In a Realm of Others is a multimedia installation of drawing, video and slide projections. The centrepiece of the installation is a long passageway connected to a series of three circular chambers made from translucent glassine paper. Enveloping the structure is a continuous green curtain of glassine, covered with hand-painted treetops. At one end is a narrow opening leading to a passage whose curtain walls gently billow around you as you advance. At the end of the passage are the inner chambers – round curtain walls of white glassine rising to the ceiling. These walls are animated by graphic images of twisted and disfigured ghouls and demons – horrible, nightmarish figures surrounding and hovering threateningly above images of vulnerable and frightened children.
Located in the innermost structure of the installation is a video monitor showing a succession of children attempting to make scary faces and threatening noises. The video of children exploring their ideas of monsters is paralleled by a second video, outside the glassine structure, of adults recounting their personal ghost stories. The children in the video puff themselves up to become what they imagine to be frightening and monstrous. They’re cute in their play acting, and it seems they needed little prompting to mug and growl for the camera.
Being inside the enveloping structure of In a Realm of Others is an extraordinary experience. The walls transmit a diffused coloured light, and they move as you move, like a sympathetic living organism. The ink drawings of monsters are unsettling and disturbing – ghostlike, when seen through a second layer of the translucent glassine. Passing out of the inner sanctum you notice overhead a violet-mirrored image of tree tops – a sort of moving Rorschach blot – projected on a hanging disk. It is dizzying, disorientating and exciting – an intriguing and complex punctuation to a remarkable journey. I feel sad that it is over, sad to be leaving this space.
* * *
“If I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” How strange it is to remember these words today, words I at one time recited before every bedtime. Sleeping alone in the dark would seem to be frightening enough for any child without introducing the idea of sudden death. The prayer, I now realize, was a parent’s small plea for mercy, pitched from the tiny voice of a child. Walking through the installation I find myself thinking about childhood nighttime fears, bedtime stories and prayers. Here between these satiny sheets I am reminded of the painful anxieties and candied dreams of my childhood.
Fear of abandonment, I think, may be one of the most profound traumas of childhood. Looking back, I know that it was a critical aspect of my childhood psychological development. It is easy to see how this anxiety at an early age can have profound effect on the development of character. Most people can remember the childhood anxiety of being temporarily separated from a parent in a crowed place, or being the last child to be picked up at school. For a child, the possibility of abandonment is a reality of every waking moment – living in a world that is largely mysterious, and dependent on adults for every need, monsters and demons have the potential to lurk in every closet and under every bed. Abandonment, loneliness and isolation, of course, are only places where fear begins. It is the imagination of what happens next, which is the stuff of dreams, nightmares, fairy tales and art.
Some parents tell their children fairy tales before bedtime. Stories such as the Grimms’ fairy tales “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” or the Taiwanese fairy tale “Tiger Grand Aunt,” explore childhood night fears. Passage through a dark, malevolent forest is a common metaphor in these fables. Adults in these fables are ambiguous figures – alternatively protectors and predators, nurturing parents and savage beasts. Wolves and tigers impersonate grandmothers and grand aunts. Mothers, and surrogate mothers in particular, play important roles, as symbols of the anxiety of separation and abandonment. Fundamental to the stories is the young protagonist’s success at tricking the demon; killing it and managing to successfully escape its clutches. The endings are always more or less happy.
The fairy tales that were told to me as a child, or the prayers I recited at bedtime did little to either stimulate or allay my fears of the night. A bigger factor in my falling asleep was more likely the comfort provided by a seam of light filtering through a bedroom door left slightly ajar. That light was my link to the world of the living – to the gentle clink and clatter of dishes being washed, to muted adult voices and to the resonant hum of the television still on in the living room.
* * *
I’m on the outside now, standing in the soft green glow of the glassine. Scanning the monumental image of treetops, I can almost feel them swaying and groaning in the wind. Here outside, this luminous paper giant feels strange and threatening. I turn around and go back, to feel again the thrill of moving through the maternal folds of the passageway, of the walls of light that flow magically around me. I am drawn again to the hearth-like inner sanctum, which, in changing from green to white, this time seems hotter and angrier.
In A Realm of Others seems to be an inversion. Instead of the passage leading you into darkness, like the process of falling asleep, or walking into a dense forest, going from the outside to the innermost sanctum, you pass into light. But it is not a metaphorical enlightenment to which we are drawn, rather it is as if travelling to the molten core of the earth, to the white-hot source of passion, and anxiety, to the reptilian brain of this strange creature. These kids and their monster faces and noises only teach us that we are born of fear, and that at the centre of our personality is insecurity and doubt and the trauma of separation. And as we turn to leave that bright white place and distance ourselves from the primal scream, as we talk to our therapists and begin to take control of our inner child, it is not a light we step into, rather a soft and gentle darkness.
Gordon Hatt, 2005