a talk by Anna Powell, entitled ‘Mixing the Planes in Hellboy’. This was followed by a viewing of the exhibition, a Q & A session between Ian Crichton, aka Herr Doktor, and Guildhall curator, Katty Pearce, a discussion of the exhibition and closing remarks.
At £7 (£5 concessions), this is an exhibition that is well worth the money, if you enjoy the zany, and contemporary art with a Victorian twist. It is accompanied by a book, which is both catalogue of the exhibition and assemblage of thought pieces on and around Victoriana (price £15). Edited by the exhibition curator, Sonia Solicari, as with the exhibition, it is witty but does not shy away from the big issues that the exhibition seeks to engage with.