Capturing the beauty and brutality of folk tales is no easy challenge. Many a hopeful traveller has lost their way in the dark forest and meandered off along the winding path to sentimentality or the muddy rutted track to Grand Guignol. But from the moment you enter the room housing Tracey Holland’s exhibition you know that you are in safe hands.
Three times nine back-lit transparencies take us on a magic lantern journey through three folk tales. Their narrative, their symbols, their immense visual wealth are laid before us in richly coloured, formal tableaux of images; photographs within photographs. Time and again things are not what they originally seem, or we slowly realise that there is much more in a picture than we initially saw.
In ‘Ashputtel’ we are immediately seduced by the gorgeousness of the images – showers of clock hands, hearts, wishbones, feathers, burnt fragments of sheet music. Look closer though and there is a woman’s lifeless body; a curled up child; the plucked head of a beaked bird, disconcerting us with it’s scaley fish-like flesh, its nostril like a third eye. We are peering into the life of a bereaved and neglected child. Not quite the Cinderella of pantomime, but there is humour here too. A few panels along, a pig’s bloodstained (or nail-varnished) trotter squeezes into dressing-up shoes as the wicked sisters chop off toes and hack at their heels to fit the golden slipper.
‘Bluebeard’ is a gothic parlour lit by blood in every frame. Keys and the bones of previous wives dangle from threads of hair. The forbidden keyhole gapes invitingly. Image by image the young wife explores the castle, edging towards her decision, holding out her single candle to the darkness. ‘Don’t do it’ we’d yell if we were watching on video. We can see the scythe hanging over her; we know where the bodies are. Flasks, decanters and chandeliers gleam, but the key drips blood and its teeth resemble razor blades.
‘What Came of Picking Jessamine’ is a great tale about outwitting a monster. Holland transports us across exquisitely littered seashores on a winged plastic seaside sandal. Birds lend their gift of flight and fish repay past kindnesses in shoals. Some of the images are beautifully ambiguous – a bird’s wing sails across the picture like a boat; a hanging fish could just as easily be a bird.
Ultimately these pictures celebrate survival. Tracey Holland knows very well that the point of fairy tales isn’t the ‘happy ever after’ part. What is truly thrilling is the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the powerless, aided by magic, allied with the creatures of the natural world. Her images are thoroughly enticing. They have immediate visual impact, with their spooky stained glass glow, but they also bewitch us with the sometimes dangerous need to know more. Our curiosity is spiked . We want to see what else there is; to puzzle things out; to luxuriate in the simple pleasure of examining collections of objects. Beauty and menace co-exist and enhance each other. We should beware, be afraid but never despair. There is a rich point to the complexity, the riddles, the multi-layered nature of this work. After all, the secret of salvation is an egg guarded over by a dove within a lead box at the bottom of the sea