If one were to take a broad assessment of popular culture circa 2012, one could be left with the impression that our culture as a whole is obsessed with fairy tales, monsters, and the transmutability of humans and animals. If this trend began with the Harry Potter series, it has since exploded through True Blood, Twilight, Grimm, Vampire Diaries, Being Human, Once Upon a Time, X-Men and even the children’s cartoon and toy series Monster High—whose slogan is “Freaky just got Fabulous, Be Yourself, Be Unique, Be a Monster.”
Three years into the great recession could it be we are seeking refuge in these flights of fantasy as a safe haven from the challenging times in which we live?
Or could the popularity of mythical beings like werewolves, vampires, witches, and wizards have something to do with a latent desire for acceptance and normalization of our own insecurities— a yearning encapsulated and encouraged by Lady Gaga through her oeuvre, involving themes of evolution, monsters, genetic manipulation, rebirth, and an ethos of acceptance that extends to race, gender, and sexuality?
Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through May 28, 2012, endeavors to engage some of these questions and develop a broader dialogue about art that uses humanlike, animal, or hybrid creatures to symbolize life’s mysteries, desires and fears. Exhibition Curator Mark Scala has “long been intrigued by artists and filmmakers for whom geneticists’ capacity to design new life forms has inspired fictional narratives of biological, spiritual, and social transfiguration. In connecting past and future, the artists in the exhibition explore the hidden meanings behind composite creatures as they are transformed from fantasy to reality.”
The more interesting point about the current popularity of fantasy for Scala is not its function as a means of escape but rather a growing awareness among artists that “the layers of meaning in every resonant fantasy are complex and contingent, very much like life.” For Scala the works of art in this show are not important or interesting because they represent an escape from reality; rather, “They provide deeper perspectives on what it is to be real, to be human.”
At the heart of the exhibition are the works of Patricia Piccinini, an artist whose work addresses the legal, moral, and theological implication of genetic engineering. Her work poses profound questions about the humanity of new hybrid beings, the rights such creations have, the existence of a soul in engineered beings, and the ultimate question—who will love and care for these creatures? These questions are given startling form in Piccinini’s sculpture The Long Awaited where a young boy sits on a bench, eyes closed, cradling the head of a primitive half-man half-amphibian creature. Both empathetic and monstrous, the hyper-real sculpture presents a sweet yet disturbing vision of a dystopian future. Scala describes Piccinini’s as a language of “hybrid bodies that goes far back into history, combining human and animal in ways that make one think of mermaids, centaurs, and other transformed species from deep within our traditions.”
The practice of creating anthropomorphic, hybrid beings as metaphors finds its earliest expression in myths and fairy tales that have been passed through generations. Although familiar, the fairy tales referenced in this exhibition have been re-imagined by artists through a critical and skeptical lens that destabilizes familiar narratives and produces new associations. The work of Paula Rego and Kiki Smith critiques and reworks fairy tales through feminist theory and politics. Rego’s revisionist nursery rhyme images are menacing and perplexing visions which include a giant, human-headed spider about to pounce on Little Miss Muffett, three helpless blind mice dancing before a sadistic farmer’s wife, and Old Mother Goose’s gander commandeered by her son Jack—perhaps escaping away to the moon. Kiki Smith provides alternative narratives of empowerment for the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In Born, Red is shown emerging from the bloody belly of a wolf in the arms of her mother, who is also clothed in red. The capes, blood, and fur commingle, inferring that the two women have just been born or released from the wolf. In a related work, Rapture, a woman emerges whole from the eviscerated belly of a wolf—suggesting, in Smiths’ words, “Little Red Riding Hood as a kind of resurrection/birth myth.”
Other artists in the exhibition blend iconic bits and pieces from the fairy-tale genre to create new, self-contained narratives without specific referents in tradition. Meghan Boody’s lush, baroque photographs in the exhibition present satirical portraits of the wives of Henry VIII, with Henry portrayed as a giant frog prince, while Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz’s intricate snow globes contain deceptively beautiful scenes invoking pending disaster or peril—Humpty Dumpty about to plunge from a wall into a snow bank or a lone traveler confronted by two giant, looming rabbits.
The genre of the monstrous provides artists with a trope to explore the threatening “other” or the uncontrollable forces of the psyche. The term itself evokes multiple meanings—a vengeful outcast, a threatening inhuman or part-human brute, or a harbinger of danger or evil. In this exhibition, the monstrous gives insight into new recombinant realities, blurring distinctions between imaginary and real animals and human beings. The namesake of David Altmejd’s Werewolf 1 has been decapitated, bejeweled, and relegated to a chamber inside a minimalist box with crystals growing from the top. The piece brings to mind an old-school, post-modernist critique of Donald Judd, yet the combination of elements adds up to a greater, more poetic whole, bringing to mind a funereal sense of wonder at this mythical creature’s demise.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, well known for their provocative and often horrific sculptures, engage the subconscious through the surrealist parlor game of the exquisite corpse to create a collection of alarming monsters fashioned from a multitude of body parts.
Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination is a timely exhibition that presents images and stories with which we are all familiar in new, provocative ways—repurposing the fairy tales and monsters of childhood and presenting them as a means of understanding a new, bold future where genetic manipulation and hybrid beings may be commonplace. For Mark Scala there are broader implications to these ideas as “the notion of hybridity is increasingly becoming seen as a way to adapt and create composite, often multidisciplinary solutions for problems that have proved intractable to those with more specialized or linear skill sets. Scientists, writers, teachers, and inventors can all benefit from following the lead of artists in opening the imagination to other possibilities and other disciplines as we design our future.”