Tracey Holland Magic, Murder and the Weather

For over two decades Tracey Holland’s photo-tableaux have exploited a distinctive and highly personalised stock of imagery selected from the extensive collection of obsessively scavenged junk and dead animals accumulated in her wunderkammer/studio. This melancholy refuse, assembled into new and animated configurations, is restored to posthumous prominence in Cibachrome prints notable for a tension between the aesthetically compelling and the viscerally disturbing. The contesting claims of retinal pleasure and of the dis-ease arising from recognising metaphors for our own mortality, are responses which Holland effortlessly elicits. She could, theoretically, continue to manipulate her inanimate subjects into consistently inventive expositions of death and transfiguration without ever departing from her private sphere.

With Magic, Murder and the Weather, however, Holland’s imagery has moved beyond her idiosyncratic netherworld to borrow from pre-existing source material in the demotic texts of folk or fairy tales. The work consists of three sets of three triptyches based on two familiar folk tales, Bluebeard and Ashputtel (the German original of Cinderella) and the more obscure, What Became of Picking Jessamine. 1 These are tales of fear and horror resulting from the encroachment of outside agents on familial security, and intended to be recounted in a private domestic setting - as suggested by the title of the Grimms’ collection - Hausmarchen. But, consciously or not, Holland’s choice of these three particular narratives taps directly into those very realms of recent and recurring cases where reality becomes mired in the nightmare quality of the black fairytale, and private ordeals become public property.

Certainly, it can be argued that the perennial significance of such tales is precisely because they transcend the specifics of time and place and relate to unchanging and inescapable truths about human nature and human experience. Indeed, the judiciously selected props and clothing in Holland’s tableaux avoid any direct evocation of the quaint or retrospective in the mise en scene. The banal, everyday familiarity of a cheap plastic sandal or a nylon stocking acts to anchor the viewer in the credibility of the scene, and to ensure that the tales can be perceived as relating to the present rather than being distanced in some reconstructed folkloric past. As Nell Farrell has remarked of Holland’s Ashputtel images: ‘We are peering into the life of a bereaved and neglected child.’ This is so, and the torments visited on such children - less often by cruel stepmothers than stepfathers - are routinely recounted in the press. Similarly, in Jessamine, the distress of the woman whose daughter vanishes without trace after going to the fields to gather flowers, and the subsequent desperate searching for the child, are traumas all too easily associated with specific cases. Perhaps too, it is difficult to negotiate a path to the frightful locked room in Bluebeard’s castle without mentally straying into the cellar of 25 Cromwell Street.

However much the more baleful aspects of the ancient folk tales may converge with the factual accounts of the courtroom - the putative last bastion of truthful narration, the actual arena for extreme distortion and fabrication - Holland’s engagement with the horror of these stories is elliptical. She is not to be categorised with the sensationalists whose commonplace agenda has made much contemporary art a sort of trivialised quest to give the most crudely plastic representation to the unspeakable and aberrant. If Holland has excavated the seam of horror in the original tales, she has used a very fine scalpel, leaving the compensatory sense of wonder and magic intact - an outcome particularly evident in the Jessamine images. In their individual quality and cumulative effect, Holland’s translations of these tales into her own visual language maintains a balance which lurches neither towards whimsy nor the gratuitously grisly.

Nevertheless, Magic, Murder and the Weather, does shows Holland moving further away from the imagery and technical processes which characterised her earlier work. Her compositions of dead reptiles, bats, birds and fish were effectively embalmed by the photographs whose technical excellence, painterly sensitivity and atmosphere arrested the natural progression of her subjects towards decay and the dustbin, and invested them with an elegiac beauty. These compositions have less in common with Damien Hirst’s baldly confrontational presentation of actual dead animals than with traditional painting. Holland trained originally as a painter, maintaining a compositional sense inviting association with traditional idioms even if she does not consciously reference earlier art. Images from The Mortal Remains series (1992) evoke 17th Century Dutch memento mori and vanitas pictures and Chardin’s still lives with dead fish or game; starlings wreathed in petals from the Bindings series (1989) suggest Greuzian sensibilities. Such images are poignant and reverential, conceived not as exercises in decadent morbidity intended to repel, but as restitutions of value in seemingly worthless detritus.

While Holland’s use of intact creatures can be aligned with traditional pictorial genres, her particular fascination with fragments shed by living organisms - hair, feathers, sloughed-off snakeskins - is less easily accommodated. Such things are freighted with taboo and superstition, and are equated with dirt - ‘matter out of place’ - but Holland restores them to a respectable place, in a discourse which recognises their importance as measures ‘of time and growth with an innate sense of their own history.’ 3 Such fragile residues survive independently of the decayed body, testifying to a life lived in the past whilst surviving as physical entities in the present.

With Magic, Murder and the Weather, Holland pursues this interest in temporal complexity, moving beyond her personal store of contemplative imagery and into a narrative genre - one which she recognises as having been largely emptied of its macabre dimension by the modern preference for Disneyfied ‘fairy tales’ rather than the more disturbing originals. Apparently paradoxically, but totally appropriately, the role of dead animals has been reduced and live, human models make an uncharacteristically central appearance - although one of the most remarkable images from her Green Earth’s End installation (1993) features a full-length nude figure. In these new works however, the human figure is neither deployed naturalistically nor in an explicitly performative sense; it never interacts with others, and is seldom seen in its entirety.

Images of protagonists in these tales are incorporated as fragments within the larger composition - images within images which are themselves assembled from discontinuities and collisions - areas of atmospheric light and autographic, expressive marks, sharply focused and distorted imagery, slivers of implied location, and objects which may have a literal or a symbolic function. Many such elements from earlier works - clock hands, transparent vessels, keys, flowers, bird wings, hair, fish hooks - reappear, announcing their relevance, not only to a personal iconography, but to a more universal, essentially Jungian, unconscious. Furthermore, though dead animals no longer occupy such a prominent place, Holland has legitimately been able to include them as references to the benign creatures which intercede to assist the powerless in two of these tales (the little bird in Ashputtel; the fishes and birds in Jessamine).

These new works evolved not because Holland tired of assembling her extensive collection of mortal remains and discarded, damaged or unhomely objects into mesmerising and miraculously animated configurations, but because of personal circumstances which connected to indicate new thematic and technical trajectories. Reading folk tales, usually in sanitised versions, to her daughter, (her first child, born in 1994) she noted the marginalisation of the magical and macabre by the emphasis on prosaic moral didacticism and innocuous ‘happily ever afterism.’ Her interest in the original tales was engaged both by their explicit and vivid imagery, and by the implicit sub-texts and their psychological interpretations.4 In particular, she was arrested by the archetypes of good and evil, fixed abstractions which can be deployed in any number of narratives, performing an active role in a story whilst remaining unchanged by the action. The static ‘freeze frame’ quality of the figures in this series, which Holland likens to tableau vivant imagery, assimilates this idea. A primitive type of theatre, the tableau vivant was commonly used to deliver a moral lesson, but Holland subverts this association, using its dumb show fixity to intensify her restoration of the essentially amoral aspects of the original tales.

It was in fact theatre proper which influenced a further transformation, when, from 1992 to 1994 Holland worked as a theatre usherette, and was impressed, less by the stage action, than by inanimate elements - the sets, and in particular, the lighting. Secondary adjuncts to the primary matter of performance, these factors are nevertheless crucial to a play’s cohesive and compelling atmosphere. Holland began grafting theatrical effects onto her own compositions, and by 2000 was able to reverse the process by literally projecting her work back onto the stage. Collaborating with a small theatre company, she composed images which were used as back projections, and which, while relating strongly to the play, could also stand alone in visual terms. The actors appeared as isolated focal points apparently detached from the wider encompassing field of projected imagery - suggesting the device of images within images which recurs in Magic, Murder and the Weather.

The adoption of theatrical modes of lighting also marks a departure from the descriptive clarity and opacity of the earlier cibachrome prints.5 Light is used both to sharpen and diffuse focus, areas of chromatic intensity float free from solid form, transparency and translucency are accentuated and shadows play a disconcerting role, sometimes indicating spatial recession, sometimes relating to objects or figures outside the frame. These intimated presences inhabit the imaginary space beyond the image, the darkened area occupied by the viewer. Printed onto photographic film and illuminated from behind, the images oscillate between density and definition, the spectral and fugitive - paralleling the blurring of distinctions between physical fact and fictional allusion.

If the viewer is disorientated by these ambiguities, Holland’s treatment of the tales similarly resists certainties of reading. The triple triptych format may suggest that the images relate at least, to episodes at the beginning, middle and end of each tale, but beyond this Holland denies the expectations arising from frame by frame sequencing, instead presenting narrative fragments which fail to unfold in a coherent linearity. Her intention was not to ‘illustrate’ the narratives, though the interaction of visual and verbal meaning is suggested by the incorporation of fragments of texts in some images (frames 4, 6 and 9 in Jessamine). Simultaneously though, the artificial encoding of written language through which the tale is generally disseminated is juxtaposed with the visual symbolism of Holland’s personal and specific response to it, with these sections of text becoming, themselves, just another element of imagery.

The particular aspects of the narratives which Holland excerpts may be understood in relation to Roland Barthes’ classification of narrative units into ‘functions’ (descriptions of significant actions necessary to the development of the story-line) and ‘indices’ (playing an integrational role), which Barthes alludes to as ‘a more or less diffuse concept’ embracing psychological nuance and ‘notations of atmosphere.’6 Certain of her images do appear as sharply focused ‘functions’, most notably the eighth frame of Ashputtel, where the cruel sisters’ futile self-mutilation is vividly, if obliquely, evoked (through the grotesque device of substituting pigs’ trotters for human extremities. Elsewhere, and most notably in Bluebeard, it is the diffusion of indices which takes precedence over explicit action, with Holland deploying her human models, not to act out the narratives, but to represent states of being.

The death of Ashputtel’s mother, the source of her subsequent miseries, is emphasised by the supine figure traversing the base of two of the images, underscoring everything above it, and occupying a compressed space which recalls the flat finality of Holbein the Younger’s painting of Christ in the Tomb (1521). Ashputtel herself is shown positioned between the promise held out by the hazel tree and bird or the music of the ballroom, and the reality of her wretched condition - trapped in a state between deprivation and constantly deferred deliverance. From the outset, Bluebeard’s wife occupies a space dominated by the shimmering reflection of a glass vessel which holds out the riches of wine but threatens to tip into the spilling of (her own) blood. The tremulous wife, with her keys and candles, treads a hair’s breadth path between pleasure and terror. The child in Jessamine, occupies similarly uncertain territory, which seems to indicate the state of a soul in limbo, dependent on the intercession of the living to progress to higher realms of eventual salvation.

All of the protagonists in these tales, the innocent or feckless victims of cruelty, calculation and opportunism, are shown suspended in a state between deliverance and oblivion, between life and death. This leitmotiv develops one of Holland’s existing concerns into more complex areas of representation. Commenting on the frequent inclusion of particular creatures in her work, Holland observes that, ‘Frogs, like birds, exist in a transitional zone, able to operate in two elements, implying - with the pathos of the impossible - a potential for evading the earth’s claims.’7 Magic, Murder and the Weather extends this idea of transitional zones in formal as well as thematic respects, moving between essentially disparate modes of representation. Contrary to expectations, the engagement with a human cast and with narrative sources has resulted, not in an amplification of the descriptive and literal, but in an expansion of more abstracted and expressive devices. In using drafting film as a means of reproducing the effect of a theatre scrim curtain, the shadows of certain objects are in focus whilst others are blurred. Other objects are positioned in front of the drafting film and the surface of this film is drawn/painted on. This process allows Holland to integrate sharply defined photographic imagery with gestural freedom in areas of scrubbily applied colour, drips of paint, scratches, dense networks of graphically incised markings. Whilst technically updating the fusion of the indexical and the autographic pioneered by figures like Brassai in the cliche verre., these combinations can be read as implying psychological and emotional states, non-concrete elements of consciousness conventionally visualised through physical gesture or expression.8

Holland’s precise manner of presenting back-lit transparency images in a darkened space also shows a new attention to the expanded field beyond the visual information held within the image itself, and significantly exploits the physically affective properties of installation. Bare light bulbs suspended from unconcealed wires provide back-lighting for the images. Not only functional, these add a stark and sinister presence, extending the disturbing ambience of the images to the supposedly neutral space of the gallery. The curvilinear hanging of the images, at some distance from the walls, encircles the viewer, incorporating their presence in a manner analogous to the positioning of the actors against her back-projections for the stage. In such ways, Magic, Murder and the Weather shows Holland’s established, and supremely effective ability to compose objects, illumination and colour within the confines of the photographic image extending to incorporate real space, real light and the physical presence of the viewer.


1. Bluebeard and Cinderella (Ashputtel) are familiar from Perrault’s 1697 collection of tales (the Grimms’ collection appeared in 1812). What Came of Picking Jessamine (Jasmine) is less well-known, and appears in a damaged book Holland bought in a junk shop. Only the date of publication, 1910, was present - details of title, publisher and author were missing.
2. Nell Farrell, Foreword, p.4
3. Tracey Holland, ‘Mortal Remains’, Stephanie Brown & Stephen Hobson (eds.), Intimations of Mortality, Available Light, Tiverton, 1995, p.28.
4. These sub-texts work on several levels. As a moral vade mecum, the tales guide young persons through life’s complexities - love, loss, change, death. In common with folk/mumming plays, their central themes relate to symbolic death and resurrection. More recently, the psycho-sexual dimension has informed re-workings of folk tales, notably Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1981). Although Holland hadn’t read this, she was influenced by Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women who Run with the Wolves (1992). Her interest in the interpretation of the tales as proto-feminist, and as a process whereby successive generations of women are educated about gender roles, is evident in the tales featured in the installation, where all the (visible) human protagonists are female.
5. In this respect, Magic, Murder and the Weather, shows a more technically and conceptually advanced use of the external lighting and transparency images first explored in The Twelve Keys installation (Dean Clough, Halifax, 1996) and further developed in the Vessel installation (Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1998).
6. Roland Barthes, ‘Structural Analysis of Narrative’, Image-Music-Text, (Stephen Heath, ed.), Fontana, Glasgow, p.92.
7. Tracey Holland, ‘Mortal Remains’, Op.cit., p.33. A tiny frog appears in the last frame of Ashputtel, accentuating the idea of a miraculous or magical survival against the odds.
8. The aesthetic possibilities of drawing onto transparent photographic material in the form of a glass plate negative (cliche verre) was first explored by artists including Delacroix and Corot in the 19th Century. From the 1930s, Brassai used glass negatives which already carried photographic images of nudes, drawing onto these to combine the mechanically produced tonal image with more spontaneous linear marks.