April 27: Symbolism is slippery
Belfast Exposed, The Exchange Place, 23 Donegall Street,
Belfast BT1 2FF holds a preview tonight 7-9pm of Snake by Clare Strand, a new body of work sourced from the artist’s personal archive of scrapbooks, magazines and photographs that she has been gathering since her mid-teens. It was published in 2016 as Girl Plays with Snake by MACK Books.
Loaded titles which immediately draw the same salacious comment you’ll get when you tell men of a certain age that you’re a photographer, Snake, or Girl Plays with Snake, connects with archetypes, symbolism and creation myths.
From Eve and the serpent, to Echidna and others across several cultures who were women with reptilian lower bodies, or Medusa and her ophidian coiffure, most are femmes fatales to extremes. Is it the idea of attraction and repulsion in the one female body that excites the male fantasies about such creatures?
When a woman assembles images to represent such an idea, does that change the tone? As Strand explains;
The snake has been the subject of allegory and metaphor since biblical times, signifying eternity when holding its own tail; suggesting cunning and temptation to Eve; the agent of suicide for Cleopatra, and even the symbol of health and healing in the rod of Asclepius, the god of medicine. The snake can represent both good and evil, wisdom and cunning, rejuvenation and death, and of course sexuality and the phallus. Being engaged with photography for the last 20 years, it felt the right time to share these images.
Look back over those twenty years and we can see why. A significant exhibition was Unseen Agents (2003) for which Strand used the Kirlian camera to photograph adolescents.
Supposedly able to detect metaphysical energy emanating from animate and inanimate subjects, it is now regularly encountered at New Age festivals and fairs as the ‘Aura Camera’. Strand took the vivid colour imagery generated by this camera and converted it to monochrome and enlarged the results to a museum scale. With the colour gone, what we encounter instead are a series of fairly ordinary portraits and a nondescript fog that surrounds each subject, no more ‘metaphysical’ than some fault with the developing or a rather filthy lens.
Strand is also fond of linguistic slippages. In Skirts (2011), instead of the fashion shots or girly pics which the title might lead a stereotypical female or male audience to expect, the skirts are actually those used in restaurants and in convention centres to ‘dress up’ the tables. Against a draped background these table subjects are given the same treatment as might a fashion or pin-up model.
Consequently, in Girl Plays with Snake, we should expect the same ambiguity and dismemberment of expectations. The title is drawn from the caption that Strand found on the reverse of a photograph in her collection, and using this painstakingly researched and collected range of imagery all with this same subject, she plays her audience like a professional snake charmer, capitalising on the concurrence of fear and fascination in our deep-seated visceral reactions.
The book version, and also I assume, the exhibition at Belfast Exposed employs computer generated texts which riff on the verse:
A live necklet
Draped around her
Two deadly snakes
Tamed by her
Like her Ragpicker’s Tower (2012), a ragged stack of bookmarked Popular Mechanic Magazines that Strand has collected over years and which emit a stale odour throughout any gallery in which they are exhibited, and like Unseen Agents, or Skirts, Snakes also possesses an unmissable, unforgettable aura.