I loved this exhibition! From the minute I walked through the door and saw a display made entirely of peacock feathers and a bust wearing some strange mechanical goggles, I knew there was something special about it. It celebrates artworks produced in the last two decades inspired by the themes and materials of Victorian England, from re-imagined classic literature to taxidermy and nods to the machine-age. It’s dark, morbid, inspired, sweet, fun, disgusting and brilliant.
Several pieces have been selected by the promoters and critics as the key talking points – the tweed armchair with two dead foxes wrapped into the back; two ceramic dogs, and the tiered wedding cake made of human hair, that looks like one of Marie Antoinette’s wigs – the icing is made of plated and woven blonde hair, with a piece cut away from the base showing its stuffing of curly brown hair that looks like sponge. But all the other pieces deserve equal billing. In the largest room is a statute of a girl surrounded by a swarm of bees, ants crawling over her skirts, with spiders and other insects around her feet. By her head are two structures covered in butterflies and a dead mouse. And yes, every creature is real, suspended on strings from the ceiling. Standing under it, I was certainly wasn’t alone in hoping that none of them would fall on me! Nearby, the same artist had produced a large golden birdcage that references the Crystal Palace (home of the Great Exhibition of 1851) and filled it with fake flowers, which looks much nicer live than this picture suggests.
In the same room are eight giant photographs that re-imagine key moments from The Picture of Dorian Grey with the artist playing the lead role. The atmosphere Yinka Shonibare creates and the detail of these pictures made them one of my favourite parts of the exhibition. In the next room I loved the ‘stylish’ space helmet which included a massive domed head with space inside for a very British safari hat and binoculars. Also here a suspended Miss Havisham-style dress, with a shredded skirt turned into a swarm of butterflies, simultaneously beautiful and tragic. Through a mysterious curtain is a dark room containing a machine with a light at the centre and three circles of moths which spin around it. When the light is strobbed, the moths look as though their flying towards the lamp and back again – that was really stunning!
But my favourite piece was a short animated film called Damaged Goods by Barnaby Barford, about two figurines that fall in love on the forgotten shelves of an old shop. The girl is held captive by an evil Charles II look-a-like with two vicious poodles, so the hero meets her in secret, but they’re discovered and something breaks! It’s a tragic and tender little film which was lovely to watch and reminiscent of a less commercial form of animation. So I’ll say it again, I loved this exhibition; every piece has been brilliantly selected, but prepared to be equally sickened and enchanted. And happily, the Guildhall is so tucked away that it wasn’t very busy at all!
Victoriana: The Art of Revival is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 8th December and costs £7