Early work explored the ‘shrinking of experience’ or disenchantment described by Walter Benjamin, or considered the illustrated book as ruin, as metaphor for early historical and developmental moments or as a kind of structure for framing the loss of experiential modes that had fleshed out earlier stories and lives. Informed by archival research in how popular images were reproduced and repurposed over centuries, it explored figures like 17th century Puss in Boots – an ‘animal helper’ who reversed the fortunes of his peasant master via representation – at a time when the power of imagined change derived from its impossibility at a time of hierarchy, rite, custom, sumptuary law or scarcity – something we, as socially mobile consumers of images and things, can only dimly imagine. Traced through time, these ‘figures’ appear as a kind of hinge pivoting back and forward from a past where change was impossible, to a time when it is achieved through commodities and its ‘aura’ diminished. As social mobility increased, early folk tale figures found new roles marketing smaller changes in status. Le Maître Chat hawked goods that an emerging middle class at first needed – and perhaps later did not, accelerating growth that has since become unsustainable. Abandoned in the wood by selfish elders, Le Petit Poucet saved himself with new flashlights or early automobiles. Ironically, the future is now defended by a familiarly named fairy tale figure; a girl with braids named Greta (a variant of Gretel, also abandoned by an elder generation) decries the’ ‘fairy tale of unsustainable growth’.
I’ve explored popular narratives as material threads of historical change and wondered if tropes from western fairy tale’s long ago are reproduced in the current far away; asylum seekers as beggars at the cottage door – feared, but also a test or gift in disguise. I’ve considered the trope of the children abandoned in the wood as a metaphor for current climate concerns and the loss of more essential narratives such as reliable seasons.
Recent work engages earlier fable forms. Unlike Puss in Boots, Aesop’s animals were less likely to be repurposed selling shoes or matches; they expressed enduring human characteristics and moral dilemmas. But the ground of fable’s anthropomorphized animals has shifted in the anthropocene; their human natures now echo strangely and plaintively. Despite fable’s fantastic transformations and talking beasts, real transformation like climate change was likely unimaginable to Aesop or Jean de la Fontaine.
The oppositions of hubris/diligence or fast/slow of The Tortoise and the Hare still resonate in political, economic, or climate vocabulary. Recent work drawing on this tale references 17th century genre paintings of game. Dangling, dead hares are rotated and re-animated in various paint grounds to appear racing with children’s drawings or other versions of the tortoise and any hope it may offer.
The work reflects my fear and wonder about the future and changing climate (physical and cultural) at a time when we appear to be sliding back to folk tale and fabulism – when public discourse, overtaken by false, anti-science and hysterical ‘populist’ narrative, makes fable’s ancient animal voices seem oddly sane in a time when fairy tale tropes, which relied on imagined transformation through representational identification – resurface in rhetoric by and about a golden-haired prince/president, who descends from a golden tower as social mobility stagnates. The disenchanted identify with figures from a familiar past. As meaningful political representation wanes, older representations re-emerge. “Unprecedented” actions have precedents in fairy tale; I wonder about these changing figure/ground relationships through painting.
Fairy tale transformations are also at home in the land of contemporary art, which, though long detached from traditional representation or narrative, remains defined by near magical possibilities embedded in its own ‘story’ – a meta-narrative that also finds form in illustrated books. How that text/story increases an artwork’s value may be another fairy tale echo. From urinal, merde d’artista to banana, the transformation of straw into gold, of nothing into something of enormous value, occurs dramatically in contemporary art. As well as the magic of its making, the manufactured scarcity of markets and structures echo conditions that produced older and still resonant narrative tropes – stories that continue to shift and shape in the real world.
© Carol Wainio 2022