“You’re the fan of Alice In Wonderland, aren’t you?”



Art It’s eleven o’clock yesterday morning and I’m experiencing an attack of nerves. I’ve been invited to the press launch of Tate Liverpool’s new Alice in Wonderland exhibition and despite having been to a few similar events before, even briefly at the Tate during the Biennial, I’m being skewered by the sense of occasion. Partly it’s because I'm excited about the show. But mostly because the part of my brain which usually nullifies my sensation of being just some bloke writing a blog with a funny name has left me very sleepy and stupid.

I was entering a wonderland, experiencing what happens when the “proper” media sees a Tate exhibition for the first time. It’s actually relatively chaotic in the gallery spaces with cameras taking pictures and videos of the works and furiously note making on whatever paper the journalists have to hand ready for when they have to write about the exhibition for whichever paper they write for. I pop my headphones in and listen to music so I can concentrate on the work.

My ability to small talk implodes when people introduce themselves. At times I’m like Walter Bishop in Fringe (quite fittingly on reflection given that tv show’s allusions to Lewis Carroll), unable to put names to faces, simple questions like “You’re the fan of Alice In Wonderland, aren’t you?” becoming epic inquiries into the nature of my personal reality, causing me to gape insensibly. With my also wild hair (I’ve been letting it grow), I must have come across as quite a bizarre figure, barely functional in comparison to accepted human norms.  I couldn't answer.  Said something about liking that sort of thing.

Of course I’m fan. Of course I am.  It’s chiefly because of Carroll’s meandering narrative style in which ideas and images are more important than anything cohesive which make them so charming. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a dream, and one which doesn’t feel the need to justify the existence of footman shaped like frogs and fish and a court made from playing cards. That’s why Tim Burton’s recent adaptation failed; like so much of modern fantasy it attempted to apply complex plot to material which denies its importance in providing valuable entertainment.

I’m also enough of a fan that a couple of night’s before the opening I listened to Alan Bennett’s reading of Wonderland as research (the copy which was given away free with The Guardian recently). It’s a bittersweet rendering on a single disc which is as much about the reader’s interpretation as the words, giving the overall sense of the story but because of time pressures omits much of Lewis Carroll’s idiosyncratic detail, including the famous mouse’s tale (the wavey lines which appear down the page) and even the disappearance of the Cheshire Cat.

The contemporary work we’re initially confronted with at the Tate, through I suspect would probably be a better place to end, is in The Wolfson Gallery on the ground floor. Amongst other delights, Tate have asked Mel Bochner a 1969 work as Measurement: Eye Level Perimeter (Ask Alice). It’s just a thick black line drawn across all four walls of the room, nine feet high. But our perception of it changes when we’re told that’s the height Alice is at when she grows in Carroll’s story and we’re suddenly dropped right into the fantasy.

The rest of Tate’s exhibition has at least the basic structure of the novels. The first two rooms are the story of the book and the little girl who influenced it then from Room 3 onwards we’re through the looking glass into the material which is inspired or at least thematically similar to Lewis Carroll’s aims. But unlike the cd it also contains the idiosyncratic detail, a dense collection of objects which couldn’t properly be absorbed even in the two hours including curatorial introduction. When you do visit, expect to spend a day.

For fans of art and literature and as is the case with Alice in Wonderland, art and literature together, those first two rooms are worth the entrance fee alone (so much so I will be paying that entrance fee to come again).  For everything else I'm going to say in the coming paragraphs, visit at least for this.  For what must the first time ever, the Tate are displaying Dodgson’s original manuscript of his book together with proof sheets and original drawings, the woodblocks used for the first edition as well as the metal printing block for the famous Tenniel illustrations and his preliminary drawings, as well as the original paste-up for the mouse’s tale.

My first and only copy of Alice is A Puffin Book published by Penguin Books reprinted in 1976 which was given to me and read to me as a child by my Dad at bedtime (see above for contemporary recreation). Only now do I see that it’s a facsimile of the 1895 publication, with the careful balancing of text and illustration.  Like Matisse when creating his story books, Carroll was as interested in Alice as a total art objects as the included schematics for the placement of illustrations demonstrates, the clever positioning of the Cheshire cat on one page then his disappearance on the other so that it’s possible to produce simple animation by flipping between the two.

The effect is overwhelming, especially since they’re packed in with display cabinets filled with the various publications which came after the book fell out of copyright in 1907, an entire industry dedicated to reproducing the text with new translations and illustrations. Copyright can protect authors and intellectual property. But the slackening of the imperative can also lead to an increase in the work’s status, bending it towards new and interesting forms, not least theatre, as is also demonstrated here by posters, programmes and photographs from productions.

The second room is about Dodgson himself and his acquaintance with Alice Liddell - and the pre-Raphaelites which I have to confess was a surprise. Texts explain he was introduced to the Brotherhood early and the composition of his photography directly influenced their style of painting. Both these area are decked out like a room from Tate Britain and the appearance of paintings by Rossetti, Millais and Hughes are a surprise in and of themselves, especially being able to be greet Holman Hunt’s The Triumph of the Innocents at eye level.

Much of the rest of the room is consumed by Dodgson’s photography, of the Liddell Sisters and his experiments in creating fantasy scenes using an Ottewill Folding Box one of the first relatively portable cameras ... and it would be unfair of me to say much more. If you can’t visit, there are plenty of other synopses of the exhibition online. Which is why I want to return. Like the white rabbit I was clock watching throughout, not wanting to miss the curatorial talk, wanting to get as much of the rest of the exhibition in as I could.

Expectation is an interesting emotion because it often overrides logically. Logically an exhibition of Alice in Wonderland at Tate Liverpool would ultimately concern itself with demonstrating how its ideas have been absorbed and expressed in contemporary art. So why was my expectation that the display would more closely focus on how Alice in Wonderland was directly expressed in pop culture. Why was I expecting more on Disney’s interpretation, on Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, more actual illustrations from books than the Dali and Peter Blake?  Why did I want a more specific investigation into Carroll's creativity?

The curators have amassed an impressive selection of work and since I have to admit to only seeing most of it briefly I wonder if, when I revisit, my impression will improve. But scrawled in my notebook are the words “curatorial exercise – let’s find work which is a bit like Alice” and over and over, between those works who’s title gives them a copperbottom connection with the books (Duane Michals’s Alice’s Mirror and Kiki Smith’s Come Away From Her (After Lewis Carroll) there are others for whom the association is as tenuous as the inclusion of a mirror or a rabbit or some other motif.

As is pointed out to me in a couple of my stumbling exchanges, Adrian Searle in The Guardian is far more enamoured by these later sections but less so the historical overview (parts of which he calls “creepy and tedious”) whereas my experience was more or less the opposite. Perhaps it’s that kind of show, something for everyone, but not the same somethings as though it’s designed to separate the traditionalists from the modernists, which is unfair since it’s entirely possible to be find something in both.

The show closes with Douglas Gordan’s Through The Look Glass which places us in the centre of two projections of Travis Brickell from Taxi Driver, the “You talkin’ to me scene”, beginning in synch but slowly phasing so that eventually instead of simply talking to a mirror, Brickell’s bantering with himself, in this context both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Like Bochner’s starting line, Gordan takes something out one context then deliberately refracts it through the prism of Carroll and places us at the centre of the experience.

By now, after the exhibition, after the tour, after an absolutely gorgeous lunch (for the purposes of full disclosure), I’ve calmed down, more able to hold a conversation, even if the room is still chaotic with people in a constant state of interruption and conversation is overstating the small talk which probably ensues. I wonder exactly what made me so nervous in the first place, since everyone else in the room is in the same predicament as me, the imperative to give an opinion, and worse because most are being paid for that opinion, which has to be more difficult.

Which do you think it was?

Until  29 January 2012.

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