‘Demons Land’ answers the question “what might it mean for a poem to come true?” This exhibition relies on the premise that a life, or even history itself, can be made in the image of a poem. The poem in question is Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an allegorical epic notorious for its complexity. As the unfinished product of his failed service in Ireland, the poem is at once beautiful and savage – and complicit in Britain’s oppressive crimes. ‘Demons Land’ explores Spenser’s poetic vision through a multimedia installation incorporating: poetry, paintings, sculpture, soundscapes and a film. The interplay of the different art forms makes this a fitting medium for Spenser’s epic; capturing the remarkable richness of the original poem.
Professor Simon Palfrey, tutorial fellow at Brasenose College and creative force behind the project, has successfully collaborated with artist Tom de Freston and film maker Mark Jones. Together they tell the imagined history of an island, Demons Land, through their contemporary, fictional curator Ola. Under the floorboards of a house, Ola finds hidden paintings and scraps of manuscript which appear to have been made long ago by a figure named The Collector. Obsessed with The Faerie Queene and its intention to “fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” his was a literal vision of poetry. The Collector tried to succeed where Spenser failed by making a society ruled by the endlessly repeating, strictly rhyming stanzas, and the virtues that reigned over them. This presents a colonialist’s template for making a nation according to damaging ideals, regardless of its fiction, and is a pattern that we can see repeating itself throughout history.
This presents a colonialist’s template for making a nation according to damaging ideals, regardless of its fiction, and is a pattern that we can see repeating itself throughout history.
To host this exhibition the National Trust have acknowledged, what they term, “the underbelly of our heritage.” The beautiful, yet deeply troubling, nature of the installation is perfectly matched in its setting, the garden of the stately home Stowe. In the eighteenth century Stowe became a byword for its owners’ aristocratic privilege and excess. The famous gardens celebrate British liberty and rule, but belie the destruction that this brought. Stowe’s true history is saturated with anti-catholic fervour, brutal colonialism, and sexual vice; the same themes that underpin The Faerie Queene. This history is present in the landscape, as the buildings in Stowe’s grounds are the architectural realisation of Spenser’s vision. Three pathways run through the garden: the path of vice, the path of virtue and the path of liberty. The story of ‘Demons Land’ unfolds as we follow each one and visit the paintings hung in The Temple of Venus or watch the film playing in The Temple of Concord and Victory.
The paintings are physically overbearing, packed closely side by side and filling the air with a heavy smell of oil paint. They cover the walls of the temple, telling the tale of the virginal Brit and chivalric Red, characters loosely based on The Faerie Queene. De Freston has a keen eye for composition; the backgrounds of his paintings often comprise grids upon which fleshy, distorted figures balance at precarious angles. An arrangement of polymorphic sculptures around the temple complement these figures. The sculptures are made from stuffed stockings and resemble limbs protruding from bodies, some of which are elegantly pointed, and others gruesomely entangled. A deep, bloody red is the dominant colour, and in Mark Jones’ film we watch the pigments swirl across the canvas in minute detail. Jones has worked on the principle that Ola, acted by Stephanie Greer, has made the film herself to repossess the lost history of ‘Demons Land.’ As such, Jones had to take in to account the restrictions posed by a single actor-director. He has done so successfully through intimate shots closely focused on Greer’s face that cross-cut to paint moving upon canvas, before returning to Greer in a new position in the frame. Greer herself is a versatile actor with an evocative voice for both spoken word and song. The most striking scene of the film has the camera linger on an arrangement of the sculptures, only for one of them to begin to move as Greer, wrapped in cloth and paint, eerily unfolds herself.
Demons land’ is a challenging exhibition, not only for its layers of artistic meaning, but for this dark history that it uncompromisingly faces.
The collaborative work of this creative team is central to the project’s exploration of art’s “complicity in the dreams and crimes of empire.” Each artist brings a nuanced interpretation of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and contribute to Simon Palfrey’s reading of the poem as a model of colonialism. ‘Demons land’ is a challenging exhibition, not only for its layers of artistic meaning, but for this dark history that it uncompromisingly faces.
‘Demons Land’ is at Stowe from 8 May, and runs until 16 July. It will then move to Mount Stuart, Scotland.