Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations VI


Gryphon Feathers and the Mock Turtle’s Lachramatory (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique silver-leafed wooden frame; nineteenth-century crystal tear bottle with sterling embellishment; vintage pheasant feathers; beach sand; sea shells; dried flower; rusted tacks; colour print of sand; hand-stained recipe for “Mock Turtle Soup”; colour print of hand-stained illustrations of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle by Sir John Tenniel

The scent of the sea suddenly assails the nostrils; briny, damp and bracing. It startles, surprises. How can we be near an ocean? Has the pool of tears swelled? Has it left its banks and flooded the lowlands? The cat’s cradle of woodland roots and branches untangles, dissipates. There is clear blue sky overhead. The forest floor gives way incrementally to sand—pure, pale beach sand, thick, soft underfoot. A veritable Stonehenge of boulders arise, worn smooth by time and tide, wind and water. Salt encrusts, sparkles. Verdant ferns become water reeds; knots and snarls of seaweed proliferate. Seashells dot the strand, half-buried. The rhythmic roar of waves lures one closer. Up and over a dune and a whole seascape stretches out before us. The sky and sea are of the same colour; where does one end and the other begin?

Above the continual grumble of the ocean, another sound comes to the ear—a sobbing, ghost-like, ethereal, faint but perceptible. No. Impossible. Just an auditory hallucination spurred by the knowledge of what happened here on this lonely sweep; here where a high-spirited Gryphon and a woebegone Mock Turtle once roamed and ruminated.

A Gryphon you must know—a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head, wings and front claws of an eagle; a magnificent creature emblazoned for history on heraldic shields and family crests.

But the Mock Turtle? Ahhh, there’s a different kettle of fish entirely. You all know that turtle soup is made from turtles, then what could be the main ingredient of “mock” turtle soup? You guessed it! This pre-dinner delicacy was quite popular during the Victorian era, and what with real turtle meat being such a luxury (with a luxurious price tag to match), more frugal cooks replaced the costly component with the morsels of veal calves usually discarded—the head, the hoofs, and the tail. And thus the waters of Wonderland spawned Mock Turtles—another peculiar corporeal composite, this one created of the shell and front flippers of the turtle and all those unwanted cuts of bovine butchery. The poor creature has a heavy heart, though, he pines away, weeping, and wishing he was in fact genuine and not faux. After all, how can you spend your lifetime being what you’re not?

Digs here reveal a surfeit of fine feathers—too large to be any ordinary bird’s; the Gryphon must have molted evidently before becoming nothing but mythical once more. And here, what’s this? An ornate crystal and sterling container—a very rare lachramatory, or “tear bottle”—a strange bit of nineteenth-century mourning paraphernalia in which one saved up the teardrops shed in bereavement, in sorrow for someone or something lost—the spirit of grief made manifest.

And, in the end, what are tears?

Simply salt water.

Just like the sea.
 


 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations V


Dentis ex Jabberwock (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There) – Hand-distressed ornate oval frame; genuine bison tooth; genuine desiccated cicada; curled tree bark; cardboard curlicue; hand-stained prints of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem (both forwards and backwards) and Sir John Tenniel’s “Jabberwock” illustration

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

The Tulgey Wood thickens, grows dense and dark, any pathway is now hardly discernible, just a well-worn rut filled with rotted leaves and lichen-cowled stones. The air is dank, heavy, and has a musty, earthy smell. The ground swells, rises into a small hillock, nettles snatch and sting. The climb is not long and at the summit a new vista opens out—a flattened countryside once visibly divided into large, neat squares, as if the landscape from horizon to horizon was one continuous, vast chessboard. The effect is unnerving, mystifying, disorientating, an impossible reality—has M. C. Escher taken up horticulture?

There comes a strange cry. Bird or animal? It is impossible to say. The Tulgey Wood is home to many a peculiar indigenous species: there are mome raths (a sort of green pig) and borogoves (a kind of parrot. They have no wings, their beaks turn up, they make their nests under sun-dials and live on veal) and toves (they’re something like badgers, they’re something like lizards, and they’re something like corkscrews, who live solely on cheese) and we are warned to beware the Jubjub bird (described as “A desperate bird that lives in perpetual passion”) and shun the frumious Bandersnatch (a swift moving creature with snapping jaws, capable of extending its neck). But by far the worst inhabitant of the Tulgey is the Jabberwock.

Or perhaps I should say “was” the Jabberwock.

Only one was ever known to exist; it was a winged monster, toweringly tall, befanged, beclawed, both hairy and scaly, and attired quite nattily in a bespoke buttoned waistcoat. It terrified the area, until its day of reckoning, when a young knight ventured forth to slay the creature. And as history records:

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Excavations here uncover but a lone object—a single tooth.

So small a something to prove the existence of a so large and so frightful beast.

But the shadows grow long.

There’s a rustling amongst the scrub.

The time has come to once again move on.
 


 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations IV

Cheshire Cat Whiskers (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Black wood-framed shadowbox; glass vial with cork stopper; old cat gut strings; twisted wooden branch; dried cherry; black paint; colour print of antique cat tintype; colour print of forest at dusk

What remains of a path is now nothing more than a grassy furrow worn into the earth. It winds, twists, traverses a field and continues straight on to the wood. The forest spreads in all directions, like black ink spilled on patterned silk, its edges ragged and blurred. Trees with gnarled trunks and knotted limbs seem to scrape the sky and nearly blot out what little sunshine penetrates. Moss is springy, spongy, underfoot. Everywhere stalks of vividly purple foxgloves genuflect in the balmy springtide breeze, their flowers oh so beautiful and oh so venomous; Dead Man’s Thimbles they’re called, the random mottling on their petals believed to be a warning of the toxic juices pulsing within. Could this be the Tulgey Wood—the stretch of strange and sinister timberland that divides Wonderland from Looking-Glass Land? If so, then…?

There’s something caught in the brambles, something incongruous, something odd, almost absurd (as if anything in Wonderland could not be called absurd)—tattered bits of flannel, shreds of delicately-woven lace, and the threadbare remains of a baby’s bonnet. So, evidence at last! This must be the point where Alice tired of carrying the Duchess’ infant—that wailing, chubby babe, with a pink, pink face and turned-up nose, given to the most violent snorts and grunts; a babe who metamorphosed finally into a genuine porker, a transformation our young heroine took in quite unperturbed:

‘If you're going to turn into a pig, my dear,' said Alice, seriously, 'I'll have nothing more to do with you. Mind now!' The poor little thing sobbed again (or grunted, it was impossible to say which), and they went on for some while in silence.
Alice was just beginning to think to herself, 'Now, what am I to do with this creature when I get it home?' when it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm. This time there could be NO mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig, and she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it further. So she set the little creature down, and felt quite relieved to see it trot away quietly into the wood. 'If it had grown up,' she said to herself, 'it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.' And she began thinking over other children she knew, who might do very well as pigs and was just saying to herself, `if one only knew the right way to change them—' when she was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off."
 
That adjacent oak was once mighty given the circumference of its trunk—and the trunk is all that remains. Thick barked, its huge roots run wide and deep, but the rest of the tree is gone, felled it appears as if by a stroke of lightning. Burn marks singe far into pale wood, splinters rise up sharply, dead branches lay scattered hither and yon.

And what’s this?

Brushing aside the debris, the leaves from countless autumns past, a skeleton is revealed—long, thin, four-legged and finely boned, obviously felinic. Bits of gray and black fur cling; its claws are formidable. Its skull still grins (but all skulls grin, do they not? As if they alone appreciate the punch line to life’s final jest). One touch and…the cat vanishes—not slowly as it was prone to do while thriving, leaving naught but that insidious rictus behind—no, this time the feline fades swiftly, instantly, into dust. Is there nothing to be salvaged? Wait. Here and there, a few all but imperceptible strands sparkling silver in the sunlight—whiskers.

Cheshire Cat whiskers.

Collected.

Bottled.

Labeled.

Time to move on.

One final glance back, the mind’s eye conjures, and the cat is yet again curled upon its branch, legs tucked in and under, ochre-hued eyes glinting; it’s watching, and grinning…grinning…

…as if saying,

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad…you’re mad…”

…and I’m left asking defensively,

“How do you know I’m mad?”

And that all too perceptive answer—

“You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

How true.

How true.
 

 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations III

Peppercorns from the Duchess’ Kitchen (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique nineteenth-century pharmacist’s bottle with original cork; black, green, and pink peppercorns; vintage kitchen twine; hand-stained print of illustration of the Ugly Duchess, her Cook, and the Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel

It was the epitome of Georgian elegance; a veritable jewel box of a house—three-storied, white-walled, black slated roof adorned by a pair of matching chimneys. Egg-and-dart cornices surrounded. A triangular portico rose high above its main entryway, where liveried finny and froggy footmen once hurried in and out, bearing royal invitations. Its classically sashed, twelve-paned, rectangular windows at the front looked out upon a clipped carpet of grass. In the spring and summer months, rhododendrons blossomed in explosions of white, purple, and fuchsia. The whole spoke of simplicity, of refinement. It was owned by a duchess, that much is true; the duchess of what and who she was (or the duke was, for that matter) is now lost, unrecorded. What is known, though, is that she was very ugly, had the deportment of a bulldozer, and had a penchant for garish flowered prints and oversized medieval millinery.

The house is a wreck now, barely standing; its exterior battered and blighted by time and weather. The chimneys have fallen, the roof caved, the windows smashed. The formerly immaculate lawns are unmown, weed-ridden, and strewn with splinted slates and slivers of shattered glass.

Beyond the collapsed bricks and past the absent front door, the foyer stretches, the terrazzo there a chess board of disjointed marble tiles where dead leaves gather and swirl; the skeleton of a grand staircase is straight ahead, its steps ascending to nothing more than the ghost of upper levels. On either side of the foyer, rooms lie open to the elements, paint peeling, wallpaper stained, buckled, and bubbled. No furniture remains, fireplace hearths are bare, carved mantelpieces chipped or missing. The only chamber that continues to reflect its former function is the kitchen. The floorboards are a minefield of broken crockery, scattered knives and spoons, a badly-dented, tarnished coffeepot. On walls besmirched by smoke, an empty plate rack encircles, embroidered with spider webs and encrusted with desiccated beetles. The stove—a massive wrought-iron monster—stands cold and rusted. It was here that the duchess’ cook, in apron and mobcap, held sway before steaming soup cauldrons, ladle in one hand, peppermill in the other. The strong pungency of that overused spice can still be smelt above the rot; clinging, saturating the woodwork, almost eliciting sneezes while peppercorns crunch under foot. It was in front of this stove that the duchess would sit, nursing a howling, porcine baby, singing to it strange, unsettling lullabies:

I speak severely to my boy,
I beat him when he sneezes;
For he can thoroughly enjoy
The pepper when he pleases!

It was here too that a curious cat curled, warming itself by the fire, purring, content, one could almost say grinning.

From above, beams suddenly creak ominously, a blizzard of dust drifts from the fissured plaster ceiling—it’s time to grab what little can be salvaged and be gone.
 


 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations II

Painting the White Roses Red (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Lacquered burlwood frame; dried white rose; red paint; white wax; custom cut mat; colour print from the original illustration by Sir John Tenniel; colour print of grunge hearts; colour print of dripping red paint

And then she found herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flower-beds and the cool fountains.

The beautiful garden that so entranced Alice is now nothing more than an overgrown thicket. Neglected, abandoned, nature has reclaimed that which was once originally hers. The fountains have long since dried up; their pipes rusted, their marble basins splintered and silvered, where weeds flourish in the ever-expanding cracks. The manicured trees, the pruned boxwoods, and the carefully-tended topiaries have gone wild, their tidy geometric shapes scarcely distinguishable from the rest of the tangled wood. Cypresses sway, taking leisurely, theatrical bows prompted by each passing breeze. In the distance stands the dome of a massive orangery, its metalwork bent and twisted, a steel skeleton barely supporting its last few unbroken panes of glass. And surrounding all is a confusion of rosebushes—once the pride of the garden they, too, have proliferated untamed, untrimmed, their branches a cat’s cradle of thorns. Here and there, lost in the leafy turmoil, can be found the heads of a few withered white roses, their dried husks mottled, splashed and splattered with red paint; the haphazard and hurried brushstrokes of a trio of living playing cards a testament to the frantic correction of an error long past—

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, a little timidly, “why you are painting those roses?”
Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began, in a low voice, “Why, the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put in a white one by mistake, and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off…”

Gardeners in threat of being deadheaded; much like the flowers they care for—that’s pure Wonderland logic.
 


 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Curiouser and Curiouser: The Wonderland Excavations

Everybody Has Won, and All Must Have Prizes (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique nineteenth-century pharmacist’s bottle; antique nineteenth-century sterling thimble; genuine beach sand; sea shells; drift wood; blue jay feather; wired French heliotrope-coloured ribbon; altered art pieces—“Carroll’s Comfits” candy label, hand-coloured dodo bird print

The English countryside summer afternoon, heat, dragonflies buzz on prismatic wings, living darning needles skimming the tranquil, mirror-like surface of brackish ponds, towering oaks standing in sun-mottled shadow, clouds of pollen and gnats, infinite silences, time stands still—just the sort of afternoon that once sent a drowsy little girl named Alice dreaming. Tall reeds converse in whispers by the riverside, their roots extending down into damp soil, crisscrossing past and along worm tunnels, pressing ever deeper until they burst through the ceiling of an improbable hallway, doors to the right, doors to the left, paneling and frames warped and snapped, brass knobs and hinges corroded. A small three-legged glass table lies shattered, a tiny golden key fallen, cast aside. And what’s this? A bottle labeled “Drink Me” by some unknown hand. Doors? A glass table and bottle? One tiny golden key? But how can this be so far underground?

 Wonderland.

The rabbit hole has long since caved in, the pool of tears evaporated, leaving nothing in evidence but crystals of salt. Moving deeper, fungi proliferate, mushrooms of variegated colours sprout, some bright, some muted—on which did a large blue caterpillar smoke his hookah lethargically, stopping only now and then to pose psychologically probing questions? Broken crockery is strewn about, an outsized peppermill tossed casually in the scrub. White roses grow in abandon, untended, their heady scent perfuming the air, their stiletto thorns lethal, protecting secrets. The surrounding lawns, formerly a well-maintained and manicured croquet ground, are now neglected, overgrown, tangled, the game long abandoned; the flamingoes taken flight, the hedgehogs lost in the underbrush.

What to uncover here?

Much.

Each article retrieved carefully, cleaned and catalogued.

The first of the Wonderland artifacts presented was taken from the shores of the lachrymal lake, that said pool of tears, the one formed by Alice’s weeping. A sample of beach sand, mixed with an abundance of dehydrated salt, has been poured into a Victorian pharmacist’s glass-stoppered bottle; the relics here include a pair of sea shells (so far from any known ocean), a bit of drift wood, a timeworn label from a disintegrated box of sweets, and a nineteenth-century sterling thimble—the latter two oddities, to be sure, until one remembers the nonsensical events, which took place so very long ago on this very shoreline: a loquacious Dodo bird presiding over a competitive lunacy called a Caucus Race. In addition, we have an, as yet, unidentifiable ornithological specimen - a feather from that very same long extinct Dodo, perhaps?
 

 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Frigid Jr.

Frigid Jr. (inspired by Gabriel Setoun’s 1920 children’s poem, Jack Frost) – Hand-distressed frame; beer; Epsom salts; dried honey locust thorns; sterling silver paint; watercolours; black paint; matte varnish; cardboard; colour print of antique Victorian daguerreotype; colour print of icicles; colour print of winter grunge wallpaper; hand-stained colour print of vintage “Frigid Jr.” embalming fluid bottle label

For, creeping softly underneath
  The door when all the lights are out,
Jack Frost takes every breath you breathe,
  And knows the things you think about.