During the late Summer of 2010, Cornerhouse, Manchester hosted Unrealised Potential: a collaborative group exhibition instigated by artist/curator Mike Chavez-Dawson. The show aimed to explore the creative potential of artists’ unrealised projects, blurring the lines between artist, curator, visitor and producer. Established and emerging artists all submitted ideas for unmade work which were presented as legal documents granting realization rights for a period of two years, after which the rights to any unmade work would revert back to the originator if they remained unproduced. All ideas were priced at £50.
I chose to purchase a pitch by artist, TV entertainer and popular satirical comedian Harry Hill, which unlike others that ran to multiple paragraphs of detail and step-by-step instruction, stuck to just one sentence: To recreate George Cruickshank‘s The Worship of Bacchus using known alcoholics. I had no idea at the time how I was going to interpret this, only that I wanted to respond in some way to Harry’s public persona by creating a work that was accessible on multiple levels, and in doing so allow me to engage others as part of my ongoing collaborative methods. I’ve documented the subsequent process, culminating in the opening night of the resulting show, The People You’re Not.
George Cruickshank (1792 – 1878) was a newspaper caricaturist and book illustrator capable of such grotesque depictions that some of his targets paid him not to draw them. A heavy drinker for much of his life, his conversion to the Temperance Movement resulted in The Worship of Bacchus (1860 – 1862). A hellish depiction of the danger of even the slightest drop, the streets of London are clogged with all grades of society, from beggar to aristocrat, whores and missionaries, the civil and the disobedient, all intoxicated to various degrees by the vapours of grape and grain.
Breaking down my observation and response to Cruickshank’s painting a number of factors stood out. The original has a strong sense of symmetry to the overall layout, distributing the multiple activities within a defined grid system. The use of squares and boxes are a repeat element throughout, from small structures to larger buildings and title plaques scattered across the seemingly chaotic (but actually ordered) landscape. Most striking of all is the retreating depth of field; ornately framed and loosely defined as fore ground, middle ground, rear ground and backdrop. To me this conjured theatrical connotations, while I also felt strongly that Cruickshank’s cartoons were reminiscent of the pen-and-wash style I’d seen employed in vintage toy theatre puppetry: from swashbuckling pirates to pantomime dames in teetering wigs.
On looking further into the history of toy theatres, I learnt that as a form of home entertainment they were reaching their peak of popularity at the same time Cruickshank was working (mid-to-late 19th Century); first as miniature souvenirs of actual live productions but soon developing into an affordable, mass-produced artefact and pursuit beloved of both children and adults. Returning to the painting I made a choice from a number of distinct incidents within the overall melee that I felt could function as independent mise-en-scène. The intention then, as now, was not to create a functioning toy theatre with accompanying play script and interchangeable scenery, but to present a static tableaux, albeit future-proofed for live presentation.
The characters, to be drawn from living, dead and entirely fictional celebrity alcoholics and heavy drinkers, would stand alone but come provided with attachable rods for manipulation if required, while the backdrops, wings and flys could all ultimately be combined or kept apart. I would build the sets with help but commission six illustrators so that although the same model, each would be unique. My choices of which scenes to focus upon were also determined by a wish to reflect then-popular performative genres, but they also needed to lend themselves to a contemporary, comedic update. In this way I was able to have fun translating six major themes, exchanging mugs of ale for bottles of WKD en route for Romantic, Pastoral, Pantomime, Classical, Gothic and The Orient.
The Wedding Supper, or Till Decree Nisi Do Us Part, updates a society betrothal to the money drenched pages of Hello! magazine, featuring the sozzled likes of Liza Minnelli, Kerry Katona, Bender from Futurama and Shane McGowan as an example of the Romantic persuasion (artist: Gemma Parker).
Olympian Revels, or Two Pints of Ouzo and a Kebab exchanges the mythical seat of the Gods for a toga-clad pool party at a Mediterranean concrete pool resort, with Oliver Reed as Zeus, Keith Chegwin as Dionysus and Lindsay Lohan as Artemis in this Classical milieu (artist: John Powell-Jones).
Harlequinade, or Rita, Sue and Herpes Too does a terrible disservice to the early Pantomime, with roots in the Commedia del’Arte, as Columbina, Harlequin and Pantalone become stags and hens on the Great British High Street. Gram Parsons, Keith Floyd and Clarissa Dickson Wright trash Weatherspoons (artist: David Bailey).
Fête Champêtre, or The Battle of B.O.G.O.F. (Buy One, Get One Free), teleports a countryside picnic in the Pastoral vein to to a fantasy sequence inspired by Mary Poppins, as inebriated penguin waiters find the diners quite literally in pieces. Father Jack, Courtney Love and George Best suck on their juice boxes (artist: Simon Misra).
Studious Pursuits, or One More For The Road is devoted entirely to literary drunks, both real and fictional, as the Gothic genre provides a suitably spooky crumbling edifice and creeper-clad graveyard for these pickled ghouls to carouse. Hunter S. Thompson, Dorothy Parker and Edgar Allan Poe raise a toast (artist: Laura Barnard).
Mission to the Hindoos, or Pilgrims of the Porcelain Throne celebrates the treasures of The Orient here, upon our own shores, in the form of a Chinese restaurant on a Saturday night. In a nod to The Last Supper, Janis Joplin blesses her posse, including Samuel L. Jackson and Patsy Stone (artists: Charlotte Gould & Hannah Gibson).
Thanks again to all the artists, Cornerhouse, Harry Hill, Mike Chavez-Dawson and Unrealised Projects, but especially to Len Horsey for his help with carpentry, staunch support and standout live performance on the opening night in the guise of alter-ego and rock Norman Clayture… wearing only wooden Y-front underpants and mirror shades. Legendary.