A geisha elegantly pulls away from her mirror image. The reflection isn’t an exact copy though, her twin is crouching down to the ground, waving her arm out at her counterpart, as they are both submerged under black marks that represent bamboo. Across the room, another pair of women gestures at one another; as one is stricken by a snakebite, her sister slithers away. In phantasmagoria, CecilBoyd’s heroines are cloaked by translucent and patterned painted frames that are mounted on top of neon lights that move through every colour of the rainbow.
In the late eighteenth-century, Romanticism – an artistic movement that glorified emotion, individualism, the past and nature – spread across Europe. During this time, “ghost-raising” shows began to take place across Germany, Belgium and London, employing the use of “magic” lanterns and portable projectors to present fantasies, “ghosts”, “skeletons” and “demons” onto smoke and moving screens. Known as phantasmagoria, it was a form of horror theatre used to trick and scare the audience, and ultimately to wake up the soul of the viewer. Three centuries later, CecilBoyd revisit the concept at Bernard Chauchet through the Freudian understanding of the Id and the Ego in an exhibition of painted photographs presented on light boxes that change colour and seem to glow according to the atmosphere in the room.
CecilBoyd’s interpretation of phantasmagoria comprises 12 images that each portrays two women. The ladies in each work, who the artists – Hubert Cecil and Will Boyd – liken to the Id (subconscious) and Ego (conscious), are in fact the same woman playing two contrasting roles. They are seen on opposing sides of the horizontal light boxes, submerged into another world. Sometimes they are plunged into a garden of roses, other times they are wrapped in snakeskins while some are transported to the American Wild West and psychedelic discos.
The ethereal works appear otherworldly, which is probably due to the fact that none of the images are static. Each photograph has the potential to change colour, like a chameleon adapting to the temperament of the viewer. The works function as installations heavily dependent on the altering of light; the colours can be changed through a controller, altering the image to compliment the viewer’s mood, allowing the photographs to act like lava lamps. They seem retro despite being incredibly modern and innovative. Technically, this has been achieved through a blend of methods: painted backdrops establish an aesthetic mood, over which their dreamlike subjects are photographically layered. The images are then framed as interactive light installations.
All of the women are known to the artists, with each image being inspired by its subject. Some are captured amongst fauna and flora, while others appear in vibrant, intense multicoloured environments. In Funk Soul Sister, Joanna Vanderpuije is photographed in a neon kaleidoscope of polka dots, and in Hail Self, Well Met, Elliot Sailors is depicted beneath a Piet Mondrian style filter. The intense, vivid patterns add depth and drama to the constantly changing lights that are projected from underneath the image.
While many of the images seem fun, light and whimsical, others are much more intense. Cauldron of Souls is particularly sinister, where Elin Amos is captured amongst dozens upon dozens of ghostly faces, each of which appears slightly vacuous and a little frightening. The exhibition catalogue tells us that these ghoulish souls are a reminder to love yourself in spite of the ever-ticking clock. Amos is dressed completely in white: on the left she stands tall, completely aghast as another part of her character kneels down before her, offering herself a bouquet of flowers. This sense of drama and performance is also seen in Stacked Odds, where a cowboy hat clad Bella Yentob holds a pistol to the American indian version of herself, who throws her arms up in the air in an act of surrender.
Phantasmagoria asks us to question two sides of our personality. Within the 12 images, CecilBoyd presents the two extremes of their subjects’ personalities – the Id and the Ego – who are constantly negotiating with each other, shaping the thoughts desires, dreams and fears of each of the women within the photographs. Through the addition of ever-changing multicolour backlighting, they bring the eighteenth-century illusionary practice of phantasmagoria into the twenty-first century.
Phantasmagoria took is on display at Bernard Chauchet, 55 Hollywood Road, London SW10 9HX until 4 November 2018