Rapunzel, Rapunzel

Alice Anderson outside Riflemaker, February 2010. © Alice Anderson

When one afternoon in 2007 I found by chance a copy of The Dolls’ Day in a junkshop in Spitalfields, I knew that the novel – published in 1915 in the early years of the First World War by Carine Cadby – should be bought for my friend Alice Anderson. What I didn’t know was that, in Anderson’s hands, the book would become a springboard for something altogether new.

It was Cadby’s illustrations – photographic scenarios featuring dolls and other animals, the latter, dead and stuffed – that alerted me, even though by the standard of her times, they were not extraordinarily bizarre. In some of Alice Anderson’s earlier art works, she had experimented with immured body parts – at one installation in Burgundy, the smooth walls bulged with the plaster-cast shapes of her limbs; and more recently she had been working with waxworks. We had had conversations about puppets, toys and homunculi and the power they exert and the ambivalence they generate in both the popular and fantastical imaginations. In any case, the book became a present and it was a good present, although the coincidence of a book published in wartime for a birthday that falls on Armistice Day was not one made consciously by me at the time. The book itself needed something more, to be wrapped in context and Anderson was insistent that she be told the full story of how the book came into my hands. A junkshop in the historic East End of London, next to the Ten Bells, a pub where, over 120 years ago, some of the victims of Jack the Ripper drank and a place where, today, contemporary Jack the Ripper story tours regularly drop off. And so a storybook begat a story, and, as is the nature of storytelling, resonances are created, slips are made and networks of association are constructed and mangled and broken, but never ever dissolved.

Unlike those of Jack the Ripper, the victims of Alice Anderson are not (at least in any legal sense) real, but there is no doubting the violence done to her puppets nor the rigours of the world in which they are situated. In the assembly of artworks – drawings, models, installation and film – that make up Anderson’s The Dolls’ Day (2008), there are pictures in blood, red-headed dolls – facsimiles of the artist herself – encased in either a high tower, its interior studded with pins, or a wire towers. While these dolls have not been completely abandoned (indeed, in Time Lag, one element of the larger exhibition, two dolls, each captive in their own wire tower, are linked brutally, by a single rope of red hair) , the parental figures that feature in the film of The Dolls’ Day have no potency – there is no hope of rescue or contact or communication. These are Freudian tales, stories of oedipal rifts and poisonous mothers that Anderson has deliberately – unavoidably – inserted into a framework that recalls the great European fairy tales – Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, for instance. But in the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, the audience has no trouble in identifying the good actor and the bad one. The structure and narrative of these stories demands that good and evil are clearly delineated.

This is deliberate. Anderson said as much in an interview published in 2008: “My tales are like those of Angela Carter or Marina Warner, with no moral, no princess and no Prince Charming. My heroines are strong women. They’re never passive. The opposite of Walt Disney women characters, for example. In that type of tale, women are projections of masculine desire. In mine, women are the projections of masculine desire.”

But, this loss of any moral compass poses challenges for the viewer – and Anderson, in framing her narratives in the strange, bewitching landscape of if not fairy tales, then something like fairy tales, acknowledges this. In the last chapter of the film of The Dolls’ Day, the daughter breaks and destroys the doll representation of her parents in an act of violence described by Darien Leader in his introductory essay as “so powerful that no ‘realistic representation could do it justice”. This is Anderson’s sleight of hand: any of the usual natural justice inherent in most traditional fairy stories is refused. The terrifying aspect of Anderson’s Dolls’ Day is that there no reparation is either sought or allowed.

In The Secret Life of Puppets, writer Victoria Nelson suggests that human-made images operate today in “a lost field of perception”. It is, she says, impossible for us to look on images – she offers us as examples Christ on his cross and a statue of Krishna – and see the coincidence of the supernatural and the vital. Although Nelson (whose book is a cultural history of the grotesque stretching from pre-history to the contemporary) is working within a different space to that of The Dolls’ Day, The Secret Life is nevertheless germane to a study of Anderson’s work. If puppets were once experienced as gods (as Nelson theorises), then what of this sensation still lingers in their contemporary presence? If parents might be considered the child’s first gods, then Anderson, with her models and her puppets, is an artist who is also an iconoclast. And out of such destruction comes the separation necessary to work.

© Louise Gray, Introduction to Alice Anderson: Sculpting Time.
2 March to 24 April 2010, Riflemaker Contemporary Art, London W1.