Magic and Modernity in The Dark Monarch at Eastbourne Towner

By Ben Miller | 01 February 2010
A picture of a psychedelic, crimson-themed piece of art showing a stone arc monument towering above a sea at sunset as creatures appear from the sides of the canvas

(Above) John Russell, Untitled (Abstraction of Labour Time/Eternal Recurrence/Monad) (2009). © The artist and MOT International

Exhibition: The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art, Towner, Eastbourne, until March 21 2010

Eerie, moody, full of brooding drawings, dazzling lights and creepy revelations, abounding with fairytale visions of occult worlds and sinister traipses through haunted woodlands, The Dark Monarch is nothing if not visually arresting.

The Child's Dream, Damien Hirst's suspended unicorn, is cunningly placed near the upper floor entrance, but it’s a blunt, slapstick, visually uncomplicated avatar for the more complex magic and mysticism in the realms around it.

In essence, it uses Britain's obsession with the spirit universe to forge an alt path along the modernist genre, from Fay Pomerance's epic Judeao-Christian Sphere of Redemption to Barbara Hepworth's deathly black sculptures, part of an array of shiny installations under Cerith Wyn Evans’ mid-air neon lights, casting shadows on corners where ghostly natural scenes and looking glasses to other worlds lurk.

A photo of a white unicorn suspended in light green liquid inside a gold case

Damien Hirst, The Child's Dream, (2008). Private collection, © Damien Hirst / DACS 2009. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

It's beautifully presented at the Towner, where the upstairs space has been turned into chambers divided by black walls, even making the stairwells and main door look like the route to a privileged goth teenager’s bedroom.

"We tend to think modernism is pop music and cars and soup cans and machinery and cities," says Michael Bracewell, the curator who opened this show at Tate St Ives last year.

"We thought, 'let's go the other way and look at the shadowy fable of the modern period.' The easiest way to look at this exhibition is to imagine you've gone on holiday and decided to go for a walk, only to discover the intensity of atmosphere and place becoming more than earthly.

"The line between the natural and supernatural becomes very thin, then disappears altogether."

A photo of a circular grey sculpture on a wooden plinth

Barbara Hepworth, Disc with Strings (Moon) (1969). Private collection, © Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Photo: New Art Centre, Salisbury

Bracewell's playful tone questions how seriously the theme should be taken, reflecting the fact that the seductive pull of this show extends beyond twitchy X-Files devotees.

The title comes from an incendiary 1962 book by Sven Berlin about the artist community of Cornwall.

"He's maybe not as well known as he should be," ponders Bracewell, describing the banned, pulped (and now re-printed) publication revealing the "hysterical, dark and gothic" truths behind the "straight lines" of St Ives.

"That isn't to say he saw it without great humour or poetry, because he did both," he adds.

"But that tone of language became our take-off point. We wanted to look at British modernism’s shadow."

A picture of a mystical drawing of a beast-like creature standing on a hill

Sven Berlin, Untitled (circa 1950). Courtesy Belgrave Gallery

As the writer of a book about a cult led through the New Forest by Mary Ann Girling, a woman who reckoned she was the female Christ in the 1940s, catalogue contributor Philip Hoare is convinced.

"The elemental forces of England which come to bear in the walls of this gallery are incredibly powerful," he says.

"You may think we’re in this civilised, sleepy town, but the magic represented by the Dark Monarch is not far from here. The sense of the gothic is one that is sometimes thought of as slightly cheesy – you think of Hammer Horror films or the Twilight series now, but there's a far more serious and meaningful tone to it in Britain.

"I suppose that was revived in the 18th century by Horace Walpole and William Beckford, who saw the ancient ruined sites of England as noble points of mystical power."

A picture of a spooky piece of art showing a drawing of a half-naked occult figure morphing into a bird under a faded greyscale veneer

David Noonan, Untitled (2007). © The artist, courtesy the artist and private collection, Germany

"We were hesitant in some ways because we didn't want to disrespect notions of magic or the occult," admits Bracewell.

"Ultimately we hope it's entertaining and provides an alternate kind of history to rather well-trodden modernist ground, but quite a few of the works downstairs are operationally magical.

"These things crackle and hiss and work strange things by themselves – there is an intentionally spooky edge about this show."

Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday). Admission £5.50/£4, call 01323 434670 or email Towner

Events programme:

Towner Tours
Guided tours around the exhibition by Gallery Assistants.
11.30am, free (booking not required).

February 4
The Dark Monarch tour
Towner Collection Curator Sara Cooper leads a tour and discussion of the exhibition.
11.30am, free.

February 6
Our Gallery film workshop
Create art inspired by the exhibition with artist Jane Lyster and print your creations on T-Shirts.
3pm-5pm, £3 per person.

February 19
Self Portrait as a Tree
Search for clues from the artworks and make a large drawing or painting of yourself as a tree. With artist Sheridan Quigley.
£4, 11am-1pm (5-7 year-olds) and 3pm-5pm (8-11 year-olds).

February 27 and 28
Occult film workshops
Alexander Bratell leads a two-day film-making workshop using camcorders and mobile phones to devise scenarios based on myth and magic.
12pm-3pm, £25/£20 (includes exhibition entry).

March 5
The Dark Screening
An evening of British film inspired by the occult, featuring Séance on a Wet Afternoon and The Wicker Man.
6.30pm, £10/£8 (£6/£5 without entry to exhibition), 18+ only, pay bar.

March 6
Gallery walk and talk with Alexander Brattell
The photographer and lecturer explains the inspirations behind the works.
11am-1pm, £8/£7 (includes entry to exhibition).

The Dark Silent Disco
Workshops for 12-16 year-olds in "spooky photography", "Elizabethan punk fashion", film and more.
7pm-10pm free, booking not required, optional Elizabethan punk fancy dress.

Film: Your Actions are my Dreams by Linder
Film featuring dancing based on the ancient customs and rituals of Cornwall and St Ives with an introduction by Susan Lamb, Head of Learning at Tate St Ives.
7pm, £8/£7 (£4/£3 without entry to exhibition).

March 7
Dark Places and Mysterious Faces
Artist Louise Bristow invites you to help fill the venue’s Exhibition Hall with a tribe of "fantastical people and creatures".
11am-5pm, free (drop-in, booking not required).

March 13
Living Picture
Recreate the scene from Christopher Wood's colourful Fair at Neuilly painting of 1922 and take a photo of the resulting "living picture" home. For 5-7 year-olds.
£4, 3pm-5pm.

March 27
Shadow Puppets
Artist Rachel Cohen leads animated shadow puppet making for 8-11 year-olds based on the exhibition.
£4, 3pm-5pm.

Booking essential for all events unless otherwise stated, call 01323 434670 or email Towner to book.

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