Dorothea Returns to Barking
Review by Dr. Keith G. Bowden adapted from the original article which is going to be published soon.
2017 will see the long awaited release of the sequel to Ridley Scott’s highly lauded 1982 Science Fiction film Blade Runner. The original film was loosely based on metaphysical SF author Philip K Dick’s much gentler 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book’s plot is woven around a complex invented religion called Mercerism in which adherents telepathically commune with Mercer as he climbs a mountain, toiling upwards against various obstacles, but the metaphysical side of the novel is largely censored from the film, except for some casual asides (such as the origami mythical animals). Dick’s darkly surreal 1970 Maze of Death involves the gradual writing off – by death – of most of the main protagonists, against a background of another highly structured invented religion involving deities with well-defined roles, such as the Intercessor, the Mentufactor and the Form Destroyer. Deities can be addressed directly via a series of prayer amplifiers and transmitters (but they may not like it!) Each character perceives aspects of their environment – an off world human colony - in a quite different way.
In the earlier 1965 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dick’s protagonists again live in a drab, off world human colony, this time on Mars. In order to alleviate their harsh existence they commune via their “Perky Pat layouts”, using a drug to help them translate into the humdrum, 1950’s middle class American, sexually inept, pseudo-utopian world of Perky Pat and Walt. They spend large sums on Perky Pat accessories. Pat and Walt (clearly Barbie and Ken) are two children’s dolls. Those adherents who argue vociferously that their experience as Pat and Walt in the layouts is real, believe that the translation is a true religious experience.
Myriam Gross-Mall’s installation, Into the Museum, now showing at the new Laura I. Gallery in the Ice House Quarter in Barking, Essex, was the first time since Dick’s Three Stigmata that I have seen Barbie used in such a religious metaphor (although I have since learned that there are others). Seven naked Barbie dolls stand, some upright, some inverted, head down, feet up, in seven sealed jars filled with distilled water and a preservative. Other materials are added, jewellery, leaves, tools, body parts. Each doll represents a virgin martyr, including Dorothea of Casarea, Appolonia of Alexandria and Agatha of Catania. At first sight it seems that there might be sexual overtones to some of the exhibits. In one, a decapitated Ken’s head floats between an inverted Barbie’s knees. In another a brunette Barbie squats suggestively upon a rusting anchor. And in another a naked, golden haired Barbie with bright blue eyes and matching eye makeup and pink lipstick stares alluringly through a floating mass of pearl necklace. At the same time the installation is reminiscent of those Sci-Fi films (pastiched so well by Steve Martin) where a mad scientists keeps human brains, or perhaps shrunken bodies, preserved in Formaldehyde in glass bottles.
Mr.Cllr.Darren Rodwell ,the leader of Barking the Dagenham Borough talking about Myriam`s work
But on closer examination, there is a more serious and deeper historical context here. In Dorothea von Catharea, Barbie floats next to leaves and flowers. In Agatha von Catania, Barbie stands bent over, squashed between two falsie artificial breasts and a candle. In Apollonia of Alexandria she floats upside down under the weight of a rather industrial looking pair of red pliers. The full installation consists of twelve such jars, although only seven have currently made their way to Barking. Interpretation is partly left to the viewer but there are strong historical references and some knowledge of the legends may help. There is also, however a feminist quality to this installation that Ursula le Guin, who famously criticised Dick for his literary misogyny, would have appreciated. (As a response Dick created the wonderful Angel Archer, one of his most real and well characterised female protagonists.)
According to Wikipedia, having dedicated her virginity to God, the fifteen-year-old Agatha of Catania, from a rich and noble family, rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, who then persecuted her for her Christian faith. He sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel. The madam finding her intractable, Quintianus sent for her, argued, threatened, and finally had her put in prison. Amongst the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts with pincers. After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, Agatha was then sentenced to be burnt at the stake, but an earthquake saved her from that fate; instead, she was sent to prison where she died in 253AD. Saint Apollonia of Alexandria was one of a group of virgin martyrs who suffered in Alexandria during a local uprising against the Christians prior to the persecution of Decius. According to legend, her torture included having all of her teeth violently pulled out or shattered. For this reason, she is popularly regarded as the patroness of dentistry and those suffering from toothache or other dental problems. The references in Myriam’s installation are clear.
Saint Dorothy of Casarea was a 4th-century virgin martyr who was executed at Caesarea Mazaca. Evidence for her actual historical existence is very sparse. She and Theophilus are mentioned in the Roman Martyrology as martyrs of Caesarea in Cappadocia, with a feast day on the 6th of February. She is thus officially recognized as a saint, but because there is scarcely any non-legendary knowledge about her, she is no longer (since 1969) included in the General Roman Calendar. Virgin and martyr, she suffered during the persecution of Diocletian, 6 February, 311, at Caesarea in Cappadocia. She was brought before the prefect Sapricius, tried, tortured, and sentenced to death. On her way to the place of execution the pagan lawyer Theophilus said to her in mockery: "Bride of Christ, send me some fruits from your bridegroom's garden." Before she was executed, she sent him, by a six-year-old boy, her headdress which was found to be filled with a heavenly fragrance of roses and fruits. Theophilus at once confessed himself a Christian, was put on the rack, and suffered death. This, the oldest known version of the legend is Aldhelm's De laudibus virginitatis, addressed to Abbess Hildelitha of the now largely ruined Barking Abbey (AD666) on Abbey Road, Barking in Essex, perhaps five minutes walk from the Laura I.Gallery where the installation is on display. Dorothea has come back home.
Gross-Mall’s Into the Museum is part of a new exhibition curated by gallery owner Laura Iosifescu and entitled "Codes of Faith". Over thirty artists are represented. Like Dick’s novels, each work takes a different approach to religion. “Works may be representative or narrative”, says Laura, “depicting personal beliefs.Laura sees the exhibition as the continuation of an evolving dialog between religion and art (and science) that has gone on for millennia.
The first exhibit you see on entering the gallery from Abbey Road, Give me the Child by Seamus Moran, is a large wooden crucifix adorned with Victorian style decoupage, in largely religious themes, affixed to which is a mousetrap with a Jelly Baby as bait. The inference is clear. The artist is questioning the baiting of children into religion. The exhibition is, as intended, a balance of such relatively strong statements, casual or historical observations and artwork exhibiting deeply held religious or spiritual beliefs. On the left is a large oil and acrylic work in a vivid Rastafarian colour scheme (with a smattering of blue) by Laura herself entitled Exploring the Frequencies of Essence. Next is the beautiful Saviour by Ivan Djijev, an iconographic Byzantine mosaic portrait of Jesus. Further on is Worry Beads by Lorraine Clarke. A long string of worry beads made of “symbolically rich human hair” hangs from a human hand protruding from a closable wooden box.
Further on into the Gallery are a series of oil or acrylic on canvas works with some mixed media representing or addressing various aspects of spirituality, faith, places of worship and believers, celebrating iconography and calligraphy (which are themselves codes of faith) and questioning the nature of reality. Particularly striking is Keith Loker’s My Mother’s Thoughts. This ink stippled portrait, maybe of the artist’s mother, reflected in a window, was created in the artist’s cell whilst he was waiting in Death Row in San Quentin prison. The mother is lost in thought, perhaps remembering how things used to be with her son. Both share a strong faith which help them to survive the situation and even have hope for the future.
This is Laura’s second exhibition at the gallery. The first showcased her own work. She is to be admired for envisaging and assembling this exhibition, single handedly commissioning, curating and displaying the works so soon after acquiring the premises, whilst continuing with her own work as an artist.