Creativity

What lies beneath, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter?

The Banquet  by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

The Banquet by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.
— Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween II

A visit to Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter – the RWA exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of the idiosyncratic writer 25 years after her death – is a profound experience. Provocative. Stimulating. Poignant. It’s hard not to feel moved by a collection that strips bare the surface to expose the underbelly of us all.

Co-curated by Dr. Marie Mulberry-Roberts (UWE) and Fiona Robinson (RWA), the exhibition is a powerful nexus which brings together work from historic heavyweights like Dame Paula Rego and Marc Chagall (a wellspring of influence for Carter), and leading contemporary artists like Ana Maria Pacheco, Andrew Munoz and Wendy Elia.

Pulsating with the recurring themes of subversion, feminism and fantasy, with which Carter has become synonymous, Strange Worlds is on a mission to make, “concrete the visual quality [and diversity] of [her] writing.” By blurring the line between art and literature to see what drifts up through the space (or lack thereof) between, the exhibition asks us to reconsider the fabric of our collective beliefs and, in doing so, what it means to be human.

In Wendy Elia’s Maxime (2010) we see a figure at once masked and unmasked, semi-naked yet guarded, uncertain of the unseen eyes that fall upon it. The hands wring together and the knees fall inward to form a kind of barrier, a re-masking perhaps, to counteract the vulnerability that nakedness demands. Reminiscent of a sad clown, of conventions and the truths they belie, this is bona fide Carter territory.

Similarly, The Bather by Andrew Munoz (2013) is a visceral witnessing of the outsider. A lonely, androgynous figure stands naked amid a desolate landscape but, unlike Maxime, there is a seeming openness at play, an acceptance of (or perhaps resignation to) a vulnerability that is rarely embraced in life or portraiture. Binary definitions of both gender and society are questioned here. You can’t help but wonder where the line between you and the emanating solitude of the piece starts and ends.

A complex interplay of form and theme is alive throughout the space, culminating in Ana Maria Pachecho’s nightmarish installation, The Banquet (1985). Four grotesquely oversized men sit hunched and suited in feverish excitement over the taught, naked form laid out on the table before them.

Tropes of power (white men, suits, a flat, elongated surface) are subverted to become monstrous, cannibalistic, making the point - as Carter so artfully did throughout her career - that truth is what lies beneath, and not above, the surface of conventions.

That quest for truth is the beating heart of Strange Worlds, a bold and fitting testament to Carter’s legacy. The gallery is alive in its consideration of a writer who personified boundless creative expression, and continues posthumously to do so.

In the same way that she re-visioned through her work the fairytales, myths and dreams that inform our collective waking lives, her work is (directly and indirectly) re-visioned throughout the exhibition. It is a frenetic yet considered dialogue, a dynamic narrative in honour of an artist who may have ceased to live 25 years ago but is immortalised by the art she produced and continues to inspire.

Carter studied Medieval Literature at Bristol University and continued to live and work in the city during her early career. The exhibition which closes this Sunday, 19 March – is part of Bristol800, a city-wide partnership programme that celebrates notable Bristol anniversaries.

Written for and originally published by Bristol Women's Voice.

Let it breathe

Grandma's hand

My Grandmother wasn't the most affectionate woman. Her love ran deep but its journey through and out of her was less than straightforward.

I used to dread a visit to the shops. She'd grip my hand so tightly when we crossed the road that it hurt and frightened me. As a child I didn't understand why she squeezed so hard. As an adult the answer seems obvious: her grip was born of love but ruled by fear.

I sometimes wonder if my creative projects can relate.

The thing

I'm making a documentary which has my family at its centre. For over a decade it lived inside me as an idea but it's now taking shape. It has become a thing.

Heading up a tiny but talented team, I have to take this thing (footage from three weeks in Jamaica, where my brother and I grew up) and shape it into a story. Needless to say I've had my fair share of fears about pulling it off.

Sometimes these fears manifest themselves as an inability to let go, an unwillingness to accept help or even admit that I need it. But a recent light bulb moment changed all that.

I've been so afraid of all the things this film might not be that I've neglected to let it be what it is. Just like Granny wringing the trust from my six year old hand, I've been suffocating the emerging narrative by holding on way too tight.

Yielding

I have, at times, found it difficult to shape what I've come to think of as an unyielding clay. But I'm the reason the clay won't yield. It needs room to manoeuvre.

Although unfinished, Pick Me & Turn Me Round no longer lives in my head. It has claimed a space in the world. If I let go it's not going to hurl itself under the first car it sees. It's going to stretch its limbs and look around and start growing the way it's supposed to grow. Just like anything else that's alive.

Of course it will need guidance and encouragement and perhaps even reprimand at times. But I need to trust and listen to it, not force it to tell. I need to let it breathe.

Whether you're working on a speech, a bid or even a difficult relationship, the temptation to hold on too tight when things get tricky is significant. But real freedom and creative reward can come from loosening your grip.

Oxygen

Life goes better with oxygen. Here are a few of my favourite ways to let things breathe:

  • Go for a walk

    Walking is a well-known problem solver. It takes you away from the issue that you're tackling and gets you closer to the nature that you're part of, even in the middle of a city. 

    It makes a clearing in the forest of your mind and allows new thought to emerge. Just the ticket when the well runs dry.
     
  • Spend time alone

    Modern life is busy. Solitude often eludes. But if you don't make time and space for yourself what hope does your project have?

    Joseph Roux once said: “Solitude vivifies.” Whether you read, go for a walk or meditate, spending time alone is an excellent way to vivify your project, and yourself.
     
  • Do something else

    The blank page. The obstinate paragraph. We've all been there.

    There's a time to grit your teeth and plough on and there's a time to walk away. If you're strangling the life out of something then you might want to consider the latter.

    Play that hard-to-get muse at her own game and take someone else out for dinner. The work will still be there when you get back.

When two become one

I've never been a Spice Girls fan, nor am I likely to become one (if you'll excuse the semi-pun), but some timely advice from a new acquaintance brought the title of this post to mind. This person is a fellow freelance copywriter who, like me, is just starting out. A mutual friend put us in touch and we met for a coffee and a chat last week.

Unlike me, this person's business is a sideline to other work. I am a full time freelancer. I am also a creative writer. I'm currently working on an independent documentary, I recently rediscovered (reading and writing) poetry, I finished a new short story not long ago and have a few more as well as a feature film script steadily brewing inside. So creative writing and reading are a huge part of who I am and how I see the world.

But, when it comes to my business, I have always tried to separate the two in my head. This is copywriter me and that over there is artistic me and the former puts food on the table for the latter. We wave to each other from time to time but we don't tend to talk each other all that much. Or so I thought.

In an email received from this person a few days ago, it was suggested that I was unnecessarily splitting my attention, that these two writers need not exist apart. In fact, it could only benefit everyone (fragmented me, my business and my clients) if I married the two in my thinking, if I removed this invisible barrier and claimed just one space. Writer me.

Such a simple piece of advice, and so obvious (you have to be creative to be a copywriter, it's not something you ever leave at the door) but until that point I hadn't thought of myself in quite those terms.

Although I wasn't consciously aware of it, my attention was split. Having someone point out that there aren't two writers living in my head - only one - was a light bulb moment. I've felt great ever since, clearer and more confident about what I have to offer.

So onwards and upwards I go, with just the one writer in tow. I think I owe that new acquaintance a drink...