wed 18/09/2019

Alice in Wonderland: Through the Visual Arts, Tate Liverpool | reviews, news & interviews

Alice in Wonderland: Through the Visual Arts, Tate Liverpool

Alice in Wonderland: Through the Visual Arts, Tate Liverpool

A rag-bag of an exhibition that promises much but is too big and lacks focus

'Alice Pleasance Liddell, Summer, 1858', by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) © National Portrait Gallery, London

What a curious curate’s egg Tate Liverpool has pulled out of its hat with Alice in Wonderland. And what a complete rag-bag of minor, uninteresting artists. It starts with a disparate mix of recent works by a few better-knowns – neatly beginning at the end, as it were (Jason Rhoades’s neon-sign euphemisms for the female sex, Luc Tuymans’ dreamy Wonderland), but by the end proper we are left befuddled by the impression that any artist whose work features feeble wordplay, has some passing reference to burgeoning female sexuality, or simply contains a passing reference to a “looking glass” has been given a look-in.

If only it had been tighter and more focused, this show could have easily charmed - after all, who isn’t beguiled, tickled and/or perturbed by Alice and her strange adventures? But here we have Fiona Banner’s clenchingly tedious Arsewoman in Wonderland, in which Banner transcribes the actions of a porn flick “based” on Carroll's tale, and there we have a Dan Graham pavilion in which the viewer's reflection is slightly distorted.

Just look at what Charles Dodgson achieved with a clear head

Graham’s desiccated conceptualism seems as far removed from Carroll’s rich playfulness as you can imagine. But the theme of the looking glass is plundered beyond pointlessness by the inclusion of Douglas Gordon’s Through a Looking Glass, in which two facing screens - a favoured Douglas device - show the famous scene in Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro play-acts the tough guy. The title may suggest that this is an apt inclusion, but in fact simply highlights the laziness of the curation: this exhibition just hasn’t been conceived with any overall sense of coherence.

And then there are rooms and rooms of artists I have barely heard of – perhaps for good reason. Who is the fruitloop Paul Laffoley, whose summer of love homage to Alice Liddell includes an anatomical slice of the male and female reproductive systems and the words “Alice Pleasance Liddell Feels the Wonderland of Pulsation the Evolution and Involution of the Universe”? We read that Laffoley believed in the “cosmic beginnings of the human race” and bully for him, but he might have been better served left in the Tate’s archives.

The cosmic craziness continues with Adrian Piper’s LSD paintings – spiralling psychedelic swirls painted when the artist was 18. These juvenile paintings just go to show that dropping acid doesn’t inspire great creativity. Just look at what Charles Dodgson achieved with a clear head.  

And many of the Surrealist works fare little better. It’s always nice to see Paul Nash, but I can’t see what real business he has here. Max Ernst, however, directly references the stories, whilst Dalí’s watercolours, painted in the late Sixties, are close illustrations made for each chapter of Alice in Wonderland – they are a highlight in this sprawling, messy exhibition (pictured above right, Dalí's The Rabbit Sends a Little Bill, Alice in Wonderland, 1969). I also particularly enjoyed many individual works: Bill Woodrow’s English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty, where a metal cask stands in for Humpty, and especially Kiki Smith’s intaglio etchings of Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears alongside a Wonderland menagerie - her delightful large-scale etchings are mirror copies of Dodgson’s own early illustrations for his books. (Pictured below: Kiki Smith's Pool of Tears.)

But I would have been quite happy with just the historical overview giving us the story behind the enduring stories - there's certainly enough material here that would give us a small but rich display. Dodgson’s photographs of the Liddell children - especially, of course, the young Alice - are intriguing. Unlike her sisters, the real Alice's steady gaze always meets the lens head-on and she is naturally, strikingly photogenic (though in Dodgson’s last picture of her, aged 18, she looks disintinctly unhappy, angry even – you get a palpable sense that things were not going well between photographer and adult muse). Then there is Dodgson’s tiny, dainty watercolour of the Liddell children, which, though completely inept is rather charming, as well as his early illustrations for the books, drawn before he asked Tenniel to step in.

This is an exhibition that promises much, but fundamentally lacks focus. It’s a shame, but if it makes you go back to the original source, it can only be a good thing.  

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