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.