‘Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it never has and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Within beauty both shores meet and all contradictions exist side by side â€¦ The devil only knows what to make of it! But what the intellect regards as shameful often appears splendidly beautiful to the heart. The dreadful thing is that beauty is not only terrifying but also mysterious.’
Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov
‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’
Albert Einstein, from The World As I See It
In an art world petrified into creative and intellectual self-consciousness by the obligations of academic, theoretical and populist accountability, the art of Tracey Holland stands out as a beacon of aesthetic charm and poetic intrigue. In reflecting on her work, I find myself resorting to terms that have virtually disappeared from contemporary cultural debate, terms that have become distinctly unfashionable precisely because they resist easy prosaic definition, terms that, in order to escape the pitfalls of pseudo-romantic cliche, have to be historically recontextualised with reference to the great art of the past and creatively recontextualised with reference to the multi-layered complexities of real life: terms such as beauty, mystery, enigma, poignancy, pathos, spirit, soul, presence, intuition, inspiration.
As culturally well informed and intellectually astute as she is, Tracey Holland doesn’t simply argue a point, or posit a message; she tells tales that are rich enough to connect and convince and elaborate enough to leave themselves open to a multiple resonance of possible readings and responses. Above all, I admire her as she is brave enough to dream and dedicated and skilled enough to embody her dreams in works of exquisite technical achievement. Her dreams are real dreams, full of dread and delight, punctuated by the awkward contingencies put in the way of all our aspirations by the world of mundane objects. She is no self-admiring, self-confessed, weirder-than-thou eccentric. Holland’s dreams are far from the disembodied wackiness of much contemporary fantasy art. Nor are they the New Age dreams that dare to presume everything that is natural is nice. Nor do her dreams rely on the formulaic weirdnesses inherited by contemporary sensationalists from the weedier verges of French surrealism. They constitute more of a facing up to than an escaping from. Her implied dreamers worry about illness and dying. They fear violence. They get emotional. They sweat and get all stressed up about sex. They mistake one thing for another. They very often get bewildered by it all. They tremble with uncertainty. Occasionally they lose the plot sufficiently to lose control and go off the rails. Then they suffer doubts and deep guilt. They also love to gaze in awe at the seemingly infinite variety of forms in all of nature’s vast systems and little details. They imply that, ultimately, the beauty of human passion, no matter how often frustrated or misguided, and the beauty of nature, no matter how dangerous or damaged, somehow make it all worthwhile. Holland belongs to a long tradition of life-and-death dreaming that stretches all the way back through the Romantic, the Gothic and the Baroque. Yet she rigorously avoids spouting platitudes, as is currently all the rage, about half-digested notions of the sublime, the uncanny, the melancholy. She is more likely to talk about techniques of contemporary hospital practice than about alchemy. She uses state-of-the-art tools to deal with timeless themes. As an assessment of her standing, I cannot pay her greater praise than to say she is such a rare individual as an artist I wouldn’t know where on earth to begin to place her within the contemporary art context. Certainly, artists such as Holland, by setting themselves aside from the mainstream, enable us to perceive that mainstream in sharper focus as being somehow of less cultural vibrancy precisely because it is a mainstream, because it is so packed with practitioners who so readily and easily fit in. She has achieved recognition despite a deep reluctance to indulge in spurious networking and disconcerting self-promotion. Her singular achievement is that she has made her distinctive mark in a world of too much sameness.
Holland’s art has undergone something of a transformation over the last couple of years. Her earlier work in still photography and wall-based assemblage appeared to be haunted by constant representations of mortality. Her memento mori or vanitas still-life tableaux were intricate juxtapositions of dead snakes, reptiles, bird and insect wings, fish hooks, playing cards, pigs trotters, butchers knives and bunches of rusty old keys that one might suspect would unlock doors to reveal the half rotted evidences of some mortal mishap. These were the highly distinctive and technically often quite stunning works through which Holland has over the years justifiably established an international reputation. Yet, as with any artist worthy of the name, she realised that she had to move on in order to retain her inventive momentum and resist creative stagnation.
Despite the suggestive enchantments of these earlier works, the vision they present is a deliberately transfixed vision. Their evocative force relies upon the embodiment of an spellbound frozen moment, an instant of iconic stability and durability. Then something else started to happen a couple of years ago. Stories came more into the picture. The work, in one way or another, started to move. In series of works with such novel titles as Magic, Murder and the Weather, States of Matter, Electro-Light and The Almond Tree, Holland has started to variously make reference to myths and fairy stories of magic transformation, metamorphosis and transubstantiation: Ashputtel, Bluebeard, What Became of Picking Jessamine, Cupid and Psyche, The Almond Tree, The Handless Maiden. The oblique ways in which Holland refers to these stories take the formal and imagistic juxtapositions and ambiguities of her earlier work and makes them transform themselves through time, either literally, as in her video works, or implicitly through a sequential arrangement of stills. The earlier shadow-play of reality and illusion now becomes a temporal interplay of reflective fact and developing fiction. The work becomes compositionally simpler and somehow more resonant. The colours are distilled down to variations of moody monochrome and little touches of alarming scarlet. A single drop of blood stains a ice grey mist that is elsewhere dimly illuminated by the warm red glow of a hanging lantern. The silhouette of a long haired girl pierces something heart-shaped before dropping the knife to disappear in a deep blanket of snow. Elsewhere the girl appears to be floating face-up in a river of water, like a latter-day Ophelia. The continuing concern with mortality (the stories obsessively relate murders, dismemberments, furtive burials) is redeemed from the dangers of morbid fixation by narrative developments that celebrate the virile breedings of the human imagination and nature’s fertile ability to rejuvenate.
Resurrection Stories takes these developments a considerable step further. Both the triptych video projections and the still image projections/installations here make subtle references to the fairy story The Woman With Hair of Gold. Briefly, a beautiful woman has been murdered and secretly buried by a spurned suitor, who has displayed an unforgivable insensitivity by attempting to sell a lock of her hair at the market. The woman’s hair continues to grow in the burial ground and emerges as a field of swaying golden reeds. Shepherds cut the reeds to make flutes and the tiny flutes forever after sing a song laying bare the detailed truth of the murder. As with her treatment of other tales, Holland sees The Woman With Hair of Gold as an allegory of time’s inclination to reveal and revenge hidden sins that have been committed against nature. But more than simple illustrations of a morally instructive tale, Holland’s Resurrection Stories, through their intricate interlacing of human and natural details and fragments, reveal almost visionary cross-associations between the forces that drive human passions, the electro-magnetic workings of the psyche, animal magnetic impulses and the churning rhythms and changing seasons of the microscopic and macroscopic landscape.
In the present still image projections/installations, the interweaving of fact and fiction, reality and illusion has become part of the material make-up of the work. Large screens of translucent drafting film are hung to receive back-projections of pre-photographed images. The projected beams are interrupted and further elaborated by the placement of various real objects that thus throw their shadows and silhouettes across the screens. The enchantment of a magic lantern slide show is somehow deepened by the presence, on stage as it were, of the various found-object banalities from which the magic transformation has been made. The atmospheric tone of these works, as with the videos, is one of dawn or dusk, an air of suspense between dream and wakening, a thematic trepidation and vertigo. Monochrome mists are overlaid with visceral smears, spillages, leakages. There might emerge sickle and crescent moon shards, draped with locks of jet black hair. Every single thing carries the marks of its own history, the traceries of its own existence. Throughout, the stream of poetic associations flows: tree branches and plant roots are compared to veins and rib cages; the shape of a wishbone corresponds to that of a bolt of forked lightening which in turn suggests the outline of a divining rod; the liquid filled globe of a glass chemistry container reminds one of an all-seeing blind eye; reeds drift in tune with the golden locks of the beautiful victim; a dusting of clematis seeds appears to wriggle like incubus sperm shadows. Through the overlaying of translucent biological ghosts everything takes on an x-ray air of spatial reversals and intimate revelations.
Such associations automatically lead on to metaphysical and spiritual pointers. Holland here samples details from devotional paintings: a symbolic network of pink coral (which resembles the arteries of the heart) is isolated and lifted from 15th century Italian Early Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna’s The Madonna of Victory; blood stained droplets of Christ’s tears (which correspond to the artist’s use of chandelier droplets) are taken from the unattributable Man of Sorrows, in the 16th century Dutch Northern Renaissance style of Jan Mostaert; a gaping wound in the crucified Christ’s torso (an image of painfully vulnerable sensuality as well as terminal pain) is borrowed from the 16th century Spanish Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera’s Holy Trinity. Thus the Resurrection Stories take on broader historical, geographic and even, dare I say it, spiritual connotations. The spirituality hinted at here is what happens when interconnectedness is perceived between widely disparate aspects of life, when all that goes on in life is consciously experienced as taking place in the absurd space between the astounding mysteries of birth and death. Individual people come out of nowhere and go back there. This doesn’t make any sense. It can’t be true. But it most obviously is. Meanwhile life goes on in all its ridiculous variety. Such thoughts, especially when dwelt on with unhealthy regularity, lead to an experiential dizziness that, when shared with sufficient creative rigour, maybe constitutes the very real, deep down thing in any art that is any good at all.
The overall, both 2-D and 3-D, format of Holland’s installations, appearing like maquettes for uninhabited stage backdrops or film sets, have been accurately referred to by the artist as being ‘one step away from video reality.’ The video projections (which in fact are seamless video collages of still images and cine and camcorder footage) bring these scenarios more to life, not only through the actual narrative development of each separate film, but also through the synchronised interplay of the images taking place across the three screens. Whilst still being finalised at the time of writing, many of the video elements are likely to be similar to those in the still installations. There are multi-layers of fire and air tornados, spectral birch forests, flights of crows, a soundtrack rush of pumping blood and expectant and mournful dawn choruses. A mood of ephemerality pervades everything as Holland’s silhouetted protagonists go about their cryptic and seemingly somnambulistic enactments from the back of beyond and the other side of the banal. Needless to say, the videos are each projected on a loop: the ephemerality is unending.