“Voyages Extraordinaires” was the title Jules Verne gave to his collection of fantastical tales at the end of the 19th Century. On the cusp of the Modern Era but still rooted in the past, the imagined possibilities of invention were hybridised with age-old narratives of mythical monsters to describe the excitement of the age. From flying machines to submarines to space travel and giant squids – everything seemed possible. Just over a century later, this optimism seems all but vanished – and yet the power of the “extraordinary hybrid” remains.
James Freeman Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition by Claire Partington and Sam Branton that revisits the “Voyage Extraordinaire” to explore contemporary uses of the hybrid, to rediscover age-old archetypes, and to reconfigure them in dark, historicised contemporary fantasies.
Claire Partington delves into the basic underpinnings of narrative, collecting a cast of characters from the vast pool of folklore and re-contextualising them in a theatrical Period Drama. Her ceramic figures run the full gamut of human vice and virtue. Seemingly antique in their appearance, her works are made using the same materials as 17th Century English Delftware, with interchangeable heads alluding to 19th Century Martinware grotesques. Echoing the constant theme of zoomorphism in fairytales, these characters shape-shift at will to disguise their true nature. And dark undercurrents pervade many of the works. “The Girl with the Silver Hands” relates to a Grimm tale of a father who cut off his daughter’s arms instead of giving her to the Devil; another to Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”, where a daughter is forced to disguise herself with a donkey’s hide to avoid marrying her father. Others have an almost idyllic innocence, such as “Beauteous Niggard”, referencing Hilliard’s Young Man Among the Roses (what Roy Strong called the “supreme evocation of Elizabethan Arcadia”) which Partington uses to evoke the cryptic intricacies of vanity and courting. Throughout, her works uncover archetypal figures that have endured for centuries in a kind of shared cultural twilight, lying in wait to hijack any narrative that comes their way.
Sam Branton’s drawings imagine just such a story. Emerging as if from a Victorian Opium dream, his tale goes to the heart of how the narrative of adventure and exoticism can become a platform for the indulgence of some of humanity’s basest desires. Recounting a kind of Jules Verne safari in a surreal cartoon world, Branton melds Victorian photography with low-brow illustration to narrate the fantastic voyage of a party of aristocrats to an exotic island called “The Garden”. Here, a fauna of hybrid creatures, bred exclusively to satisfy the desires of the tourists, are subjected to a myriad of abuses and debasements that the visitors call Sport. Servants, serfs, playthings and prey, they are effectively slaves to the arrogance of Imperial fancy. Softly rendered in gentle blue pencil, their melancholy faces tell of a resignation to their function. Absurd and touching in equal measures, Branton’s drawings ridicule with almost tragic parody the darker undertones of cultural tourism and how any leisurely Utopia must by necessity be built on a different, dystopic foundation. They also highlight how the narrative of adventure can become an unwitting channel for some of our most sinister human behaviours.