Image: Jon Williamson, Mr Underwood - The Seeker, 2007 (detail). Photograph by Peter Robinson

28-Jul-2007 - 26-Aug-2007

Infinite Empire




Carole Hammond’s curatorial objective is to translate and extend the little known literary phenomenon of Steampunk into a broader context, shedding light on a murky sci-fi terrain incongruously ornamented with Victorian curlycues. However, rather than simply an exercise in labelling another sub-cultural geeky style (in the service of a marketing ploy à la Star Trek or Harry Potter etc) Hammond points to a sensibility, crossing boundaries of media, that looks back in time to imagine a future - and to issue a warning.

The Victorian era heralded an optimistic and humanist, industrial age on the back of (as Tony Robinson’s recent TV program, The Worst Jobs in the World, makes clear) a brutal existence for the majority. Hammond’s steampunk draws parallels with such a past, melding futuristic technological vision with Victorian primitive industrial whimsy, as a salutary reminder (in a new phase of technological frenzy) that, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ (George Santayana)

A dystopian fug pervades the gallery, a rich inventiveness tainted with the stuff of sleepless nights evident in all the work presented to us, confirms that rationality has been well and truly left behind; in acknowledgment, perhaps, of the cruel insanity that humans can inflict and tolerate in the name of reason. In this nightmarish gloom the images of Aurélien Police bring to mind ‘rediscovered’ sketches of a deranged Leonardo; the flickering video images from The Lycette Bros. also have an air of diabolical experimentation, if somewhat more whimsical (the mechanised nanobots, revealed as if under a microscope, are designed to remove impurities from the bloodstream); the costumes of Sonia Heap act as a perverse but exquisite armour, defending the wearer whilst simultaneously (through its restriction) projecting an image of a force to be reckoned with - ‘who is in control of whom’ indeed?

Temporal distortion plays a significant role here too. Madeleine Rosca’s ‘cards’ to a forgotten game span a century to blend the Art Nouveau style of the Czech artist Alponse Mucha with Japanese Manga illustrations; Julia deVille pays tribute to a Victorian obsession with death, but with a lack of resignation more indicative of our own era of cryogenics and the promise of cheating the ageing gene. Conjuring up images of H.G Wells’ lounge chair/time machine, James Vaughan’s furniture like Jon Williamson’s ‘mechanical’ constructions (ironically) pay homage - through their immaculate redundancy - to a time when technology had a more transparent elegance.

Eventually the Victorian era brought about civil libertarian reform due to the inefficiency of a workforce suffering from the effects of extreme poverty and cruelty related to new industrial demands. Hammond’s steampunk echoes this sense of dispossession; these works possess a faultless impotency, a flashing light of alarm for our time.

This exhibition was the outcome of the 2007 CAST Curatorial Mentorship Program.


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