Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of carnival as a “syncretic pageantry of a ritualistic sort,” where traditional values are overturned, sacred and profane blended, and a sacrilegious attitude encouraged, seems to fit the work of British artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. After her nomination for the Turner Prize in 2012 (when she was known as Spartacus Chetwynd; she has since changed her name), the artist gained wide recognition for her kaleidoscopic performances. Combining dance, theater and improvisation, these works capsize social conventions in favor of a carnivalesque spirit.
For her second solo exhibition at Massimo De Carlo, Chetwynd created a typically colorful and exuberant atmosphere. The gallery’s ground level featured an installation consisting of papier-mâché props (small-scale versions of a spaceship, a planet and various architectural structures) alongside a puppet theater and two marionettes from Chetwynd’s 2014 film Vision Verticale (not on view). On the second floor was a powerful site-specific installation—a forest of multicolored cloth sheets hanging from the ceiling and constituting a labyrinth through which visitors could walk. A few papier-mâché sculptures of monsters (“Monsters,” all works 2014) and handmade costumes from Chetwynd’s film Hermitos Children 2 constellated the perimeter of the room. While the monsters evoke a childhood fairy-tale universe, the costumes recall colorful tribal dresses.
Chetwynd, who studied anthropology in London after spending her childhood between Pakistan, Malaysia and Australia, is fascinated by rituals and folk traditions. Her sense of scenic environment, as demonstrated by her use of spotlights to illuminate individual works and the studied arrangement of elements throughout the second-floor space, is unsurprising, since her mother is a set designer for films. Displayed on the walls among the costumes and sculptures, an assortment of oil-on-paper works from the series “Bat Opera” gave the environment a certain gothic aura. The paintings depict bats in different scenarios, such as flying in turquoise skies with menacing black clouds or hovering over green hills punctuated with medieval castles. In this beautiful, nightmarish series, the artist plays with the history of art, making reference to European Romantic painting and Venetian old masters, such as Tiepolo and Veronese.
The third floor hosted a video projection of Hermitos Children 2, which exquisitely epitomizes the artist’s bizarre, lively microcosm. The work—part two in a trilogy—is a crime drama whose protagonist, the transgender telepathic detective Joan Shipman (masterfully played by Joe Scotland, director of London gallery Studio Voltaire and a friend and longtime collaborator of the artist), tries to solve absurd cases. In the last episode in the film, for instance, the detective’s ex-husband Yoyo, blackmailed by a gang of libidinous women, comes to Joan asking for help. In Hermitos Children 2, the artist explores the nature of the “grotesque” through the characters’ eccentric disguises and the subversive plot. The result is a genuinely hilarious film—a work able to produce in viewers the liberating laughter that, according to Bakhtin, constitutes the pure essence of the carnivalesque.