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November 11 2011

The month in photography

Audio slideshow: Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Walker Evans, Terry Richardson, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus



Manchester's Alice in Wonderland exhibition

The Portico Library's charming exhibition which celebrates the most enduringly popular children's novel is worth a visit

A charming exhibition celebrating the enduringly popular children's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is taking place at a Manchester library beneath its elegant stained glass dome.

The Portico Library's exhibition – A Journey Through Wonderland; Alice in Multimedia - may not be as headline grabbing as the one taking place at the other end of the M62 at Tate Liverpool, but it explores whether the book was really a children's book and looks at how Alice was represented in illustrations.

Manchester's exhibition is quite different as it concentrates on the multimedia aspect of Lewis Carroll's work and looks at the different formats surrounding the book, librarian Emma Marigliano explains. "The two exhibitions are completely different and there can be no comparisons between the two. People may expect multimedia to mean on screen, but it is also about the different formats."

It seeks to capture some of the magic of the story, first published 146 years ago, with a range of books, comics, pop-ups, artwork, film and other media. There is a glass bottle of green liquid with 'drink me,' artwork depicting Alice as an older child. The 'real' Alice Liddell was only seven, contrary to the impression given in some illustrations.

There's a case containing alternative Alices such as Alice in Blunderland and Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, the latter exploring the connections between Carroll, Alice Liddell and Wearside.

The book has been translated into at least 36 different languages, including Latin and Swahili (Elisi Katika Nchi Ya Ajabu) – both these editions are on display.

Marigliano says some of the items loaned by Mark Richards, chairman of The Lewis Carroll Society, are particularly good and are not usually on public display.

The Portico's collection of early illustrated editions of Carroll's children's books have been much in demand over the years and were popular with the library's readers, as records of lending were marked in the books.

Co-curator Lynne Allan, vice-chair of the library, notes that Carroll, who was also known as Charles Dodgson, was a friend of many pre-Raphaelites – he knew the Rossettis and William Morris. "Dodgson had an eye for beauty, a mastery of reason and logic as well as a gift for fancy," she said. "He was a true polymath."

"Alice in Wonderland takes the reader into a world which can be frightening but then delivers us back safely to reality in time for tea, knowing that we – like Alice – have had a wonderful dream. Whether or not the Alice books are suitable for children is still a debatable point, but the items in our exhibition demonstrate how versatile the original book has been and continues to be."

A one-day interdisciplinary conference takes place at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester on December 1 organised by Dr Hannah Priest.

The exhibition was opened last month by Vanessa St Clair, great granddaughter of Alice Liddell.

In her introduction to the exhibition, Allan says as far back as 1942, in a radio symposium, Bertrand Russell says the book should not be read by anyone under 16 and Anne Porter, an American novelist, described it as a horror story.

Perhaps the Tim Burton film from 2010 has renewed a 21st century interest in the story. But it is good to see two exhibitions celebrating the book taking place in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Portico's exhibition continues until November 30.


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November 02 2011

Alice in Wonderland, Tate Liverpool

Alice Liddell inspired Lewis Carroll, whose books inspired a thousand art works. But are they any good? Adrian Searle heads down the rabbit hole at Tate Liverpool's new show

Lewis Carroll, or rather the fictive world of Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, is firmly embedded in our culture. I am surprised no one has made a religion out of Alice. Perhaps they have.

She is also very much at large in Tate Liverpool. Here she is, here she isn't: in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and in Jorge Luis Borges; in Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, and in the surrealist works of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. Alice captivated Virginia Woolf and Walt Disney, inspired Robert Smithson, Sigmar Polke and a host of better and worse visual artists. Characters from the Alice books, or rather their putative ancestors, can be found, according to Alberto Manguel (writing in a brilliant, short catalogue essay), in Hamlet and Don Quixote, in Kafka, Homer and the Bible. The influence of Carroll's creation can be found in sci-fi, detective fiction and philosophy, in pre-Raphaelite painting and in hard-arsed conceptualism. You can't shake Alice off.

This is a peculiar show, both rich and thin at the same time. It fascinates and it bores, running from the original 1865 manuscript for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Underground to the neon signage of the late Jason Rhoades's 2004 My Madinah: In Pursuit of My Ermitage with its brightly glowing euphemisms for the female sex. Trout Hole, Sugar Basket, Serpent Socket, say the dangling, jangling neons, and much besides. You go red-faced in the glow of them.

The Reverend Dodgson might not be amused by Rhoades, or by the smutty implication that Alice's rabbit hole could have anything other than innocent connotations – although it is hard to avoid the thought that Dodgson might have been motivated by "a sublimated desire for a pre-pubescent child", as Manguel puts it in his essay.

The show attempts a historical overview. There's much to appeal to hardcore fans, with vitrine after vitrine filled with early editions, Alice biscuit tins, themed playing cards and crockery, playbills and ephemera of a merchandising industry that is as familiar today as it was novel in the 19th century. Alice was the Harry Potter of her day. Then there are all Dodgson's photographs of the Liddell sisters, including the real Alice, and, as the show proceeds, more and more Alice-derived, inspired and related artworks. Many are curios rather than significant works. Many are horrible, and some are probably irrelevant or so minor as to be pointless.

The opening section of the exhibition is both creepy and tedious. All those images of grumpy little girls, whom Dodgson, a keen amateur photographer, entertained for the long exposures of his plates by telling them stories. It's a surprise that none of his little sitters were carried off by diphtheria or any other prevalent Victorian childhood disease while they sat before his camera. Photography was also Dodgson's calling card for his entry into the London art world, and he photographed many of the leading lights of his day, along with their children: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his family; William Holman Hunt and his son Cyril; Sir John Everett Millais and his daughter Mary (who provided the model for Millais's 1865 painting Waking, a mawkish and disturbing painting that has little Mary sitting bolt upright in bed, looking up at some unseen spot on the ceiling).

De Niro through the looking glass

Maybe there's a Jason Rhoades neon up there. I expect Mary to start levitating at any moment, declaiming obscene gibberish in the manner of the possessed kid in The Exorcist. (In fact, The Exorcist wouldn't have been a bad movie to include among the screened works here.) Robert De Niro performs his "Are you talkin' to me?" routine from Taxi Driver in Douglas Gordon's double-screen Through the Looking Glass, and people talk backwards in Gary Hill's video, which merges Through the Looking-Glass and Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

Virginia Woolf said the Alice books weren't for children. "They are the only books in which we become children," she wrote. Though there is plenty that may delight children (Jan Svankmajer's 1971 film Jabberwocky, for instance, or Bill Woodrow's English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty sculpture, with its bomb-like Humpty up on a wall), it is the inner adult this show really panders to. Fiona Banner's Arsewoman in Wonderland, for example, is a poster describing an Alice-inspired porno movie in graphic detail, right down to the final cum-shot. Yayoi Kusama's masked and naked performers, covered in polka-dot body paint, posed around the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in New York's Central Park in a 1968 Happening, is weird enough to disturb anyone – as are Francesca Woodman's 1972-5 black and white photographs, one of which has a lurking rabbit-headed man half-shadowed in a sunlit doorway. Better to turn to Kiki Smith's 2000-2003 intaglio etchings based on Dodgson's own illustrations to Alice, beautiful bestiaries of birds and animals swimming through Alice's Pool of Tears.

In the 1960s Alice became a doped-up, hippy-trippy pin-up. Adrian Piper, a conceptual artist and philosopher, made a number of LSD-inspired psychedelic paintings in the late 60s, some while still in high school, which as well as having a consummate period flavour are zingy and eye-chewing enough to bring on a flashback even if you've never dropped a tab. Peter Blake's illustrations to Through the Looking Glass have real graphic distinction, but there's something nasty about Graham Ovenden's Alice screenprints of young girls in soft-focus glow. Yuck is the only fit response. What's missing here – although it appears in the catalogue – is Sigmar Polke's 1971 painting derived from Sir John Tenniel's illustration of Carroll's hookah-smoking caterpillar. Another work I sorely miss is a David Shrigley photograph of a bottle left on a garden step, with a handwritten DRINK ME label; it appears to be filled with stale urine. Shrigley and Polke would have given the show a boost. Maybe Tate couldn't get the loans.

What they did get is a lot of minor stuff, including a lot of secondary 1930s English surrealism (excepting the great Leonora Carrington), alongside the Ernsts and Dalís, none of which are quite as surreal and strange as the original Alice. Conceptual artists from Marcel Broodthaers to Joseph Kosuth played with Alice, too, not always to great effect, and it seems to me that Lewis Carroll was even more conceptually rigorous, playful and thought-provoking – let alone surreal – than almost any artist who pays homage to him. This is the show's lesson: somehow the books stand above their author and those who are inspired by them. Their fictive world has become so ubiquitous that almost anything can be seen in relation to it: anything featuring a mirror, an uncanny twist, anything with a child lost in a seemingly incomprehensible adult world, anything that bends logic, or time and space. All roads lead to Wonderland, even if some are not worth taking.


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October 28 2011

Visions of Alice in Wonderland

One of the most recognisable figures in fiction is Alice, the little girl at the heart of Lewis Carroll's two classic stories. An exhibition at Tate Liverpool follows her development from John Tenniel's original illustrations

No word exists for imaginary characters such as Hamlet, or Frankenstein and his Creature, who have developed autonomous life, leaping off the stage or out of a book, who add to the variety of human personalities we all know and offer us compass bearings. Of all such figments, the most recognisable must be Alice, the little girl questor at the heart of Lewis Carroll's two classic stories, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).

It's perhaps surprising that an art gallery, rather than a library, is holding a huge survey exhibition about Alice, but then Carroll's creation has been and still is the inspiration of artists, photographers, theatrical designers, animators, film-makers. The new Tate Liverpool show explores this territory, from the author's own rarely seen manuscript illustrations and marvellously evocative biographical materials (Carroll's perceptive and often lyrical photographs, works of art by his pre-Raphaelite friends) to the Surrealists, for whom Alice became a cherished myth. The Surrealist movement is represented by some of the most potent works in the exhibition: Salvador Dalí's illustrated edition of Alice, and the finest painting in Dorothea Tanning's oeuvre, the eerie Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with sunflowers bursting colossal tentacles around the little girl with her hair on end in spikes of flame. The Surrealist legacy is still very fertile, in the context of a growing return to myth, fairytale and romanticism. Alice is the prototype of wise child and naive innocent – as seen in the vision not only of such artists as Peter Blake and Graham Ovenden, but of their successors in disquiet, Annelies Štrba and Alice Anderson, practitioners of the contemporary uncanny who give a new feminist twist to the heroine. Alice has grown older and more knowing than her original model, and turned into the receptacle of erotic dreams, a femme enfant with whom women artists strongly identify: the knowledge you are Alice as strong as the longing for her.

The character of Alice was inspired by Alice Liddell, the second daughter of the growing family who came to live in the Deanery, Christ Church, the college where Charles Dodgson was a fellow. A very pretty child with a melancholy cast of feature, she became the dearest of the author's child-friends, his chief love from among a host of girls – and boys – whom he entertained with puzzles, riddles, jokes, poems, gadgets, ditties and caricatures. He had begun photographing children several years before he wrote the Alice stories. He would focus on the families of artists, inviting himself into the houses of Rossetti, Millais, Arthur Hughes, and the fantasy writer George Macdonald, in a forward way that seems at odds with the shy, stammering persona of the rather undistinguished mathematics lecturer, who was deaf in one ear, and very partial to jelly and cakes. The eccentric and miraculous creator of Alice was one of history's great refusers. Like Kafka, with whom he has more in common than usually recognised, Dodgson could never resolve himself to move to the next stage of his life: he never took holy orders, never rose in the college hierarchy, never married. He was happy only in the company of children. However, he looked after a large number of other unmarried siblings (especially after he made so much money with the Alice books), campaigned against vivisection, seems to have devised the single transferable vote, and successfully pressed to improve the living conditions of child performers.

Today, Lewis Carroll might be under surveillance and, if not in prison, tagged. His sexuality caused him "unspeakable torments", writes Carroll's assiduous biographer, Morton Cohen. Yet, as Penelope Fitzgerald pointed out, "we can consider ourselves fortunate", since his diverted sexual energy "was in all probability the source of his genius".

The first Alice story was originally called Alice's Adventures under Ground, but Carroll thought this sounded as if it might contain "instructions about mines". Elf-land was another possibility he considered, before he decided – momentously – on Wonderland. But his first idea of an underworld reveals the connection of the Alice books to forebears among dream visionaries who descended into the nether regions, such as Dante and Blake. Carroll was above all a parodist, who fired in his own kiln a great original work from the rubble of others. This member of the Anglican clergy shows very little sign of Christian faith, evincing instead a passionate up-to-the-minute engagement with nascent ideas about the unconscious, fantasy and altered states. He translated Christian eschatology into early psychological delvings into terrors and absurdity – Alice is opposed and frustrated at every turn, but she's a dissenter not a collaborationist, and keeps speaking up against the way the people and animal-characters she encounters insist on the rightness of their way of doing things. A little girl raises a voice of common sense against the arbitrary rules and unjust commandments of the grown-up world; the picture of adult repressiveness was written to cheer her up, as it has done so many readers since.

The dream child who is also a dreamer of truths, and the Carroll vision of the folly of the world are only two of the myriad themes that have excited artists. The Tate show reveals a lineage of art works that have not been explored before: the long interest, especially in this country from the early Victorian era onwards, in graphic illustration. The future Lewis Carroll was born during the heyday of a form of British art that has been sidelined as minor for too long, and the story of Alice's rise to mythic status also belongs to this history of a great 19th-century enterprise: the picture book. Thomas Bewick, a pioneer of the form, is vividly remembered, for example, by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre (1847). In the novel, Jane is also a little girl at the beginning and we see her happily mind-voyaging through the pages of Bewick's History of British Birds: Jane confides to us how "Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings … and when, having brought her ironing-table to the nursery-hearth, she allowed us to sit about it, and … fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and other ballads …

"With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way."

Charles Dodgson was 15 when Brontë's novel exploded into Victorian consciousness, but he doesn't have to have known this book directly for us to imagine that he knew and even shared the heroine's feelings. When Alice thinks crossly, at the beginning of Wonderland, about her sister's reading matter, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?" she speaks as a Victorian child from a similar background as young Charles Dodgson. For a family like the Dodgsons, living far from the metropolis in not very affluent circumstances in a draughty rectory, illustrated magazines such as Punch were the principal vehicle by which pictures reached them, and they contributed a crucial element in the world that formed the creator of Alice.

As a boy, Carroll made up family miscellany magazines with lots of drawings by himself and his brother Wilfred, copied from pictures that came their way: his early attempts look like Edward Lear's cartoons, and he recycled several of the poems and jokes for the Alice books: part of "Jabberwocky", for instance, appears in one of these family magazines, Mischmasch, as a "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry", written out in pretence runes.

The author of Alice grasped intuitively the power of images to imprint themselves on the collective consciousness in the age of mechanical reproduction. For many years, he tried to make the Alice pictures himself, and their awkwardness sharpens his fantasy's quirky weirdness. The Tate show includes the original sketches Dodgson drafted – of Alice, the White Rabbit, the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, and the Caterpillar, as well as the earliest version of the "Long-Tale", a pioneering "calligramme", or picture-poem, in the form of a mouse's curving tail for which Dodgson razored every typographic character individually and pasted it down. But he couldn't draw little girls of character, and it was when he realised he needed a better artist than himself and chose John Tenniel that his Alice became the universally recognisable figure she is – from the Alice band to the pinafore and the pumps. Carroll admired Tenniel for his work on the animals in Aesop's Fables in particular, but he also knew him as a Punch cartoonist and indefatigable illustrator, with the magic metamorphoses of the Arabian Nights and many other titles in his portfolio. Although Tenniel was overburdened with work, and relations with the pernickety and exacting Dodgson were often fraught, he brilliantly rendered the curiouser and curiouser world of Alice.

Before Freud formed his model of the psyche, Carroll was writing with conviction about infancy and the unconscious, which he identified with travels in fairyland in the introduction to his last book, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). His interest was shared by his generation: the same year, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote a full account of her child self called The One I Knew Best of All: A Memory of the Mind of a Child, about her dreamworld and her imaginary friends. But Carroll wrought a great difference to the Romantic legacy of fantasy about childhood imagination, and to his contemporaries' interest in internal states, because he adopted the technological and scientific structures of the new magic media: his skill as a photographer, using the extremely tricky wet collodion process, gave him the coordinates of space-time in Alice's Wonderland: she grows big and small as in a lens or developing tray, while Looking Glass country is governed by the catoptrics, the phenomena of reflection and refraction, which operate in the reflex camera.

The multiple layerings of reality that Alice passes through, growing more and more bewildered, anticipate current cyber-reality, as many extrapolations show. At the end of Wonderland, Alice's sister dreams of a future Alice telling the story of her fantastic dream to her children, and at the end of Looking Glass, Alice asks her kitten: "who it was that dreamed it all … You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course – but then I was part of his dream, too!" This labyrinth with no exit shapes Jorge Luis Borges's marvellous fable, The Circular Ruins, and since then, the central concept of the Matrix films, and, more recently, of Christopher Nolan's Inception. It is this emphasis on the reality of dream life and the absurdity of conventions, combined with the modernity of his methods, that has made Carroll's dream child the vehicle for so much active dreamwork from artists such as Sigmar Polke, Robert Smithson and Adrian Piper, whose interpretations give Alice a psychedelic and occult colour.

An intrinsic element in the universe of reverie is the mysterious elapsing of time, and the different temporality of stories, of daily business, of Carroll's imagination, as Gillian Beer explores in a fascinating catalogue essay. The Tate exhibition has included works that take up this aspect of the Alice story, by the conceptualist Joseph Kosuth, for example. "I wonder if I have changed in the night?" Alice muses. "Let me think, was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I am not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, that's a great puzzle!" This is indeed the existential question that lies at the heart of the most recent controversial philosophy of personhood (as in Galen Strawson's latest book, and Derek Parfit's) but Carroll and artists his Alice has inspired have been exploring this unsettling question for decades.

When I was young and first read the Alice books, I found them peculiar and harsh, and felt something disturbing was going on underneath that I didn't understand. When I grew up the tantalising wit and fantasy in the stories won me over. But that current of strangeness and enigma still charges Alice's adventures and it touches a live wire in the imaginations of artists. A work by Rodney Graham in the show embodies this suggestion of secret knowledge: he has encased a vintage edition of Alice, one with a fancy pictorial binding, between two halves of a ghostly white slipcase, parted to allow a glimpse – of what? Like the White Rabbit, the sense disappears as one chases after it. As Lewis Carroll wrote of Alice:
still she haunts me phantom-wise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes

Alice beckons us to enter our own fugitive states of feeling and desire, our own elusive dreamworlds.


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April 22 2011

Easter special: art's top five bunnies

From religious paintings to cartoons, rabbits have been portrayed as both enigmatic and aggressive. But which portrayal is your favourite?

Bunny rabbits have inspired some great art and, as Easter is upon us, here is an artistic survey of the season's creature: my top five rabbits in art.

The most beautiful rabbit in art is surely the white bunny in Titian's Madonna of the Rabbit in the Louvre. It is also one of the most touching in its association with childhood and pets – which is not to say it has no theological significance as a symbol of the mystery of the Incarnation. In Renaissance art the young Christ is seen with all kinds of animals, from birds to cats, but Titian's rabbit is somehow one of the funniest, most natural childhood scenes in a religious painting.

Albrecht Durer's 1502 portrait of a rabbit – or is it a hare? – is a very different work. Where Titian paints a white rabbit as part of a scene of childhood in the countryside, as a prop in an essentially human setup, Durer concentrates with rapt attention on the rabbit or hare as a thing in itself, without people or landscape. This is at once enigmatic and troubling: what is in its brain? What does it see? It is a very serious bunny.

It's almost a relief to go from Durer's alien beast to John Tenniel's Victorian illustration of the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Or is it? Tenniel's study of what a rabbit might look like in human clothes, standing upright and looking at a pocket watch, is so meticulous that it takes on a hallucinatory truth that has haunted the modern imagination along with the rest of his Alice illustrations. It seems that as soon as you move away from Titian's family picnic with an Easter bunny, the rabbit in art becomes uncanny. The mildness of this creature offers a blank slate on which artists have imagined strange personae and possibilities.

The blankest of all bunnies is Jeff Koons's Rabbit, cast from an inflatable toy, its silvery skin a perfect mirror. This is the most uncanny rabbit of all. It is a metaphor for art itself, which it suggests is reflective and ethereal. Not something to touch but something that vanishes, like a dream. A form, but also just light. Koons is a tricky genius and his Rabbit a slippy customer.

Koons's Rabbit is almost as slippy as my favourite artistic rabbit: Bugs Bunny. Created at the end of the 1930s by a team of artists who included Tex Avery, the carrot-chomping, wisecracking Bugs is one of the great popular artworks of the 20th century. His design, like a thin-limbed 15th-century statue, makes him always aggressive, pert, and restless. Rabbits reached their apotheosis with Bugs. If mice are cute and cats are cruel in cartoons, Bugs Bunny is a free spirit, the rabbit as hero. Happy Easter.


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January 23 2011

September 24 2008

TERRA 447: Malice in Wonderland PREVIEW

Sometimes, unexpected guests can very quickly become pests. But what happens when you ask them to leave? Join the Red Queen and Alice on live action, animated journey down the rabbit hole, as they are caught in an evolutionary arms war between parasite and host.

Science films often portray their content in a very pedestrian way. This one set out to challenge this approach by presenting a theory about parasite/host co-evolution (by Matt Ridley) in a visually extraordinary manner, using Lewis Carroll's imagery. This short is aimed at a general, educated audience, and was produced as part of an ongoing MFA in Science & Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana
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