The quite extraordinary ambition of Tracey Holland’s recent work aims to take us back to the very beginning, to lead us beyond, to pierce the veil, to visualize areas of thought, perception and experience that bridge so-called ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. It’s a body of work that is both heady and sensuous, earthy and transcendental, highly evocative of intense pleasure and insufferable pain, sometimes simultaneously.

The range of her source material is drawn from just about all historical areas of human enquiry into the infinitely intriguing and ultimately unknowable mysteries of our world: chemistry, anatomy, physics, psychology, philosophy, religion, geology, astronomy, mathematics, mineralogy, oceanography, metallurgy, linguistics, biology and geophysics. Whilst firmly situated within the contemporary genre of photo-art and video installation and making skillful use of digital technologies, Holland touches on the imaginative historical traditions of mythology, theatre, religious ritual, and the extrasensory art historical insights of Symbolism and Surrealism. That’s not to mention her touching allusions to the bedtime frisson of scary fairy stories.

I begin this brief appreciation with such lists, as it seems to me that this almost dauntingly broad ranging ambition constitutes the central distinction of Holland’s art and overall enables her to avoid the pitfalls of New Age and Goth clichés. In my role as a lecturer I very often advise students to avoid stating their work is “about birth, life, sex and death.” What on earth else is there and what artist is up to such a task? Yet Tracey Holland intrepidly gives it a go. I am mindful of highly successful attempts this kind of thing. James Joyce’s innovatory novel Ulysses and Jean Cocteau’s poetic film Orphée, for instance, dare to update classical myth by introducing elements blatantly taken from their present day cultures. The work is highly intellectually astute and comes as a result of considerable cultural enquiry into sources ranging from the 16th century German-Swiss scientist-cum-occultist Paracelsus, through the 19th century American psychologist James Hillman, to the 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Indeed such a ponderously serious objective might well be heavily off-putting for the viewer if it were not for the convincing aesthetic charisma of her work. It is contagiously charming to look at as well as deeply intriguing to think about.

If there is one image here that interconnects so much thematic diversity it is that of the electrical lightning bolt. Whether in the form of an actual storm scene or of an experimental argon flask, Holland presents the phenomenon of electricity as both a physical and psychic charge, a primal creative catalyst and destructive taker of life. It embodies excitement and horror and Holland makes full use of its double-edged potential and potency. Watching her multiple screen videos, my mind has raced from alchemical experiments through to electroshock therapy, from the Biblical Ark of the Covenant through to the apocalyptic predictions of our ongoing ecological crisis. Holland’s subject matter might at times verge on the historically archaic but with a shock it also brings us uncomfortably up to date. The stylistic façade of the work also inventively quotes from a historical range of photographic and filmic techniques. There are sepia tones and hints of silent movie sequences as much as there are the complex characteristics of computer controlled editing.

In both her still photographic series and her video installations, the dramatic spark of electricity binds together what Holland herself as called her ‘collaged narratives.’  Whilst she follows certain stories through more or less from beginning to end – there’s tales taken from medieval mystery plays, Northern European Folklore as well as the Old Testament Bible – her narratives are far from sequentially predictable. At times the ending appears to echo another beginning in a looping echo. All along there tends to be an intricate layering of objects, landscapes and protagonists so that each episode takes on an air of free-associational and almost fractal stream-of-consciousness. We might be following real time but we might sporadically also inhabit the oceanic drift of dreamtime, the reveric rush of desire and the ricocheting tempo of personal memory. Sound tracks – variously of long wave radio frequency interference, a steadily building choral crescendo or the murderous cackle of crows – contribute considerably to this moody narrative introversion.

The double-edged ambivalence of Holland’s imagery is critical. A sacred heart alludes to both love and loss. The scarlet tones of a pulsing artery are followed the pallor of a skeletal tree.  A shadowy silhouette will shift into its spectral photographic negative. Indeed with Holland the shadow is a creeping accompaniment of everything, summoning an pervasive atmosphere of suspense and vertiginous uncertainty.

The not quite linear narrative nature of Holland’s works is also at times partly down to her choice of decidedly obscure and distinctly convoluted historical legends or fantasies. Her multi-screen video installation Ordinalia for instance takes its title from a 12th century Cornish mystery play which was apparently originally performed in a round known as no-man’s land. The story follows three seeds from the original Tree of Life as they are planted in the mouth of the dead Adam, grow to form one Trinity Tree which is then felled and discarded by Solomon, its wood being subsequently built into a bridge which is later buried under Lake Bethesda. A beam from the flooded bridge floats to the surface when Christ is born, hauntingly foretelling his eventual crucifixion on a wooden cross.

The three-screen Huldra installation might be based on a slightly more straightforward Scandinavian folktale of a woodland seductress tempting an innocent woodcutter away to the starry back-of-beyond. Yet here again Holland’s version is an assemblage of evocative shorts that bears more of a semblance to the lyrical grace of a song than to the chronological ordering of prose. Yet, when all is shown, seen, said and done, do we need to know the details of such source stories? Holland represents these elaborate narratives in shifting sequences of imaginative images that have sufficient expressive potential to hold their own as present daydream realities.

Of course Holland’s stories, although at times borrowed from historical moral fables and projected fantasies of religious dogma, tend to have a multiplicity of meanings and messages.  The forces of nature can be taken as both malign and benign. Sexual attraction can be recognized in both the guise of the comely goddess and the satanic siren. Holland doesn’t present clear-cut messages and interpretable meanings as much as picture the constantly metamorphosing facts of life in all their multi-layered shallows and depths. Such goings-on, true to life, are constantly influenced by circumstantial contingencies. Holland’s Sheffield studio is a treasure trove of found-objects: rusty keys, broken retorts, a menagerie of variously preserved dead animals. Indeed one way of looking at Holland’s oeuvre would be as a modern day version of the centuries old tradition of still-life memento mori, even when the still-life, as is the case in her video works, is dreamily animated and when the remembrance is at times less of the decompositions of mortality than of the fecundity of nature’s undying procreation.

However we use words to describe the appearance of Holland’s recent work, their emotional affect is activated very much in visual and imagistic terms. To put it simply, her use of subjects – even though they at times might be derived from mythical or religious sources – is more as images to be experienced rather than symbols to be interpreted. In order to ‘get’ Holland’s work the viewer needs to let go and allow the interplay of images spark off subjective thoughts and feelings according to the viewer’s individual autobiographical background. Her work ably demonstrates the crucial difference between a symbolic sign to be rationally read and an effective creative image that is an embodiment of multi-sensory experience and thus conveys the complexities of that experience through multi-sensory means.

Although we might categorise Holland these days as predominantly a photography and video artist, she has developed very much from a formative grounding in work as a painter. Her considerable technical experience and creative sensitivity in tactile media tends to manifest itself in her choice of subject matter, the physical incarnation of that subject matter in the technical composition of the artwork and, finally, in how she places the artwork within a site-specific or gallery environment.

Holland’s choice of imagery tends to be almost primal or archetypal in character. Besides lightning bolts and dead animals, there are angelic figures, birds’ nests, eggs, seed heads, tree roots, spider webs, forests, drifting clouds, looming towers and galaxy clusters. There’s dust, spilt blood, mist, a full moon and the suggestively gaping wound of Christ crucified. These are images with no need of explanation. Who after all needs to be informed of the significance of a gaping wound? It is what it is. Holland has a distinct penchant for the suggestive presence of materials and objects that are powerfully tactile: silk, sulphur, amber, gold leaf, beeswax and salt. Furthermore the smooth surface of her photographed and filmed images are virtually infiltrated with the various textures of such raw materials. The video screen and photographic print might retain a clinical sheen yet it is dramatically pictorially disturbed by the rough grain of a full recognition of life’s wear and tear.

Such tactile physicality, the use of material presence for its own innate physical qualities, is further developed in Holland’s use of installation tactics. In the 20-21 Visual Arts Centre exhibition, video works are positioned in the obviously redolent settings of the St John’s Church chancel and bell tower. The deliberate use of such a special situation, with all its historically accumulated atmosphere, affects the work’s impact of course. The image of an empty theatre stage, which recurs through the show, mirrors this featuring of privileged spaces of ritual suspension of disbelief.

Then again, video monitors in the Ordinalia installation are themselves placed within old ship lanterns and railway signal lamps, thus adding a further implication of memory and the passing of time. A long ongoing problem of the relatively young tradition of video art has consisted of what to do with the monitor, so it doesn’t resemble a living room TV, or with the screen, so the gallery doesn’t feel like a cinema without the comfort of tiered seating. Holland on the other hand is an expert at the compositional poetry of precise placement. It’s a measure of her choreographic staging that we are far more likely to be reminded of the momentous presentiments of the seer’s writing on the wall or the hallucinatory predictions of the clairvoyant’s crystal ball. Above all we might be captivated by a body of art that is fully capable of infiltrating banalities and haunting them with spirited presences that seem at times almost spookily unforeseen, even though they might be recognized as the very basis of all that is.

Robert Clark

(Robert Clark is an arts writer, art lecturer and, under the name Robert Casselton Clark, an artist)