Gothic Intersections; Site, Story, Art

Posted by Tracy Fahey on September 29, 2013 in Guest Blog, Ms Tracey Fahey tagged with

“In these pictures I draw upon the inherent quietness and uncanny aspects of the empty sets. As with much of my work, I looked at the blurred lines between reality and fiction, nature and artifice, and beauty and decay” [1]

(Gregory Crewdson, 2010)

In this final blog post on Gothic intersections, I will attempt to examine a final set of junctures; this time between fine art practice, sites and stories.

Contemporary Gothic fine art practice is still under-represented within Gothic criticism.    Most of its references to the visual arts are historic examples used to discuss the origins of the Gothic – Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781), Bocklin’s Island of the Dead (the five versions he painted between 1880 and 1886) or any of the ruin-strewn works of Salvator Rosa.  Catherine Spooner’s excellent Contemporary Gothic (2006)[2], and Fashioning Gothic Bodies (2004)[3] correctly align fine art and design within the Gothic canon.  In Contemporary Gothic in particular, Spooner positions fine art as legitimate Gothic practice by treating the hypnotic domestic dystopias of Gregory Crewdson and the atrocity shows of the Chapman Brothers with the same seriousness she applies to studies of House of Leaves, The Blair Witch Project or indeed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Fig. 1. Untitled from Beneath the Roses (2003–2005) Gregory Crewdson

In Crewdson’s Untitled (Fig. 1) he takes a middle class American suburban home and turns it into a stage for horror.  The juxtaposition of the roomy home, the cosy domesticity of the figure in front of the mirror are off-set with the presence of the female corpse in the background.  The combination of surreal image with a painterly, poetic framing of the scene invests the whole with an atmosphere of dreamy terror.  One image draws together the legacy of David Lynch and the whole American tradition of suburban horror –from The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror right through to the Paranormal Activity franchise.  Through deft manipulation of the viewer, the familiar site of the home is transfigured to an uncanny space redolent with untold narratives.

Gothic’s shadowy relationship with the past is conveyed beautifully through fine art practice, the visual grammar of contemporary work conjuring up memories, allusions and illusions.  Consider for example, the treatment of Gothic space and experience represented in the silent, empty, poignant work of Tacita Dean, the entombed, solidified ghosts of Rachel Whiteread and the haunted hallways of Nuno Cera.  As Crewdson says ‘It is that sense of in-between-ness that interests me.’[4]

As a researcher into the convergence of site and story in Irish Gothic, contemporary fine art practice has offered me some rich examples of these intersections.  Folklore proves a rich source of inspiration, with its combination of strange spaces and the narratives that flow from them.  This can be seen in the elegant, dark fairytale work of Alice Maher, and the work of Michael Fortune.  Fortune’s use of the ethnographic methodology of folklore collection is probably best exemplified in his 2005 piece in collaboration with Aileen Lambert, The Banshee Lives in the Handball Alley; a warm and wonderful capture of Irish regional myths with contemporary references told through the voices of schoolchildren.

Fig. 1. The Banshee Lives in the Handball Alley (still from video piece)(2005) Michael Fortune and Aileen Lambert

Through my own work with art collective Gothicise, which I founded in 2010 ( I have been conducting practice-led research into this very area – asking how stories grow from sites,  how  sites act as a repository of stories and how site-specific pieces evoke memories.  The collaborations that have grown from this collective have brought a new perspective to my research, giving it an interdisciplinary focus and of course, bringing to it the joy of making, of playing an active role within the Gothic itself.  Three projects to date have centred themselves around Limerick, the Irish city where I live.  A Haunting of 2011, (Fig. 3) in collaboration with Limerick City Council (and artists, photographers (both the digital and plate glass variety), dancers, singers, quilters, a park-keeper, a bus-driver, and a local storyteller) attempted to create a simulacrum of the Victorian past of a public park in the city through stories, performances and visual captures.  The image of the flâneur is evoked in a series of contemporary photographs that capture the timeless quality of the setting.

Fig. 3. A Haunting (2011) Gothicise. Photography by Press 22, with thanks to Limerick City Council

Other projects are more playful. The Magic Bush (Fig. 4) as part of The Double Life of Catherine Street project is participative – it invites spectators to contribute stories and memories to an allegedly magic bush on the street.  The overall project, as can be seen from the title, was to create an uncanny double of the real Catherine Street in Limerick, overlaid on the actual street, and to create an alternative history, mythology and set of rituals that formed part of the imagined street.  However, the Magic Bush not only inspired new narratives, but echoed the very old tradition in Ireland of the holy well, a place where miraculous cures were celebrated by tying rags to nearby bushes.

Fig. 4. The Magic Bush from The Double Life of Catherine Street (2011) Gothicise with David Bowe.

This concluding image brings me, effectively, back where I started, right at the heart of the Gothic intersection of the creative and the critical.  In discussing the work of Gothicise, I am of course acting as critical commentator on my own work, which in turn, operates as practice-led research, thereby engendering an endless cycle of thought, creation and response.

These intersections I’ve explored are just the beginning of a long and interesting exploration of interdisciplinary Gothic.  For myself, as for so many others, the Gothic is precisely interesting because of its otherness, its mysterious in-betweenness, that gray area in which all kinds of interesting ideas can take root, cross-pollinate and produce new directions.

[1] Catalogue for Sanctuary, 2010, Gregory Crewdson, exhibition in the Gagosian Gallery, New York

[2] Spooner, C (2006) Contemporary Gothic, Reaktion Books.

[3] Spooner, C (2006) Fashioning Gothic Bodies, Manchester University Press

[4] Crewdson, G (2002) Catalogue for Twilight exhibition, 2002.

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