New York

Anna Gaskell

In the opening chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice wonders, parenthetically, why she hadn’t thought a waistcoated white rabbit muttering to itself unusual. When he raced past her and popped down a large rabbit hole, she followed in pursuit without ever considering how she would get out again. “Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?”

Alice’s fall is the theme of “Wonder,” Anna Gaskell’s first solo show. The literary conceit of her twenty untitled color photographs (all 1996–97) assumes that we already know Alice and her story, freeing us to indulge in the beauty of the images themselves and of the ravishing twins who are Gaskell’s models. But what appears to be self-evident about the photos proves less so on closer inspection, and soon enough we find ourselves racing down our own sort of interpretive rabbit hole.

Gaskell’s camera acts as a source of disturbance. It takes us into such intimate relation with the young Alice(s) as to suggest a pedophilic preoccupation. Typically, such an erotic undertow might be taken as a form of the photographer’s expression and hence “real,” as in the work of Jack Pierson, Larry Clark, and Collier Schorr. Gaskell’s photography differs in its resolute detachment; she casts her secondhand voyeurism in the most artificial frame, staging, lighting, and cropping her images with fashion-shoot precision, so that what might be expressive reads as crafted and inauthentic.

As though with a forensic purpose, the camera hovers uncomfortably close over Alice’s fallen body. The many images of her lying on the ground, tumbling down stairs, or being laid to rest beside her twin suggest the tragedy of an untimely death. So do those pictures that depict Alice treading water “in a salty pool of tears” (which she herself cried when she was nine feet tall) or, having drowned in her own tears, being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by her twin. In others, Alice is shown from a stealthy perspective standing, jumping, and eating. Despite the claustrophobic quality of the photographs, the camera isn’t menacing or predatory; rather, its overhearing proximity to its subject conveys an extreme curiosity that suggests both wariness and a wonder bordering on disbelief.

Carroll’s Alice is considerably chagrined by unexpected spurts of growing larger and smaller. Gaskell mimics Alice’s transformations by varying the images’ dimensions from 8 x 10“ to 50 x 60” arid installing the works in an ad-hoc salon style. The shifting scale ruptures linear narrative: presenting Alice as both dead and alive, over and over again, Gaskell is drawn to a place where meaning collapses. Situating this drama on a boundary between reality and fiction, she stages what Lacan describes as “a missed encounter with the real,” which, having been missed, can no longer be recaptured, but can only be—and must be—replayed ad infinitum. By representing Alice under the constant scrutiny of the photographic gaze, Gaskell illustrates a state of psychological estrangement occasioned in a subject who simultaneously sees herself and fails to recognize or identify with that self.

The literary Alice, asked who she is by the caterpillar, replies in confusion: “I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then. . . . I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself, you sec.” Dwelling at this site of rupture, as though at the scene of a crime, Gaskell rehearses the problem of misrecognition that haunts Carroll’s Alice. These photographs dramatically bring into a focus a world that is familiar and unknowable at the same time.

Jan Avgikos