For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.

Thursday 6 August

Exhibit: Crossroads of Curiosity by David Normal
Place: British Library Piazza

A portmanteau word was defined by its inventor, Lewis Carroll, as one in which words are packed up together, as in a portmanteau, to form a new word. In his installation at the British Library, David Normal has come up with four new lexical portmanteaux, and taken a variety of images from the library’s stock of Victorian illustrations to make large portmanteau images to match. The words give some clue as to the content of the pictures: Curioscillotropy,  Ostrischizocracy, Purcogitoresque and (my favourite of the words) Conflamingulation .


They are enshrined with mock formality – labeled with their names – on the inside walls of a square wooden enclosure, like the panels of important art historical murals, but also like a giant light box. In fact, it is cultural and political history that these portmanteau images primarily deal with. Curioscillotropy, for instance, includes a Chinese dragon on the march towards a sea in which prehistoric creatures swim, one of them ridden by a woman holding a sacred book. Meanwhile, in the background a ziggurat goes off like a volcano, expelling a column of (perhaps) Maori soldiers with vividly tattooed faces. At the opposite corner is a group of Crusader knights.


In Ostrischizocracy, the setting is both Roman bath and Shaftsbury Avenue theatre. A group of ostriches with the human heads of sages and schoolmasters enter and surprise the bathers. To the right kneels an enigmatic slave-like figure with his head stuck through a wooden panel bearing Chinese writing while, on the proscenium stage behind, more bathers battle a marauding crocodile. In these bizarre worlds you can also see an Easter Island head smoking a cigarette, giant jellyfish flying through the air, and a Victorian lady swooning in the arms of a bird-man. So curiosities oscillate, new shapes and meanings form though surreal juxtapositions.

The installation is a homecoming: conceived at the British Library, it was first shown in Nevada’s Burning Man festival in 2014, when the event was given the overall title of Caravansaray, a caravansaray being a sort of service station for desert caravans, and therefore a crossing point of all sorts of people and cultures.

Not surprisingly, then, it is a complicated work, referencing Alice in Wonderland, Max Ernst, Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, and much more. Paula Rego once coined a portmanteau word to describe her own practice: Imagiconography. David Normal’s installation, while making a brilliant contribution to an arts festival about crossing points, is an imagiconographical tour de force in its own right.

Posted on August 7th, 2015


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