SEARCHING FOR TROLLS




It is Sunday morning. I put aside the Tate St Ives catalogue for their The Dark Monarch exhibition, deciding it is not going to like the steam and damp of our bathroom, and pick up the book of Guy Davenport stories that is also by my bed and head off to take my bath. I soon come across this:

We are welcome in the meadows, where the carpet is laid down, with grass to eat, if we are cows or field mice, and the yellows and blues are those of the Greek poets and Italian painters.
     But here, in the wood, we intrude. Across the sound, in Sweden, there are forests with tall cone-bearing trees, and wolves. Nature has her orders. A wood is as different from a forest as a meadow from a marsh. Owls and trolls live here.
           (Guy Davenport, 'Mr. Churchyard and the Troll' in A Table of Green Fields
)

Two weeks ago, in the first exhibition room at Tate St Ives, my children drew maps of Sven Berlin's owl sculpture making an imaginary flight between the art of Graham Sutherland, Peter Lanyon, Paul Nash and many others. What would it's eye seek out as it silently swooped around the white box? Where might it land or perch? The maps were secret, to be hidden away in a decorated mapholder made at another activity station later on in the exhibition.

Last week, in a window of time during my busy week, I walked from where two rivers form one in Truro, upstream through the city, where water is channelled into conduits and pipes, to the water meadows beyond the viaduct that often dominates the city's horizon. When I googled to find more information about my route, I found an aside about circus elephants being bathed in the millpond by the cathedral. My children didn't truly believe me when I told them this as I retraced my walk with them a few days later, even though they included elephants on their maps of the walk. But on the local television news a day or two later, there they were: elephants in a black and white photograph being used as inspiration for withy lantern-sculptures in Truro's annual City of Lights parade.

Is this magic, synchronicity, or just the way things are? It depends, of course, on your point of view. The Dark Monarch exhibition at Tate St Ives is a very curated (some would say over-curated) show, with works shoehorned into themes the curators have come up with to explore 'Magic & Modernity in British Art' the subtitle of the show. I liked it because, for once, there was lots to look at; I am bored of art exhibitions with only 4 or 5 things in, adrift in an ocean of white space and pretentious labels.


But I didn't enjoy this show just because there is lots of art; it's good to see work by such artistic giants as Lanyon, Collins, Sutherland, Palmer, Ayrton, Jarman and Jones up close, for real; also to see Richard Dadd in a new context. The groupings in The Dark Monarch seem to me rightly tentative and provocative: do these works really belong together? Is there actually much to be gained from pointing out through photograph that a tree appears to have eyes? (Now you mention it, no.) It's all too easy to point out what's missing where for instance is Alan Davie, an obvious choice it would seem? but that's not the point. What I can't cope with is the schoolboy occult stuff.

Anyone who is at all well read will have come across many of the authors whose works are crammed into a bookshelf inside a glass case in Gallery 2; not to mention the small press magick magazines such as
The Lamp of Thoth discreetly piled nearby. Austin Osman Spare and Penny Slinger aren't obscure artists because of their subject matter, they are obscure artists because their work isn't very good. If you google Penny Slinger you will find her simplistic collages from the 60s have now become new-age mumbojumbo paintings. There is little here to interest the art-lover, there is of course plenty to intrigue and delight the conspiracy theorist, the lover of arcane wisdom and mumbo-jumbo.

Conjecture is one thing, and juxtaposition and collage are rightly recognised as interesting tools. For me, the juxtaposition of the show works better than the specific collages on show here. The normally magnificent Michael Bracewell, one of the co-curators of
The Dark Monarch really does go off on one in his catalogue essay when considering the rather ordinary and illustrative 'Hiking' by J.W. Tucker. He uses it as a springboard for a series of 'what ifs...', which seem neither to serve any purpose beyond encouraging the reader to imbue his or her own sense of place with a vague dread, not to act out what Tucker is trying to achieve. It is this disingenuous sleight-of-hand that perhaps lets the show down.


If anything Alun Rowlands has a better idea in his 3 Communiques publication, which is on sale in the bookshop. Here, he performs literary and fictional autopsy on three individuals or groups upon the fringes of society. The first is a figure I remember well from growing up in London: the less protein less lust man who used to patrol the West End with his home made banner and leaflets. The other two consider other utopian/idealist communities, as does Communique #4, published separately, which concerns the Angry Brigade.

This fictional evocation and resuscitation, which Bracewell references through the work of Alan Garner in his catalogue essay, seems to me to point toward a more complex and intriguing possible approach to Magic & Modernity. An approach that perhaps David Jones and Derek Jarman both utilise in their differing layered images. Nash's 'Mansions of the Dead' and Richard Dadd's 'The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke' offer to the viewer
truly strange and achieved worlds, in sharp contrast to the simplistic contrived juxtapositions of other artists in the show. It really isn't that interesting to have the fact trees sometimes look like faces pointed out, nor to populate an old mansion with stuck-on nudes: it is not magic, magical nor interesting, it is simplistic and nave, and the kind of trap all too many artists interested in 'the occult' (which only means arcane or secret knowledge) fall into.

One such other artist is Genesis P-Orridge, now Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, originally of rock band Throbbing Gristle, later of Psychic TV and The Temple ov Psychic Youth. They played games with the media and music fans, with video and noise, with subcultures and systems of control, which all eventually backfired when P-Orridge's house was raided by the police. Living in exile in America, P-Orridge drifted from the rave culture he had adopted in the UK to the Californian world of Timothy Leary and Californian magic. He's recently published an expensive limited edition of
Thee Psychick Bible, an instruction manual or guidebook originally prepared for the Temple of Psychic Youth devotees.

It's an intriguing and contradictory mess of secondhand Crowleyisms, the usual and obvious sex magick routines, recycled Burroughs and Gysin, and a lot of mis-spelt nonsense and whining. Funniest of all is P-orridge's attempt to stop the use by continuing groups of (the supposedly now-defunct) ToPY of the cross moniker he claims to have invented rather than 'borrowed' [ahem] from the Orthodox Church. Nearly as funny is him trying to defend the appointment of an inner circle of devotees as non-heirarchical.


It's a long way from the witty subversion of the media which his group originally practiced, and even further from the original proposals and ideals of the band. A copy of Subvert magazine which I own contains lucid essays about the creation of their own TV channel, about notions of perception and expectations and how they plan to subvert them. These are ideas they played with in practice, often it seemed in retrospect, merely as a clever marketing device. They bootleged all their own concerts and sold them in limited editions to fans, and they suggested that the fuzzed-out videos they projected through the tribal noise, were scenes of sinister rituals and celebration. This of course backfired when they were raided for obscenity and it was revealed that the videos were simply bad copies of early Derek Jarman films. I can appreciate these kind of games of spectacle and subversion, the use of cult and ritual to build up a fanbase; I even like some of the music they made though all too often it was simply rhythmic noise in concert, but when people start believing in themselves as magicians too much we end up with the sad spectacle of desperate artists chanting and masturbating within chalk circles on the floor to empower their creative powers, of photographers thinking that visual anthropomorphism in trees is somehow significant, of collagists giving too much weight to scissors and glue. It is the sorry spectacle of those who literally believe in trolls rather than enjoying the idea of the possibility of trolls.

Owls may live in the woods, elephants may bathe in the Truro millpond, but there are no trolls: it is only Mr. Churchyard's (and by implication, Guy Davenport's) imagination at work with the shadows and light. Surrealism was originally rooted in a long-established and now fading Romanticism (or Neo-Romanticism) and emerging theories of psychoanalysis, which gave work from the period a depth and structure missing from those who adopt the outward trappings of surrealism or automatically assume naivety or dreams or collage are somehow perceptive and interesting to the rest of us. Magic that is merely
this plus this equals that is ultimately not affirmative or life-enhancing, it is self-entrapment and censure. The magic of good art is magic that invigorates, delights and offers further opportunities for incantation, exploration and mapmaking.

This magic is not always present at Tate St Ives: trolling through
The Dark Monarch is a contradictory and interesting, but ultimately disappointing, magical experience.

     Rupert Loydell 2009



NOTES
The Dark Monarch. Magic and Modernity in British Art
, Tate St Ives, Oct 2009-Jan 2010. Curated by Michael Bracewell, Martin Clark and Alun Rowlands. (Catalogue published by Tate St Ives, 2009)
A Table of Green Fields
, Guy Davenport (New Directions, NYC, 1993)
Thee Psychick Bible
, Genesis Breye P-Orridge (Feral House, Port Townsend, WA, USA, 2009)
3 Communiqus
, Alun Rowlands (Book Works, London, 2007)
Subvert
. The Fifth Column, ed. Richard Jevons (Subvert, Leeds, 1983)