James Payne explores the curious uncanny and taboo world of Mark Woods in his exhibition Absorption at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal.
Woods uses kaleidoscopes, mirrors and trickery to confound our senses.
When we think of the Lake District, we think of British classics like Swallows and Amazons, fell walking and daffodils. A host of them.
But a recent visit had me thinking more along the lines of Powell and Pressburger’s “Peeping Tom”, Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, and Marcel Duchamp’s last work.
Mark Wood’s new show “Absorption” at Cross Lane projects in Kendal is at times disturbing, uncomfortable and challenging. And for those reasons, it is not to be missed!
To use a current expression bandied about the art world, this is an “immersive” experience, but unlike those commercial blockbusters doing the rounds now, this is not only a much more intimate experience, but it is also bonkers and brilliant.
The un-realness or theatricality is established at the very start. A curtain is opened, you are invited to step into a darkened space, and there’s no going back….
Despite a strong whiff of latex and a slightly “Berlin in the 80’s” feeling, you just have to trust that you are in safe hands. After your eyes adjust, you make out shafts of light coming through peepholes. Not for the first time, I thought of David Lynch. The peepholes guide us down a latex corridor, from one to the other, each revealing a new and disturbing diabolical tableau. Like all voyeurs, you are compelled to investigate them. Like looking at a car crash, we cannot help ourselves.
We live in a world where we are not only being “peeped” on morning, noon, and night via CCTV cameras, but we are also “peepers” ourselves with apps giving us instant access to our own surveillance fetish. We are rarely alone, unwatched or not watching.
Artists love a bit of voyeurism. Artists like Sophie Calle explore the artist’s voyeuristic nature, and works like Bruce Nauman’s “Mapping the Studio” puts the viewer in the position of the voyeur. Warhol, as we know, was the ultimate voyeur who observed without ever participating.
But the feeling we get from Mark Wood’s “Absorption” is more akin to Duchamp’s work “Étant donnés: 1º la chute d’eau, 2º le gaz d’éclairage”. Like that work, Absorption only allows us visual access to the scenes beyond, by way of peepholes, where the viewer’s gaze is strictly controlled by the artist.
The difference is that with Duchamp’s ‘assemblage’, it is pretty clear what we are seeing through the peepholes: a dead body in a landscape. With ‘Absorption’ we never really know what is beyond those latex holes. Disjointed image after disjointed image confronts us as we struggle to figure out just what the hell we are looking at. Is that a human figure? A bondage scene? Or just an innocent image? Woods is aware of the frustration this may cause and sees it as part of the experience. It is as if we should complete the picture ourselves.
“A cabinet of curiosities” is an overused phrase but, in this case, a totally apt description. Woods uses kaleidoscopes, mirrors and trickery to confound our senses. It is hard to focus in The endless hallway of mirrors, as bizarre creatures, strange dolls – lush material and beautifully crafted objects blur the boundaries between fine art and fetishism. Wood’s images are characterized by obsessive themes of eroticism, death, and decay. And we are compelled to confront our desires.
This is not a passive experience of the usual gallery kind. The whole sensation of the installation is one of sensory stimulation, visually of course but also aurally (Debussy’s ’Serenade for the Doll’, plays on a loop), and Olfactory.
At points, you are blindly feeling your way along, and the last peephole is a mix of “grotesques” – strange figures composed of rotating heads, mannequin’s, sensual fabric, wigs, taxidermy and rubber masks, all put together in what can only be described as a “tableau mort”—designed to play with your sense of scale, as we really have no idea how big (or small) the space is.
Like the surrealists, who Woods clearly admires, there is a connection between the physical realm and the world of dreams and illusions. There is no logic to this exhibition, and neither should there be. What we get out of it is a unique experience, personal to us.
As the curator of the show, Vanya Balogh says. (Absorption is): “A rare thing: a hyperreal multimedia event that brings us a renewed encounter between psychoanalysis and fine art”.
To do that, Woods uses Surrealism, the language of the subconscious, a language that challenges convention and invokes dreams and desires.
As we’d expect with Woods, everything in the show is impeccably made. He is known as a supreme craftsman, and every strange object is, as usual, put together with consummate skill and attention to detail. But there is an overriding sense of the surrealistic Circus about this show – and what really stands out more than his skill as a creator is the sheer brilliance of his imagination.
Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, was a Lake District legend who lived up the road from Cross Lane Projects, but I think the literary creation we should be looking towards really is Alice in Wonderland.
The inside of Mark Woods head, like this show, is curiouser and curiouser.
I’m afraid The Lake District will never be the same again.
Words: James Payne Photos: PC Robinson ©Artlyst 2021
Mark Woods: Absorption, Cross Lane Projects, Kendal 24 July – 18 September 2021