Down the Rabbit Hole Catalogue Essay by Shana James
This exhibition created as part of my Masters by Research Study explores ideas concerning the self-actualisation of the individual – becoming more of your potential. Although I was not aware of it at the time, this is what I liked about the story when I first heard it as a child. In this artwork I am not interested in illustrating the text; rather I am concerned with using the story of Alice in Wonderland as a critical lens to explore ideas around of choice, and agency. Using elements from the story as metaphors, I have created artworks that investigate aspects of contemporary life and personal growth. First published in 1865 Alice in Wonderland is a complex and nuanced understanding of an individual navigating a strange world that present day readers still connect to.
My childhood love of Alice in Wonderland came not from the book, as might be expected, but from a LP record created in 1974; a modern take on the classic, complete with American accents and heavily abridged. Although I loved this recording, it was only after I read the original story to my daughter in 2010, that I became aware of the layers of meaning, the intelligence and the wit of the original text. Reading this story as an adult opened up a world of visual imagery to me and it was at this time that I produced the first Alice in Wonderland drawings in my sketch books.
I have been making artwork exploring the story of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll since 2015. My first Alice exhibition was exhibited at the Firestation Print Studio in Melbourne and the entire set of 17 linocuts was collected by Monash University. The following year I made Alice in Wonderland images for the group exhibition, Seven Printmakers Respond to Place, at Heathcote Gallery curated by Jana Braddock. Following these exhibitions, I embarked on this Masters by Research study. This study has allowed me to examine my practice in relation to the text and immerse myself in the cultural field of Alice in Wonderland. Throughout this process, of writing and making I have become aware of what the central tenets of the story are for me and how I choose to interpret these ideas as visual art. In 2019, during my study, I exhibited Curiouser and Curiouser at Stala Contemporary in West Perth.
Much of the artwork in this exhibition focuses on Alice jumping down the rabbit hole and the fall that follows:
“In another moment Alice went down after [the white rabbit], never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865).
When Alice jumps down the rabbit hole, she is making a fateful decision.* After jumping one must accept the fall that follows, you cannot change your mind mid-jump or mid-fall. The action has a consequence. The phrase ‘down the rabbit hole’ has in our current time become synonymous with ideas around delving into a subject, becoming immersed and being open to ideas beyond what is known. In this series of recent works, I examine aspects of the liminal space of Alice falling, as a place of transition between the familiar knowing of what was and the uncertainty of what comes next; that moment after the decision has been made but before the outcome is known. Alice can struggle fall awkwardly and fight against the reality that she is falling; or she can float gracefully (as she does in the original text) with acceptance. My works navigate the process of accepting the fall as a natural consequence of the jump.
I use pattern to create an immersive space in some of these works. I am interested in the many layers of meaning associated with pattern both metaphorically and psychologically – the pattern of being who you are. The repetitive aspects of life which are in direct opposition to that moment of jumping. Repetition is intrinsic to printmaking and as I make these works there is an embodied pattern of repeated movements but it is often through disrupting pattern, as Alice does when she jumps down the rabbit hole, the individual can create growth. This story flows like a dream with some chapters being unrelated to the others; connecting to this element of the text, I created the animated drawing, where each scene flows into the next, a dreamlike meandering, expressing states of being and transience.
I have found Alice in Wonderland to be a story filled with compelling ideas to create images from, as have many artists before me including Salvador Dali, Charles Blackman, Peter Blake and Kiki Smith. As an artist I am interested in visually exploring the aspects of the story that present a metaphor for contemporary life, self-actualisation and a symbolic hero’s journey. These aspects provide a framework to illuminate aspects of the human condition, through visual art. I invite you to jump Down the Rabbit Hole as you immerse yourself in this exhibition.
*Fateful decisions a term used by Sociologist Anthony Giddens in his book Modernity and Self Identity (1991, p. 109)