Visual Art

Fairy Tales at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art draws on a rich range of art forms to investigate the enduring fascination of fantasy and folklore. By Philippa Hawker.

GOMA’s Fairy Tales

Silhouette of a princess and a prince.
Fuyuhiko Takata’s Dream Catcher (2018).
Credit: Fuyuhiko Takata / WAITINGROOM, Tokyo.

Of course you enter through the forest, the place where so many fairytales begin – where the safety of home and family vanishes, or uncertainty and danger offer tantalising possibilities for reimagining the world and the self. Fairy Tales – a new exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) that combines film, video, painting, photography, sculpture, installations, props, costumes and objects of all kinds – is a thoughtful, tactile, engrossing show that plays cleverly with both familiarity and surprise.

Corupira (2023), a new commission from Brazilian sculptor Henrique Oliveira, is the entry point. A cream wood-panelled corridor turns into a kind of interior forest you walk through and under: a crisscross of branches, logs, tree trunks, driftwood pieces, planks and plywood. Thick branches are angled and askew, as if fallen or growing sideways, suspended high above or close to the ground. At some points the bark turns into flowers or sunbursts; elsewhere the surface buckles as strange growths push their way out of the wall, like parts of a body. It’s not a dark forest, however: this place is brightly lit, yet full of mystery and promise.

Fairy Tales creates connections and encourages viewers and spectators to form their own. Curator Amanda Slack-Smith has divided the exhibition into three stages, or chapters. The first, called “Into the Woods”, focuses more on traditional fairytales. The second, “Through the Looking Glass”, presents more recent stories and parallel worlds, while “Ever After” challenges the conventions of love.

These divisions are not hard and fast. Certain familiar objects and images – the forest, the mirror, the colour red – recur throughout. Part of the pleasure of Fairy Tales is discovering works that speak to each other, whether in close proximity or across the space of the exhibition. And you make your own associations. For example, in a room haunted by the spectre of Beauty and the Beast that also contains the bell jar with the enchanted rose from Disney’s 2017 live-action version of the story, I found myself thinking of Sylvia Plath, whose imagery resonates with many works throughout the exhibition.

Exhibition designer Grace Liu has devised a setting that is inviting and easy to navigate, allowing a sense of intimacy. It also permits you, in a straightforward fashion, to create your own trail of breadcrumbs or labyrinthine thread.

The exhibition understands the paradoxes of fantasy and folklore. Fairytales create a world of the tactile and the ethereal, a sticky web of associations, a thick forest of meaning and symbol. Things are not always what they seem: darkness might protect, while light dazzles and deludes. Transformation can be at once unnerving and reassuring. There are moments of spectacle and abundance, but of course there are also domestic, quotidian, bedraggled aspects – places where the fate of the outsider or the outcast is explored, or where transformation has an unexpected outcome.

Deeper into the show you can find a piece that resonates with Corupira – Trulee Hall’s Witch House (Umbilical Coven) (2023), a work specially re-created for the exhibition. Witch House is a hybrid structure, as if a lean-to cubby house has grown out of a tree and is in the process of morphing into something both sinister and secure. It’s like a darker take on the fort built out of branches by young girls brought together in uncanny circumstances in Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman (2021), or it could be a tumbledown tree house that has fallen from the sky. From one side, it looks like the huge, glistening train of an elaborate garment, or a deposit of seaweed or tentacles.

Unlike Corupira, you can enter this darkness. As your eyes gradually adjust, you can pick out details of suspended objects and items, electric candles, a window looking out, a circular portal close to the ground in which a video is playing stop-motion images and footage of a seance on a loop.

A further connection: it is almost as if an element from another work has taken hold here, as if the thick rope of hair that keeps growing from the head of the Rapunzel figure in Fuyuhiko Takata’s playful, chaotic short video work, Dream Catcher (2018), has somehow landed on the witch house and taken root. Dream Catcher, a combination of live-action and stop-motion animation, is a mash-up of images of a teen bedroom, the story of Rapunzel and the destructive tornado of The Wizard of Oz. This Rapunzel dreams of a prince who will rescue her, but in the meantime – reminiscent of Willow Smith in her music video from 2010 – she whips her hair back and forth and wreaks havoc.

This Rapunzel might not find or need her prince, but there is no shortage of princesses in the show, real and imagined. Here they are often resourceful young women, forced to undo or remake the conditions of their world. The show includes footage and a collection of talismanic items from Jim Henson’s beloved Labyrinth (1986), with its exhilarating quest of reclamation; costumes and footage from Jacques Demy’s 1970 musical film Peau d’âne/Donkey Skin, in which Catherine Deneuve escapes the unsettling fate her father, the king, intends for her; and footage and costumes from Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror (2012), a take on Snow White that puts her destiny in her own hands. Many of these young women made their own magic.

The influence of Hans Christian Andersen is present, directly and indirectly. But Fairy Tales also features something from the author himself that is delightful, unexpected and homemade – nine papercuts, framed and hung together, produced between the 1850s and the 1870s. The size of a plate, they are cut into various shapes, some more elaborate than others. Several feature figures of dancers. Andersen created them as props for his after-dinner storytelling when he was a guest in people’s homes. He used them as illustrations, then presented them as thankyou gifts to his hosts.

They are displayed in a room that echoes the aesthetics of papercut and silhouette, outline and the handmade, dance and fairytale. Two silhouette animations from pioneering German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger can be seen on a wall nearby: her Cinderella (1922) begins with an animation of its own process, with a dancing pair of scissors cutting up a piece of paper, creating the heroine out of a blank white sheet. For all its grace and filigree elegance it is, however, a more punishing version of the traditional tale.

Close to the Andersen is a ballet costume by Henri Matisse in stark black-and-white felt, designed for a Sergei Diaghilev production of one of Andersen’s fairytales, The Song of the Nightingale (circa 1920). In a room behind, you can watch Sriwhana Spong’s Costume for a Mourner (2010), a haunting reclamation of this lost dance work and her own sense of identity. Made with performer Benny Ord, it creates a new choreography for the costume. On another wall in the same room is a projection of Del Kathryn Barton’s 2015 animated film The Nightingale and the Rose (made with director Brendan Fletcher), which retells Oscar Wilde’s melancholy story of a sacrifice for love that’s not unlike Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

In a doorway that opens onto the final room is The Mother-Load (2008). Timothy Horn’s version of an antique carriage, pumpkin-coloured and elaborate, is inspired by the Cinderella story of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, a woman who came from obscurity to prominence in the early part of the 20th century as a socialite and patron of the arts. Horn has reimagined one of her possessions, an 18th-century sedan chair Spreckels had already recontextualised as a phone booth in her San Francisco mansion. In an acknowledgement of the origins of the wealth she married into – her husband’s fortune came from sugar plantations in Hawaii – the coach is covered in crystallised rock sugar. It’s a fitting, more-than-meets-the-eye, down-the-rabbit-hole object of history and imagination, fantasy and reality, in disconcerting dialogue.

For those who wish to expand the Fairy Tales experience, the Australian Cinematheque at QAGOMA offers a program of more than 40 films, Truth, Power and Enchantment, curated by Sophie Hopmeier, mostly screening free. It is an imaginative engagement with the themes of the exhibition that includes several of the works referenced in Fairy Tales, as well as some unexpected and diverting additions. 

Philippa Hawker travelled to Brisbane with the assistance of the Gallery of Modern Art.

Fairy Tales is showing at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until April 28.



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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "The dark forest".

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