Fairy Tales

“. . . happily ever afters.”

Fairy tales were not created or intended for children, yet they are continuously loved by children. Romanticised storylines and magical creatures make the perfect world for our imaginations to carelessly roam, but the modernised fairy tale is far from pure whimsy and happily ever afters. The fractured fairy tales of pre-Disney literature are of a darker hue. After all, these stories not only entertain but educate us; they not only provide comfort and hope but prepare us for the injustices and contradictions of reality. These paradoxes offer an equal ground for both children and adults to step into the woods, fall down the rabbit hole and set out on an almost therapeutic journey, filled with either enchantment or horror, to guide us on our own paths with positivity and possibilities, caution and avoidance.

Fuyuhiko Takata, Dream Catcher (still), 2018, single-channel video: 05:32 minutes, colour, sound. Courtesy the artist, WAITINGROOM, Tokyo and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

That said, let’s begin. Across three distinct chapters – ‘Into the Woods’, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, and ‘Ever After’ – Fairy Tales at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art features more than 100 works encompassing sculpture, installation, painting, photography, printmaking, papercuts, animation, video and film, augmented reality, props, and costumes, emphasising delight and disconcert by re-telling and re-scripting these stories through the lens of contemporary artists, designers and filmmakers.

Amanda Slack-Smith, exhibition curator and Curatorial Manager of QAGOMA’s Australian Cinémathèque, said Fairy Tales explores the classic archetypes of witches, beasts, princesses and prince charmings while untangling common aesthetics of the genre: “The exhibition explores enchantment, thresholds and transformation while articulating concerns that have always been inherent in fairy tales, such as power imbalances, injustice, ageing, gender and otherness, and resilience in the face of adversity.”

Gustave Doré (France 1832–1883), Little Red Riding Hood, c.1862, oil on canvas, 65.3 × 81.7cm. Gift of Mrs S Horne, 1962. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

The first chapter of this story exhibition, ‘Into The Woods’, explores metamorphosis, unpredictability and danger. A new commission by sculptor Henrique Oliviera, Corupira, 2023, envelops the visitor in a twisted forest fashioned from found tree branches, plywood and strips of salvaged timber. The immersive installation instils unease: do we fear the Corupira? Is this mythological creature of Brazilian folklore dangerous, will this protector of the forest mistake us for a hunter or poacher? Gustave Doré’s oil painting, Little Red Riding Hood, c.1862, also focuses on terror, depicting the penultimate moment before the big bad wolf bites off the young girl’s head. Other works invoke feelings of discomfort and panic, such as choking and claustrophobia, with apple-red and black concave mirrors and glass coffins. Among the many works is a gown from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, 1946, the well-known Beauty and Beast narrative where a young village girl is imprisoned in an enchanted castle with marriage as her only hope of freedom; this is complemented by Abdul Abdullah’s photographic series Coming to Terms, 2015, about fixed marriages. These works show the vulnerabilities and fragility of women protagonists; yet also encourage empowerment and the overcoming of suppression.

In ‘Through the Looking Glass’, childhood imagination is explored with puppets, toys, clocks, twirling mushrooms, and flying houses as well as mythical gardens and augmented reality. Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are, 1963, and Jim Henson’s animatronic creatures for the 2009 film adaptation are on show, as well as the thirteen-hour clock, glass orbs, and a costume from Henson’s 1986 cult film Labyrinth; the playful, hallucinatory, almost chaotic up-side-down worlds in these films as well as Carsten Höller’s interactive sculpture Flying Mushrooms, 2015, disorient and stimulate our senses, further activated by Patricia Piccinini’s Enchanted Field, 2023, which opens a magical pathway beneath a canopy of 3,000 genetically modified blooms.

The final chapter, ‘Ever After’, celebrates the fairy tale cliche of love conquering all, with a focus on marriage, a union that, in literature, is almost a reward for conforming to patriarchal standards. Ron Mueck’s 1996 unique version of Pinocchio, an impish “real boy” dressed only in Y-fronts, is confronting, while Del Kathryn Barton and Brendan Fletcher’s animation The Nightingale and the Rose, 2015, tells of the vulnerability and self-sacrifice of its feminine protagonist. Other works range from theatrical costumes and regal dresses to blistering glass slippers; and a coach made of sugar and a pumpkin highlighting the temporary nature of our existence.

In all, Fairy Tales extends the literary ability of the genre to assert a lesson while providing escapement, to bring a little magic into our lives and to step outside of the ordinary before the clock strikes midnight.

Janet Kim is a Brisbane-based arts writer. Her favourite fairy tale is Little Red Riding Hood.


Gallery of Modern Art
2 December 2023 to 28 April 2024

subscribe@artistprofile.com.au | PH: +612 8227 6486