Tag Archives: steampunk

‘Victoriana: the Art of Revival’, Guildhall Art Gallery, London

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.

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New Age of Discovery – Steampunk comes to Snibston Discovery Museum

On 10 March, after enjoying a day visiting Snibston Discovery Museum’s collections, we returned to experience the New Age of Discovery – Snibston Colliery in 2100, complete with steampunks, music, film and performance. The event was billed as ‘Snibston’s past becomes the key to a very different kind of future’.

Part of the Transform Snibston programme, which has involved artists in a major project, the New Age of Discovery (NAOD) started with drinks, the opportunity to ‘steampunk’ a pair of 3D glasses, and mingle with steampunks and guests. The staff were suitably attired in steampunk clothes and vied for attention with local steampunks attending the event. We were then led through a darkened museum, with displays draped with dustsheets, while our guide explained how Snibston had been put to sleep after oil had run out. That night, though, it would reawaken to a new age of coal and steam.

Our tour led us outside and into the theatre foyer where food, appropriate to the local area of Leicestershire (including Melton Mowbray Pork Pies!) awaited us. Suitably refreshed, we entered the theatre for a showing of the 3D steampunk silent movie, Clockwork, by ADEPT’s artists Steve Manthorp and Shanaz Gulzar. Accompanied by the sound of ticking clocks, the story unfolded of a sister who was kept a slave by her brother, but who found refuge in working on clocks and making mechanical objects. While the film immersed us in a steampunk and Victorian world, I wasn’t totally convinced of its place in this event, as it did not obviously link to Snibston and the collections there, as much as some of the other aspects of the evening. The following day we visited Bradford Industrial Museum to see the Steampunk exhibition there (more of this in another blog). A key part of the exhibition was this film, and I felt that it proved a more appropriate fit for that context.

On leaving the theatre, we were led outside to a soundscape of burning braziers and sixteen ornate Victorian looking trumpets through which we could hear oral histories from people who had worked at the colliery. This provided an evocative atmosphere in which to hear these stories, but it was difficult at times to see where the next sound station was. I felt that more light or signposting of each sound station would have helped.

The path then led to the old workings of the collieries themselves. Amazing structures lit up again the night sky, these provided the backdrop to the climax and, I felt, most successful part of the event. We were first treated to a stunning rendition of opera from Lili la Scala, who sang from the pit head gear. Then, steampunks processed up from there to a walkway. Accompanied by music, images of miners, the colliery, mine workings and steam engines were projected onto an enormous screen. Finally, Kit Cox announced the New Age of Discovery, fireworks exploded over the screen and, to everyone’s surprise (or at least most people’s!), a steam train broke through the screen and charged up the track towards the museum. This was followed by a steam engine, from which jumped steampunks carrying our limited edition gifts – carved pieces of coal, very fitting for a colliery!

The evening over, we walked back through the museum where another surprise awaited us. The beam engines that we had admired earlier in the day were demonstrating how smoothly – and quietly – they could produce power; a fitting end to our visit to the Age of Discovery. We then made our farewells to steam, steampunks and 2100 and returned to the 21st century with its oil and combustion engines.

‘Steampunk’, Bradford Industrial Museum

Steampunk (10 December 2011 – 6 May 2012) follows on from the success of Steampunk at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford, and the Greatest Steampunk Exhibition at Kew Bridge Steam Museum (KBSM, now London Museum of Water & Steam). Bradford has an exhibition that is a worthy successor. Put together by Wesley Perriman, the exhibition not only draws on the museum collections as influences, but includes dresses, artwork and guns, books, photographs, mobile cabinets of curiosity and the 3D Steampunk silent film, Clockwork, for which you could borrow 3D glasses to view.

The exhibition also places collection items and Steampunk material culture together in the gallery and in the showcases. While there may be concern that this juxtaposition, especially as all the labels were of the same style, could be confusing for visitors – what is ‘real’ and what is ‘Steampunk’ – I felt that this blending of objects and influences worked extremely well. With the other two exhibitions mentioned above, the links to science, steam and mechanical objects were there, but the blending was missing. At the MHS, the Steampunk objects had their own gallery that, though it was at the heart of the museum with other collection galleries around it, could be seen as a little isolated. At KBSM, the Steampunk objects were placed in and around the beam engines, but the influences were not so apparent. Bradford overcame this by juxtaposing Victorian dresses next to Steampunk dresses and a blunderbuss next to a sonic gun. This was a strongly curated exhibition that gave Steampunk a real sense of identity and placed it within a known history, while at the same time demonstrating that it was an alternative world with its own clothes, material culture, thoughts, ideas and values.

Snibston Discovery Museum: the Fashion Gallery

Snibston Discovery Museum, Coalville, Northwest Leicestershire, is an eclectic mix of science and technology activities, steam engines and beam engines (both built by Gimson and Co. Leicester), transport and a fashion gallery. In some ways, the fashion gallery sits a little uneasily with the rest of the exhibits at Snibston, it isn’t that obvious why the gallery is here, rather than at another museum.

The fashion gallery was the main reason for my visit. Containing corsets and underwear from the Symington Collection, it was of interest for two reasons – its links to Harborough Museum where I have worked on the collections, and the influences on and links to Steampunk, one of my research areas. Within the gallery, there are fine examples of corsets over a range of time, which show the development in styles and corresponding effect on women’s bodies in terms of how they should look and what the corsets were doing to them physically and medically. These objects are part not only of our fashion and textile history, but also our social history and technological history. They demonstrate developments in textiles, pigments and dyes, the types of stiffening materials – whale bone, steel, etc. – all of which show the other types of industries involved in the production of women’s clothing and the moral implications of some of these activities.  They also provide evidence of the more obvious changes in how women were supposed to look, be it high or low waists, wasp waists, and associated accoutrements such as bustles, which themselves grew larger or smaller, higher or lower, depending on the fashion in a particular season or year.

The influences of historical corsets on Steampunks are clear, in terms of inspiration for clothes. The interesting thing is how Steampunks take the basic notion of a corset and subvert it for their own purposes. The corset is to be seen, it is no longer a foundation garment, but a statement of fashion and identity. The type of corset you wear as a female Steampunk not only influences how you will be seen, but also the type of Steampunk you are, be it explorer, inventor etc. Playing with identity is an important aspect of being a Steampunk and so, just as there is cross dressing across genders and classes, so there are cross influences across types of identity; no style is definitive, mash-up is encouraged.

Steampunk corsets can be an adaptation rather than a faithful representation of a Victorian piece of clothing – there may be shoulder straps attached, which is not the case with traditional corsets. Traditional corsets sometimes included lace and ribbons, and Steampunk corsets may do so as well, but the addition of other objects is not unknown; for example, embroidered cogs and gears, or metal ones, a fob watch slung from the buttons and, in the case of author Gail Carriger‘s dress – spoons (for an image, see The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer with S. J. Chambers). Customisation and adaptation is encouraged in Steampunk, which helps to define identity. This does not mean that the corsets are not authentic. Their authenticity comes from the underlying influences on the culture and adherence to a Steampunk aesthetic, but perhaps more importantly Steampunk ethos. The corsets meet the ‘rules’ of Victorian, technological and do-it-yourself influences. They are not meant to be copies of Victorian corsets, they are meant to be authentic representations of a culture and individual identities.

Kew Bridge Steam Museum exhibition: The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition

A little while ago, I went to see The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition at Kew Bridge Steam Museum (KBSM). Set within galleries of steam pumping engines, steampunk art, costumes, jewellery, and inventive machinery and guns, not to mention an ornate bed, seem curiously at home. Steampunk embraces science and technology, both Victorian and contemporary, while adding its own, very distinctive, perspective of alternate history.

The exhibition started in the ‘Water for Life Gallery’. Complex works akin to those seen at the Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford in 2009-2010, stand in tall showcases. Pumping engines sit atop masks, which sit atop steam powered goggles. Goggles feature large, be they brass, leather and fur or a combination of the two – all materials which are staples for steampunk. Highlights include ‘Darth Vapour’ and a steampunked Borg, both heads created by Thadeus Tinker – the chair of the Victorian Steampunk Society and organiser of the Asylum. These objects ‘hint at how classic sci-fi could have been’. Across from the Borg is the ‘Universum Steampunk Hot-air Engine’, created by Jos de Vink and the ‘The Cathedral Steampunk Hot-ari Engine’, both amazing constructions in brass powered by candles.

Clockwork insects and jewellery incorporating eyes demonstrate the complexity of steampunk visual and material culture and these intricate objects contrast with the scale of the Thunderbuss Sonic Hunting Rifle, which hints at both the past and future. Faux taxidermy and curios demonstrate how something that was popular in Victorian times is still popular with steampunks. The sign suggests that you can make your won and a section is set aside to create your own steampunk material culture – so engaging the audience with one of the main steampunk aesthetics – do it yourself.

Guns continue to feature in the next cabinet, drawing on transistor valves for inspiration and materials. Herr Doktor has produced yet another fine piece – The Lady Raygun, described as ‘peerless’ and ‘deadly’. Complete with attachments in a beautiful lined wooden box, this is a gift that any lady would treasure! Next to this, ‘The Time Machine Steampunk Hot Air Engine’ is almost astronomical in its appearance and yet it demonstrates its links to Wells’ Time Machine.

Interspersed around the museum, almost forming part of the permanent collection and looking quite at ease, steampunk art and material culture both complements and contrasts with the large beam engines. A pith helmet and goggles sits within a diver / Robbie the Robot style headpiece. On the other side of the 90-inch Cornish Beam Engine stands a figure that resembles a diver, but is in fact an airman, as the poster by it exclaims:

‘Protect the Skies. Join the Royal Air Patrol. Enlist Today’.

Combining Latin with WWII American airmen’s jackets, the logo of a space ship has beneath it Noli Hoc Domi Conari, while the costume combines an airman’s jacket, sheepskin collar and jet pack complete with space age helmet.

Next to the 100-inch and 90-inch Engines stands the ‘Bomb Disposal Specialist, Her Majesty’s Engineers’. Another piece by Thadeus Tinker, he links a steampunk inspired outfit to the very real dangers currently being faced by soldiers in Afghanistan. Next to the Boulton and Watt Engine, a lady’s steampunk day outfit in blue tartan and lace combines ‘steam’ from Victorian times and ‘punk from the 1970s’. It embodies the term steampunk. Designed by Lady Elsie and with homage to Vivian Westwood, the aim was to make a piece of ‘wearable steampunk art’. In contrast, the ‘Gentleman’s Working Jacket (formal), Working Trouser and Sub-Formal Hat’ by ‘Second Coming, Ms D’s Costume Empire’ explores themes of ‘make do and mend’, historical costumes and recycling. The obligatory eyeglass completes the work.

A steampunk bed on cogs and wheels with crystals, gauges and dragonflies stands opposite these costumes. Made in the museum’s forge by Shelley Thomas, this is a beautiful construction in various metals including brass, with deep red silk. It both fitted in, yet stood in contrast to the surrounding engines.

Alongside to the shop, we find more costumes and artwork. A gentleman’s burgundy frock coat, a lady’s dress complete with Union Jack, stunning wigs, hats and toys, original artwork and, in a tribute to another sci-fi series, K9. Here we find the ‘Basilica Steampunk Hot-air engine, an amazing tower to explore which are very reminiscent of the computer games Myst and Riven. Nearby, in a twist on road safety, a poster exhorts us to ‘kill your velocity! Not an air-kracken!’

The exhibition ends with a steampistol ‘by appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales’, Davros Steamlord and a dalak – suitably steampunked by Mr Peter Harrow Esq and Herr Doktor.

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum is an interesting place to have The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition. Inspired by the exhibition Steampunk at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford, the KBSM exhibition sets the objects in and around the permanent exhibition, juxtaposing steampunk with steam and engines. While the exhibits at MHS were, at least in part, inspired by the collections there, it was less clear where the link to the inspiration came from with this exhibition. The exhibits drew on the same type of metals and many were machine-like in construction, but there was less of a direct link that was obvious, apart from the bed, which was made in the forge at the museum. That said, steampunk derives its roots from Victorian era machines and technology, usually clockwork or steam powered and so the setting is very fitting, as was the MHS.

While the museum calls this ‘the greatest steampunk exhibition’, it is relatively small as exhibitions go, though larger than that at MHS. The range is larger – including costumes, a bed, wigs, hats and artwork posters, in addition to science and sci-fi inspired creations. The Borg rubs shoulders with Star Wars and Doctor Who and there is a healthy amount of goggles and guns thrown in to satisfy all types of steampunks. My personal favourites included the complex water tower construction that looked like it had stepped straight out of Myst or Riven, and the posters exhorting people to join the air corps or to reduce your speed and mind the air kracken. These are all indications that, as well as being inventive, steampunks have a healthy and slightly off-left-side sense of humour – long may they continue!

New Book Chapter on Engagement and Performance

Engagement and Performance: created identities in steampunk, cosplay and re-enactment
As part of ongoing research into costumed communities, I’ve just submitted a book chapter for inclusion in The Cultural Moment in Heritage Tourism: New perspectives on performance and engagement.  Edited by Laurajane Smith (Australian National University, Australia), Emma Waterton (University of Western Sydney, Australia), and Steve Watson (Principal Lecturer, Business Management (Marketing & Tourism), York St. John University, UK) and to be published by Routledge, the book

    will explore the interactions of people with places, spaces, intangible heritage and ways of life not as linear alignments, but as seductive ‘moments’ of encounter and engagement, performance and meaning-making which are constitutive of cultural experience in its broadest sense. Our book will aim to explore and map the cultural encounters in heritage tourism as events that capture and constitute important social relations involving power and authority, self-consciousness and social position, gender and space, history and the present.  These insights will also explore the consequences they have for our understanding of ‘heritage’ and its management in the context of tourist activity.

The chapter ‘Engagement and Performance: created identities in steampunk, cosplay and re-enactment’ explores the dynamics of created identities in historical and fictionalised realities and the role of museums in those constructed realities.  One of the things that I wanted to investigate was how steampunks, cosplayers and historical re-enactors construct their identities.  The aim was to establish the moment of meaning-making and notions of perception and authenticity.

I should hear back about whether the chapter has been accepted early next year – fingers crossed and watch this space!