A Bitter/Sweet Revenge
By Karl Chitham
I remember fondly the day Diana Spencer became the Princess of Wales. The outrageous spectacle of the occasion was certainly not lost on me at the rather impressionable age of 7. It seemed at the time to be the event of the century and in retrospect was certainly well up there on the list of things I consider to be truly memorable. The lasting image I have from this particular T.V. marathon is of Lady Di struggling up the isle trailing a ridiculously unwieldy train of over 7 metres of the best quality ivory silk.
Two things struck me about this scene. The first was the incredible opulence of the entire affair - gold carriage, jewels, choirs and the list goes on. The second was the crowd. A conservative estimate put the attending hoards along the route of the royal procession at 600,000. The air of hysteria was almost palpable even via the remote capabilities of the television – millions of people worldwide were frantically admiring, analysing and soon-to-be deifying this poor defenceless woman, (or so I thought her to be at the time). The entire display did not appear to fit with this image of a shy, softly spoken, well-bred twenty year old that we had been force-fed for months in the lead-up to the wedding. What was the appeal of this pretty but unremarkable girl? She was later described by her infamous wedding dress’ designer Elizabeth Emanuel as "a beautiful butterfly emerging from a chrysalis [with] a beautiful cherubic face” (1). It seems that most people were happy to buy into the hype and illusion of the fairytale come to life.
At the same time in another part of New Zealand somewhat reluctantly huddled around the T.V. with his pro-monarchy family was the then 15 year old Mark Curtis. This event was to begin a life-long relationship with the Princess of Wales. A woman he would never meet but would be forced to share his family with. Curtis speaks with a hint of chagrin about a particular birthday over 10 years ago, where the usual practice of his parents phoning from the motherland to praise him for making it through another year, was mysteriously absent. When he did eventually hear from them two weeks later, he was dumbstruck to find that his parents had neglected him because they were overwhelmed with grief over the death of Lady Diana Spencer. They had even travelled all the way to London to lay flowers at the gates of Buckingham Palace for a woman they knew only from the tabloids and television.
It is this incongruity that Curtis explores in his installation titled The Diana Suite. This work takes the form of a carpet of glitter, a familiar medium in the repertoire of Curtis’ practice. Earlier glitter carpets by the artist introduced audiences to the many religious, cultural and social references of glitter and ephemeral floor coverings used throughout the world. However, The Diana Suite has taken this investigation in a new direction. This work, which at first glance appears to be a homage to the ‘People’s Princess’, takes on a satirical edge when examined more closely. The familiar soft, sweeping hairstyle of the silhouette with its lolly pink background could give the impression that this work is some form of dedication to the fallen princess. This notion quickly dissipates on closer inspection. The gothic design of the carpet, although balanced and harmonious, references a time in history when violence, superstition and death were part of the everyday. Curtis makes use of black glitter for the first time in one of his carpet works. The dull shimmer of the void created by this non-colour adds an ominous nuance to an otherwise innocuous appearing work. At each intersection of the design sits the menacing image of a skull, a symbol which is repeated in a series of 3-dimensional glitter covered works mounted on a nearby wall.
The glitter skull has also appeared in a previous work by Curtis titled For the love of god give me head a finalist in the 2007 Trust Waikato Contemporary Art Award. In this early manifestation Curtis happily plays with references which align sexual humour with religious critique, a thread which weaves itself throughout his practice. Sexuality and religion have become inherent in the relationships Curtis makes in his works. The use of glitter immediately popularises the content of the work and the intent of the artist. “In popular culture it goes back at least as far as Glam Rock of the seventies with Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’, or Gary Glitter, linking it to androgyny. This psychological blurring of genders, and perhaps even physiological too, is part of the aesthetic of camp or queer culture” (2). The Diana Suite speaks volumes in relation to this difficult marrying of idea to materiality. Diana was respected for her undisputed duty as a mother, her humanitarian and charity work and for her emotional and financial generosity, but it was her role as a gay icon, fashionista and business savvy, media darling that cemented her place as a popular culture idol.
This is not the first time Curtis has played with the notion of the ‘Queen of Hearts’. An earlier work titled Rosemont which was a finalist in the 2006 Trust Waikato Contemporary Art Awards was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the icon’s effect on the world following her well publicised death. The installation, which consisted of 4000 French-made plastic roses piled into the corner of the gallery, was an obvious reference to the thousands of flowers, gifts and messages left for Diana following her death in Paris. The work was given a subversive twist with the addition of pop songs mixed with crash sounds, (verging tentatively on the inappropriate) wafting from within the heap of dated artificial offerings.
The Diana Suite is in some ways a rather poignant comment on the cynical world we have become. While many people were overcome with immense and, as Curtis’ parents attested, overwhelming grief at the loss of this saint-like pillar of society, (admittedly with a few faults). Others were quick to point out the dichotomy of the Lady Diana persona:
“She mirrored our personal anxieties, and the perennial anxieties of the young - for it is hard to believe she was 36 years old. She was truly a cliché of the age itself. Much of the angst of this troubled fin de siècle was indexed in her brief life. Wars and poverty, sickness and prejudice, uncertainty and despair - this daughter of an earl, this mother of a putative King of England was paradoxically familiar with them all: and when the end came, it was a properly symbolic end as, with her playboy lover, she was driven at midnight by a drunken driver much too fast in a Mercedes through a city underpass, pursued by photographers on motorbikes” (3).
It is true that she cast glamour, a bedazzling spell, which attracted us to her. The real life blinding flash of cameras, dazzling smile and the sparkle of diamonds acted in much the same way as Curtis’ glitter portrait. As onlookers we were, and still are, lured by the shimmer; the momentary brilliance and sense of wonder that we try to hold on to. But it is only an illusion after all. The carpet is not real. The twinkling wonder disappears when the lights are turned out, you cannot touch it as it sifts through your fingers and in the end it will be swept away. It is a sad tale, but Curtis tells it with a clever wit and a deft hand. It may be a parting shot by the artist, a final blow as payback for earlier indiscretions, but there is no denying the fact – nothing lasts for ever.
(1) Alfano, Sean, A Wedding Dress To Remember, www.cbsnews.com
(2) Hurrell, John, Walking on a Glitter Carpet, beneath the Jesus Crucifixes in the Sycamore Trees, Ultra Glister exhibition catalogue, 2003.
(3) Morris, Jan, The Naughty Girl Next Door, www.time.com