50 x 40 inches
Untitled #33 (hide), 1998
11 x 14 inches
Untitled #58 (by proxy), 1999
60 x 70 inches
Untitled #3 (wonder), 1996
60 x 50 inches
Untitled #71, 2001
61 x 75 inches
Untitled, #7 (wonder), 1996
10 x 8 inches
Anna Gaskell: Fairy Tales From The Other Side Of The Mirror
March 2010 - May 2010
Essay By Janet Batet
If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.
Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t.
And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn’t be,
and what it wouldn’t be, it would.
Alice in wonderland.
Society is a disruptive effort from the mere standpoint of trying to gather individuals under a unique centered perspective and common rules. In this disturbing process, the individual is sacrificed, assumed as a tabula rasa where precepts, morality, culture and taboos are engraved forever. This tense dynamic may be resumed on the pair-nature-nurture and its culminant point is located in the adolescence: that controversial age –may be our last and ultimate rebellion- before entering definitively in the common path dictated by society.
Slippery as eels, adolescence escapes any narrow definition, at the point of being defined as a transitional juncture, a mutation state caught between childhood and adulthood. This traumatic and fascinating experience in which the body itself –that magnificent receptacle- becomes a fierce battle of chemical reactions, takes us away from the intimate family circle to partner in unique brotherhood with our factual peers: the other adolescents.
Anna Gaskell’s disturbing oeuvre breaks into the art scene in the early nineties, during the birth of the X Generation or 13th generation. Anna herself is a member of this symptomatic group: a sort of stigma. Transitional creatures that had the doubtful privilege of living at the vortices of two ages, having at last a sense of belonging to nowhere in particular. Self-sufficiency and apathy seem to be two of the most stables traits of this generation that has grown up with a substantial difference: this is the very first dot-com generation, which means a completely different perception of reality –a kind of telescopic vision that makes everything accessible: an enlarged reality that cohabits on the virtual world.
The X gen protagonists feel as if in a hall with doors all around1 and if locked, they will find the way out. After all, they are known as the "latch-key" children and they are excited about this life theater-like experience.
Anna’s fictional photographic series stands on this critical gap, where the rarefied atmosphere and the isolation of these enigmatic beings partake a sort of parallel reality, a dimension that escapes from our tangible everyday world. The theatrical effect is emphasized by the cinematic style where the chosen set, lights and shoot angle are crucial. We enter to an eerie atmosphere devoid of any referent: A vague scene, from which we can barely perceive incongruous fragments, puzzle-like elements that we try –senselessly- to rebuild in our heads. The lighting, heir to the tenebrist legacy opened by Caravaggio back in the sixteen century, accentuates this effect isolating characters in the midst of overwhelming nothingness. This murky, high-contrasted light becomes an enigmatic feature determining spatiality and relationship between characters.
The source of light -from the bottom up- highlights the creepy atmosphere that typifies Gaskell’s photographic series that always leave the impression of stillframes extirpated from a cinematographic oeuvre. Along with the light, stands the composition playing a crucial role. Using the close-up shot -occasionally extremesor detail shots, Anna forces us to look at those minor passages of daily life that otherwise would pass unnoticed and now are revealed to us as tremendous and horrifying.
Behind this entire gloomy world is a strong cinema influence: Noir, French New Wave-in particular Godard-, and horror. Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that the 13th generation term itself alludes to the “devil-child” movies, wherein children are portrayed as malevolent protagonists, because these films were released soon after the generation’s first members were born.
Another two elements -both inextricably linked- cannot be disregarded: cropping -as a very effective formal resource- and, as a consequence, the displaced being. The lens of the camera in Gaskell’s works always seems misplaced creating in the viewer a sense of unease. We try, in vain, to finish the image, looking for connection with the elusive face, compelled by the natural need of eye-to-eye contact. In return, what do we have? Scattering, bewilderment, the sense of disruption is inevitable when guided by fragments that are lost in an uncertain atmosphere. Our only handles are always incongruent fragments: threatening faces, arms echoed by the scary shadows, conspiring legs that multiply in creepy tentacles.
In this sinister universe, arms and legs are the ultimate clue. They resume the underlying idea of brotherhood that means survival amid a hostile and mysterious world. In that sense, more than a character, arms and legs embody an entity: the dark and oblique force that populates Gaskell’s artworks. This entity should be taken as existential duality in which the legs lie without foundation and the arms come into a fatal aid.
There is no remedy. As in Greek tragedy, these characters follow his tragic fate. Desperate, they come together as a last survival mechanism against an autocratic, non-permissible world that exiles them. Without a truthful spot where they can exist, they close ranks amongst themselves and -with only the desire to support each other- they annihilate.
This is the most terrible correlate of adolescence, where the feeling of life, in an existential limbo, throws us into another dimension, a parallel world (a rabbithole?) equally ruled by chaos and nonsense. The feeling of disruption and claustrophobia guide the disturbing fairytale that is Anna’s oeuvre. Alarming fable where the protagonists are but shadows that roam without handles, neither in the adult world or that of their peers. Victims of misunderstanding of a despotic society out there, the peers played unconscious equal mechanisms of exclusion, subjugation and power. We are forced then –hopeless- to stretch and shrug ourselves at the whim of others, pathetic victims of our own image trapped in the looking glass, forever.
1. There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again. (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland p 7. Planet eBook.com).
Anna Gaskell was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1969. Gaskell studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received a B.F.A. in 1992; she received an M.F.A. from Yale University in 1995. Gaskell’s early photographs were of children as they collectively acted out stories. In her wonder (1996–97) and override (1997) series, groups of girls dressed in matching uniforms are shown in ambiguous and ominous situations. Her series hide (1998) evokes a Brothers Grimm tale. Gaskell’s first solo exhibition was at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York in 1997; she has since exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami (1998), White Cube in London (2002), Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colorado (2000), Castello di Rivoli in Rivoli, Italy (2001), the Menil Collection in Houston (2002), The Box at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH (2007), and Gisela Capitian in Cologne, Germany (2009). She has also participated in Sightings at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (1998), Visions From America at The Whitney Museum in NY, NY (2002), Moving Pictures at the Guggenheim Museum and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2003), Art and Artist, at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA (2004), Stalemate the at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL (2005), Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY (2007), Always Begins by Degrees at The Common Guild in Glasgow, Scotland (2008), and Subversive Spaces at The Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester, Great Britain (2009). She received the Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize in 2000 and a Nancy Graves Foundation grant in 2002. Gaskell received the award for Best Documentary Short Film at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2009. She lives and works in New York.
Janet Batet is an independent curator, art critic and essayist based in Miami. A former researcher and curator at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales (Development Center of Visual Arts) and Professor at the Insituto Superior de Arte (Higher Institute of Art), both in Havana, she is passionate about Contemporary art, Latin American art and new technologies. She has written and lectured extensively on contemporary art issues as well as served as an art critic for a number of national and international publications. Her relevant writings on art practices are published regularly. She holds a MA in Multimedia (UQAM University, Montreal) and a BA in Art History (Universidad de La Habana).