Magnetic Atlas


Folklore, religious myths, atmospheres and mystery are recurring themes in Tracey Holland’s work; she creates art that connects and intertwines to create beautiful narratives that offer different paths leading to many different places and ideas in the dark woods and labyrinths of her films and images. She thrives on the metaphoric and mythic, and the way these stories hold hidden layers of meaning which transcend time and place and illustrate the eternal human condition. Magnetic Atlas continues Holland’s exploration and combines it with her interest in the act of ritual and the places and spaces where the magic happens. She examines the creation of different forms of energy, both physical and spiritual, that can occur as we try to connect with and make sense of our world.

With Ordinalia, Holland has taken the medieval Cornish Miracle play of the same name as her starting point. The apocryphal stories found here illustrate the Creation, the Passion and the Resurrection. By choosing to focus on the Legend of the Holy Rood (Holy Cross) which runs throughout the play, Holland demonstrates her interest in how this Miracle play moves beyond religious doctrine and connects with folk and pre-Christian belief systems and traditions. The play tells of how Adam’s son Seth was given three seeds from the Tree of Life by an Angel, and on placing them in his dead father’s mouth, they grew rapidly and began a journey involving cutting, re-growing and forming into one, providing the wood for the staff of Moses, and ultimately the Cross upon which Christ was crucified. The legend connects events spanning centuries via the cyclical nature of the tree, its fruit and seed.

In plays such as Ordinalia, biblical stories were simplified, littered with magic tricks and made easy to remember as well as understand for a predominantly illiterate medieval audience. It was easy to impress the medieval mind with stories that connected to and employed an age-old symbolism and rhetoric. Holland has selected the Ordinalia for its poeticism and multi-dimensionality, and these qualities in the source material are reflected in the layering of interpretations and meanings she places within her own work. At the core of Ordinalia is a triptych displayed on three screens in salvaged marine lanterns and railway lamps, historically employed as a means of guidance. Holland juxtaposes these stories intended to provide spiritual guidance with the lights which illuminated the way for safe passage of boats and trains. This central triptych is surrounded by lanterns with fragments of film portraying environments which hold a sense of the miraculous and symbolic. They reflect and underline the many different layers and aspects to Ordinalia.

The theme of the guiding light and what can occur when we lose sight or are misled by an illusion is implicit in her decision to explore the idea of the Huldra – a seductive forest dwelling spirit found in Scandinavian folklore. From the front Huldra appears as a young woman with long hair but as he turns away from her pursuant she has a back that is either invisible or represented by tree bark or she has the tail of a fox or a cow. This otherworldly creature defies comprehension, bringing to mind stories from Greek mythology of Sirens who lure sailors into the danger of shipwreck on deadly rocks with their enchanting songs. Holland has named her three screen film work after this visible yet invisible spirit. In Holland’s film, we follow the woodcutter as he endeavours to track the sight and sound of the Huldra ever deeper into the snow-bound forest until eventually he is lost and freezes to death. The soundtrack reinforces the eerie and forlorn nature of the man’s plight. The Huldra makes men follow her deep into the forest so that they become lost to their world; it is a cautionary tale but one which more importantly illustrates the necessity of the visible and the invisible within the world, and the dualism of physicality and the more unseen but essential energy. But Huldra offers many contradictions; the beautiful temptress, the myth personified – who’s meaning fades and shifts, the mirror reflecting the desires of the follower, the truth giver who shows nothing – like looking into the unreflective side of the mirror. By her use of layering imagery Holland is able to reflect these contradictions and create a work of beauty as well as depth.

Installed in the bell tower of the church we find the film ‘The Sleeper Falls’, we see the dreamer move from the forest and seemingly float up through the centre of a tall tower. The ascent of this somnambulist is integral to the story, and reflected in the physical height of the towers themselves; both are endeavouring to form a connection between the earth and the heavens. The towers which feature in this work were filmed by Holland in Southern Ireland, and initial interest in these medieval ecclesiastical bell-towers was sparked by their singular architectural properties of amazing height and their enigmatic form of construction. They have been described as lanterns for the dead. The appeal of these unusual towers to Holland is not unsurprising as she is so often making her own connections between the real and the imaginary, the past and the present and experience and theory.

Contradictions appeal to Holland, her work tries to make connections between physics and psychology, between religion and myth. The photographs in the series Charged Vessels and Infinite Bodies sprang from Holland’s interest in myths associated with storms and lightning. She explores the idea of metamorphosis and the potential of electricity through the phenomena of lightning to effect change, to take or transform life. In some of the photographs depicting Leyden jars (a significant invention in the study of electricity which enabled scientists to harness electrostatic energy, the jar behaves like a battery). Holland makes use of historic scientific notions where connections with magic and mysticism were still interwoven with early science. Other images depict the sacred heart, a symbol of life, love and devotion, and of religious significance as a potent symbol of Catholicism; this is a motif invested with the energy of belief.

This significant body of new work shows the diversity of Holland’s practice and her ability to create compelling installations, films and photographs which transcend subject matter and time, intriguing the viewer with their interwoven narratives and ethereal presence. Her use of composition, objects, projection and imagery gives a physical depth to her work that also helps us to view it as something distinct, special and almost otherworldly in itself. She considers the interconnectedness of science, myth, folklore and the human psyche, and by doing so simply reinforces this depth. As she creates layers to her imagery so too does a layering and enriching of ideas occur. As I finish writing this I find myself coming back to this quotation from the French author Charles Perrault (1628-1703); “For you know that I myself am a labyrinth, where one easily gets lost.” Holland’s work enchants us, like the woodcutter in Huldra, I find myself delving deeper and deeper.

Kirstie Hamilton

Exhibition Programmer  Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust