THE GRAND GROTESQUE PARADE – CARNIVALESQUE AND THE BRITISH SEASIDE
Bevis Fenner 2011
“Let the carnival begin. Every pleasure, every sin.”
The Grand Grotesque Parade, the latest project of artist duo The Girls is more than simply a historical re-enactment. The performance is based on a spectacular and lavish parade that took place as part of the 1910 Bournemouth Centenary celebrations; a festival that cost the Council a total of £30,000. An absurdly large amount of money at the time that illustrates not only the kind of revenue brought by wealthy visitors but also the Council’s commitment to making Bournemouth one of Europe’s most exclusive holiday resorts, rivalling the French Riviera. Whilst the project does indeed illuminate a quirky, long forgotten footnote of the town’s history, it is also a celebration of the strange nature of popular seaside pleasures.
The British seaside resort and in particular Bournemouth, has traditionally been associated with health, be it in the quiet convalescence and sophisticated pleasures of the upper classes or in the organised escapes from industrial pollution, urban squalor and drunkenness started by Thomas Cook in the mid Nineteenth Century. However, there has always been a flipside to the sobriety, which represents a repressed aspect of Englishness that often manifests itself in our national sense of humour. Encompassing black comedy, surrealism, silliness, camp, double meanings, and a celebration of the downright absurd; the alternative to being prim and proper, towing the line, heeding social convention and the putting up with the humdrum of everyday life is the carnival. Indeed, there is a direct lineage between the traditions of the seaside resort and those of the medieval carnival. The word ‘holiday’ or ‘holy day’ has its origins in the one day festivals prescribed during the Christianisation of central Europe in the Dark Ages as controlled outlets for the wyrd pre-Christian rites of indigenous people. The carnival became a ritualised form of transgression from both Christian values and the social norms and conventions of the time.
The seaside embodies the pre-modern social formation of the carnivalesque; the ritualised inversion of accepted norms, or what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin describes as “life turned inside out”. Though Bakhtin attributes the origins of the carnival to the medieval festival known as the Feast of Fools, he contends that the term can equally be applied to all aesthetic forms that disrupt the boundaries of everyday existence. Central to this is the idea that normal life is suspended during the carnival. In particular it subverts hierarchical social structures and behaviours of deference, reverence, piety, etiquette and other social norms and conventions. Indeed, many of The Girls’ past works have explored the carnivalesque inversion of normative cultural conventions, such as weddings, family portraiture, garden parties, bathing and beauty pageants. The carnivalesque also encompasses the blurring of vital binary divisions between rich and poor, ugly and beautiful (through mask wearing), and powerful and meek - through the ritual crowning of a ‘fool king’ or ‘king of the day’. The carnival is a limbo or in-between state: an alter reality in which what is considered to be good in society is momentarily killed off, later to be re-born as the carnival king or queen is de-crowned thus returning things to ‘normality’.
Another central concept of the carnivalesque is Bakhtin’s notion of grotesque realism or the aesthetic of the carnival. Grotesque realism is the stripping away of all social, cultural and moral gloss to both reveal and amplify the material baseness of the human form. It is, however, not simply an aesthetic of ugliness but one of truth; striving to emphasise degradation, degeneration and disintegration is a material celebration of the human animal in all its abject corporeal glory – brutal, base, crude, dirty and carnal. Indeed, there is a long history of artists who have used abjection to undermine the symbolic order of society and to reveal some kind of existential truth beyond everyday systems of meaning. Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, Hermann Nitsch’s Actionist bloodbaths, Franco B’s self mutilation and Andreas Serrano’s sacrilegious effigies were all attempts to reconcile subject and object, human and world, and at the same time shatter the social and cultural illusion of reality. The Girls have also explored the threshold between acceptability and abjection, most notably in 'Corn Fed' (2008). In this work the contorted female form takes the place of a trussed chicken in a roasting tin, ready to be cooked and consumed. This uncomfortable subject position is not only a direct challenge to the male gaze as a consumer of the female form but also places the human body in the position of meat. For Bakhtin, this debasing or degrading of the human form is an essential feature of grotesque realism: "The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in all their indissoluble unity" (Bakhtin, 1965, 19-20). One artist whose work best articulates this aesthetic is Paul McCarthy. The Californian artist is best known for his visceral performance installations in which grotesque figures appear menacingly, like horrific versions of characters from Grimm’s fairy tales to enact bizarre rituals in dingy storybook workshop settings. The addition of Ketchup, chocolate and other food stuffs to substitute bodily secretions and excretions, combined with harsh lighting and colours all add to the aura of psychological disturbance and unease. Masks are a vital element in much of McCarthy’s work as a means of erasing the reassuring features of humanity from his performers. Likewise, The Girls have recently used this devise in ‘Diamonds and Toads’ (2011). The performance installation piece is based on the fairytale of two sisters, one of whom is given the gift of producing jewels from her lips when she speaks in recognition of her pure nature, and the other, the curse of emanating forth repugnant items such as toads, snakes and worms as punishment for her base character. The Girls, however, use masks to generate ambiguity; stirring up doubt and clouding the crystal clear waters of this moralistic tale. Moreover, their costumes and props add earthy weight to the human form, bringing this floaty fable of black and white morality down to earth with an obstreperous thud.
Masks, costumes and makeup are vital elements within The Girls’ work. Indeed, it is carnivalesque concept of the ‘alter’ or the transformation of identity that perhaps relates most strongly to their canon. Their highly staged self-portraiture, like that of Cindy Sherman, draws heavily on the notion of alters; that is, false or masked identities. In 'William and Harry' (1997), The Girls transgress both gender and class to embody the two young princes, and in doing so unlock something of their humanity.
The notion of parody is also central to The Girls’ work. And parody, also has its roots in the carnival. In the Middle Ages, the mockery of powerful or sacred figures, texts and rituals was sanctioned during feasts under the legitimised license of laughter, ‘parodia sacra’. More than simply venting individual frustration and diffusing dissention, parody enabled the celebration of artifice essential to a harmonious social world – it was a license to be silly and to see others as such. Rather than hate your governing men, laws and rites, you could simply parody them for one day with no recourse. In dystopias such as that of George Orwell’s “1984”, such mockery is forbidden, therefore throwing the social world out of balance and generating a climate of fear and loathing.
The seaside holiday is structured around a built-in tolerance of minor transgressions, like unhealthy eating (fish and chips), gambling (arcade games), cross-dressing (end of pier pantomimes), impersonating figures of authority (stag and hen nights), and sensory excess (fairground rides). Indeed, the environment of the seaside resort facilitates a kind of alter reality where social norms are inverted and the pursuit of pleasure enables not only the avoidance of pain but is also a means of eliminating the sense of boredom, pre-determination and fate experienced in everyday life. Stag and Hen nights are an example of a carnivalesque happening - an organised pseudo-event that allows the bride or groom to ‘let their hair down’ for one night only. During a stag or hen ‘do’ certain types of transgressive behaviours are not only permitted but actively encouraged. Cross-dressing, drinking to excess, kissing a member of the same sex or even, dare say it, sleeping with someone met on the night, are all permissible in an unspoken way for the prospective bride or groom; who occupies the liminal or in-between state between youth and adulthood, singledom and marriage. Even stripping the groom naked and tying him to a lamp post, which under normal circumstances would be viewed as a criminal activity, becomes a permitted transgression, which police will turn a blind eye to. In a sense, stags and hens are not responsible for their actions; they are simply enacting a socially constructed performance in a twilight limbo land where anything goes so long as it has gone before. They are the objects of a collective social dream that cannot exist without the glow of the mimetic subjectivity that they bath in – the universal carnival of everyday ethics. Hens parading their train through a moment of pink lycra magic, become their own carnival float; a reassurance to the world that nothing too sinister is happening to society.
The carnivalesque is also manifest in many forms of seaside entertainment. For example, an arcade game momentarily gives its players a unique status, defined by both their significance in beginning the game and entering its world, and insignificance once they have stepped out of that domain. The arcade game forces its player to grapple with the primal constructs of superstition, catharsis, death and renewal. In the carnivalesque world of the seaside resort, participation offers the opportunity to buck against modernity’s sterilisation of nature and return to a primal state of consciousness. Indeed, the carnivalesque concept of crowning and de-crowning mirrors the experience of winning and losing in an arcade game. The concepts of crowning/de-crowning, winning/losing relate that of death/re-birth, a construct that can be found in many religions including paganism; the notion that everything is cyclical and seasonal.
Punch and Judy shows illustrate perfectly the narrative of the carnival or ‘life turned inside out’. The story in its traditional form turns inside-out that which we consider to be right and wrong, inverting social norms and venerating anti-social behaviour. Throughout each performance Mr. Punch averts punishment for mistreating his wife and child by bludgeoning various characters of authority to death with his ‘slapstick’. Indeed, earlier versions of the puppet play involve the appearance of a hang man, whom upon attempting to enforce justice upon Mr. Punch, is tricked into putting his own head in the noose. The show also originally contained the macabre characters of a ghost, the grim reaper and the Devil; all of whom were defeated in Punch’s battle for total impunity. Indeed it is no coincidence that The Girls chose to portray themselves as Punch and Judy in a commission for Loud Tate 2010 (in response to Tate Britain’s 'Rude Britannia' exhibition (2010)), for this grotesque duo are the archetypal figureheads of carnivalesque transformation.
Transformation is a key feature of seaside entertainments, whether of appearance, by means of dressing up or standing behind a themed cut out and posing for a seaside portrait, or state, by going on a fairground ride to thrill or scare you into a condition of sublime terror. Indeed, the perceived pleasure of fairground rides stems from the eighteenth century notion of the sublime; the same aesthetic fad that drove artists and early tourists to wander the craggy passes of the Swiss Alps in search of breathtaking views that would induce feelings of terror. Again this relates to the notion of the threshold or in-between state, as the sublime is a subjective moment of looking toward or perceiving a point of mortal transition from a safe distance. In the case of a fairground ride, as we are safely suspended high above the ground, what we perceive is the potential of our own mortality. In a sense we are suspended between life and death. Thus, upon exiting the ride we are reborn; so the fairground ride serves as catharsis and a release from the mundanely of everyday life.
One of the most interesting forms of seaside entertainment from the perspective of transformation is the hall of mirrors. The mirror image is predominantly what we think of as ourselves and therefore any deformation of this affects how we perceive the self. The French philosopher Jacques Lacan argues that the stage of development in which children recognise themselves in the mirror is pivotal to the creation of the ego. He suggests that during the ‘mirror stage’ there is a mismatch between a child’s physiological unity and the wholeness that it perceives in the mirror. In other words, whilst a child may be clumsy and uncoordinated in real life, in the mirror they are recognised as a whole, complete ‘me’. The ego is produced via language in the symbolic order; the mirror image becomes not only a symbol for the unified subject but also a signifier for the self; a signifier for ‘you-ness’. In life drawing classes at school, I remember being told to draw what you see, not what you think you see. And indeed one of the key challenges in art is in overcoming the desire to represent the obvious; to create a mere signifier for something. A tree for example is not simply a green cloud-shape on top of a brown rectangle; it is a complex physical object, much of which is invisible behind its intricate surface or below ground. What the hall of mirrors does, is allows us to see the world as it is by showing us something different from that which we expect to see. In a world obsessed with body image and indeed bodily perfection, it is refreshing for us to be confronted with a self image so alien and out of proportion that our real life bum’s don’t really ‘look big in this’ anymore.
The problem with the carnivalesque is that in today’s world of moral uncertainty it is uncomfortable. We no longer live in a world of moral absolutes but instead one of carnivalesque ambiguity with endless opportunities for transgression: excessive consumerism and even cosmetic surgery to enable our own transformations and mask our identities; ever-more graphic and distasteful horror movies to push the boundaries of moral and aesthetic acceptability; computer games in which we can kill without consequence - rebellion without cause. However, The Girls have always sort out the uncomfortable, the un-categoriseable, the un-definable and the in-between state between what we know and what we don’t. And, if the purpose of art is to make you see the world in a different way, then there is no more different a way of seeing than theirs. The Girls' work is the very embodiment of the carnivalesque because it reflects a carnivalesque society. Popular seaside pleasures are not quaint, archaic, marginalised and restricted to the coast but are all around us. One hundred years ago the Grand Grotesque Parade represented a strangely upper class form of exuberance and excess. However, the democratisation of luxury in the twenty-first century has meant that we all seemingly get the opportunity to take part in today’s grotesque revelry. Moreover, we are all equal, or at least appear equal, in the everyday carnival of today’s Britain. The Grand Grotesque Parade therefore, has a peculiar resonance, as we question the value and very meaning of carnivalesque transgression in today’s society.
Bevis Fenner 2011