Fairy Tales

Curator Amanda Slack-Smith’s idea for the exhibition Fairy Tales had been percolating away for a decade, ever since she programmed a series of films on the topic at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, and realised that many artists worked with these ideas as well.

Fairy Tales, curated by Amanda Slack-Smith at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), is a remarkable exhibition, featuring over a hundred works assembled from genres including film, set design, original costumes, animation, and contemporary art.

The exhibition is divided, though the crossovers are fluid, into three themes: “Into the Woods,” which draws mainly upon European classical tales like those from Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm; “Through the Looking Glass,” presenting more recent stories of parallel worlds by Maurice Sendak and L. Frank Baum; and “Ever After,” an exploration of love with its myriad complexities, especially for young women who are dealing with their dreams and desires, their actual worlds, and the expectations of others. As Slack-Smith says in her catalogue essay, “Not everything is playful, not everything is dark . . . Not everything is simple,” and we begin as with so many fairy tales by entering the woods.

In this case the woods are Henrique Oliveira’s Corupira, 2023, a reference to a Brazilian demon recognised by the Tupi-Guarani people, who confuses unwary wanderers hoping to track it by navigating its territory with its backward facing feet. It’s an immersive installation where tree trunks sprout from walls, and rhizomic twisted roots and branches act as the labyrinthine portal to the rest of the exhibition. This forest isn’t dark and foreboding either but filled with light and pale-coloured wood rippling with peeling bark, uncanny surface eruptions, and pregnant bulges.

Further into the exhibition is artist and filmmaker Tracey Moffatt’s selected prints from her series Invocations, 2000, which follows a young First Nations girl misplaced in a foreign landscape. Here the trees are watching, and it isn’t clear if they are only benign observers. The forest looms again with Trulee Hall’s Witch House (Séance of the Umbilical Coven), 2023 (a remake of a 2020 work), a dwelling that looks like it has emerged from the earth through some visceral act of magic. Inside the house video monitors are embedded in the walls, playing animated scenes of various transgressions.

Elsewhere one encounters playful stop-motion animations, such as Dark Side of the Moon, 2017, by Swedish artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. The work mixes fairy tales from various European traditions. There is also Fuyuhiko Takata’s Dream Catcher, 2018, with its own take on Rapunzel with the girl’s intractable hair wreaking havoc and chaos inside and out of her room when she spins.

The US-based collaborative duo Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz’s fifteen snow globes, from their ongoing Travelers’ series, illustrate that nice is not necessarily good. Each picturesque globe, so innocent at first glance, seals its characters to a dubious fate. In The Last Redwood (Traveler 322), 2016, the tableau depicts a tree stalking an unwary woodsman. Meanwhile Traveler 263, 2009, has a figure dressed in a hazmat suit and holding a bucket cautiously approaching what appears to be the poisonous and hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom. Mushrooms continue as an exhibition trope with Carsten Höller’s Flying Mushrooms, 2015, offering an interactive sculpture as disorientating as the fungi’s own qualities with its orrery-like construction and motion.

An unexpected surprise was finding Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s actual papercuts. Andersen, who was inspired by Middle Eastern folk tales, particularly One Thousand and One Nights (first translated for European audiences by Antoine Galland between 1704 – 17), was not only a great storyteller but also created scherenschnittes, or paper-cut designs. There are nine of these original works in this exhibition that illustrate recurrent themes in his writing, and the influence of the Middle East is obvious in Oriental castle with onion dome – and three minarets, 1850s–70s.

It was wonderful to see again the work of German artist Lotte Reiniger, showing Cinderella, 1922, and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, 1954. She’s a filmmaker and animator who uses backlit cardboard cut-outs to make silhouettes that are animated by shooting frame by frame. These films are timeless and mysterious, as are the stills in the catalogue.

An extensive program of forty-two films is being screened during the exhibition, as well as Jim Henson’s nine episodes of The StoryTeller, 1987. Perhaps, surprisingly, the 1987 recording of the Broadway musical of Into the Woods by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim was not included in the program. This was an oversight, as it’s a sublime encapsulation of the psychological twists that this production offers with lessons about life, and the very adult fears of being alone, unrequited love, cowardice, and the loss of loved ones.

The accompanying exhibition catalogue, Fairy Tales: In Art and Film, is a magnificent publication in itself. It includes an article by a pre-eminent fairy-tale scholar, New Yorker Jack Zipes, who has published numerous books, including the anthology Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, 1986. As well, there’s a reproduced chapter by the English historian Marina Warner from Once Upon a Time: A short history of fairy tale, 2014, one of the many books referenced by Slack-Smith in her accompanying essay.

The scope of the project is so extensive that it precluded the inclusion of stories from Asia, such as the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West. But as Orson Welles said, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 66
Images courtesy of the artists, BFI National Archive, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Janus Films, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Park Circus/ITV Studios, Roadshow Films, Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, WAITINGROOM, Tokyo

Fairy Tales
2 December 2023 – 28 April 2024 
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane 

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