untitled #5 (wonder)
Anna Gaskell b. 1969, Des Moines, Iowa
untitled #5 (wonder)
48 1/16 x 40 1/4 inches (122.1 x 102.2 cm)
A.P. 2/2, edition of 5
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by the Young Collectors Council
Anna Gaskell crafts foreboding photographic tableaux of preadolescent girls that reference children's games, literature, and psychology. She is interested in isolating dramatic moments from larger plots such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, visible in two series: wonder (1996–97) and override (1997). In Gaskell's style of “narrative photography,” of which Cindy Sherman is a pioneer, the image is carefully planned and staged; the scene presented is “artificial” in that it exists only to be photographed. While this may be similar to the process of filmmaking, there is an important difference. Gaskell's photographs are not tied together by a linear thread; it is as though their events all take place simultaneously, in an ever-present. Each image's “before” and “after” are lost, allowing possible interpretations to multiply. In untitled #9 of the wonder series, a wet bar of soap has been dragged along a wooden floor. In untitled #17 it appears again, forced into a girl's mouth, with no explanation of how or why. This suspension of time and causality lends Gaskell's images a remarkable ambiguity that she uses to evoke a vivid and dreamlike world.
Gaskell's girls do not represent individuals, but act out the contradictions and desires of a single psyche. While their unity is suggested by their identical clothing, the mysterious and often cruel rituals they act out upon each other may be metaphors for disorientation and mental illness. In wonder and override, the character collectively evoked is Alice, perhaps lost in the Wonderland of her own mind, unable to determine whether the bizarre things happening to her are real or the result of her imagination. In wonder, Alice's instability is invoked even at the level of presentation: the varied sizes of the photographs refer to her own growth spurts and shrinking spells. Gaskell's allusions to Carroll's story, however, are not always so playful. The seven versions of Alice in override alternate roles as victim or aggressor. They try to control the changes to Alice's body by literally, physically holding her in place—a potent metaphor for the anxiety and confusion experienced by children on the verge of adolescence. hide (1998) derives from a Brothers Grimm tale of a young woman who disguises herself under an animal pelt so that she might escape her own father's proposal of marriage. Gaskell addresses this psychologically loaded subject matter with images of girls wandering in a gothic mansion illuminated by candlelight. Here the psyche in question has been fractured and fraught with terror by a perverse father's look, a voyeuristic gaze.