Monster Mash-Up: The Art Gallery As Haunted House

In the Charlie Fox-curated My Head Is A Haunted House at Sadie Coles HQ and Dracula's Wedding at Rodeo, contemporary artists explore he ghoulish, uncanny, macabre, gory, and otherworldly

All images: Installation view, My Head is a Haunted House, curated by Charlie Fox, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 05 June – 10 August 2019 © The artists, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photography: Robert Glowacki

I didn’t get a chance to see My Head Is A Haunted House until about a week and a half after it opened. In this time (and before the opening), I’ve felt like it was omnipresent online. Constant photos of people posing with giant humping soft sculptures, the cover for the accompanying book endlessly whipping through my feed – It’s had a palpable sense of excitement surrounding it. I believe that this is in no small part due to the fact that this exhibition (and its sister show Dracula’s Wedding, located just down the street at Rodeo) is really, really, really fun.

Maybe that’s not the most eloquent way to put it, but it’s what I said when I called my partner immediately after seeing the show and told her she needs to go. This seems to be a common reaction, people taking joy in what is an expertly curated journey through the ghoulish, uncanny, macabre, gory, and otherworldly imaginations of the included artists and curator Charlie Fox himself.

On entering the first gallery space at Sadie Coles in Soho, there are two works in your immediate eyeline. The first is Sue de Beer’s Witch House (2019) and then on the far wall, Sam Mckinniss’ Buffy and Friend (also 2019). This curatorial choice is subtle but something that I found interesting. By putting a ubiquitously known cultural figure like Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the back of the room, viewers are drawn towards it. They want to get to it quickly. This could be an issue for de Beer’s work, in that people might walk straight past it. However, in doing so it reveals the back of the sculpture and the dog-puppet-creatures sat inside it. The viewer is pulled back and forth between the two.

This is a consistent theme between both MHIAHH and Dracula’s Wedding. In each exhibition, every work makes you want to run towards another one. You’re always getting into eyeshot of something to be excited by, something to investigate or something to gawk at.

They’re easy shows to get lost in, reflecting the idea of a haunted house at Halloween. Rather than being guided through the exhibition by curation, the viewer is encouraged to run around – to follow their intuition and to go towards what pulls them. I ended up spending a significant amount of time because of this. You’re never quite certain you’ve seen everything and that’s something that works absolutely in their favour.

Claude Wampler’s Kinderkill (Uppy) and Kinderkill (HI!) are great examples of this happening in a very literal way. Located in the most enclosed area of the gallery and on opposite walls, this pair of works come in the form of innocuous looking plug sockets. There’s a soft sound in the space, one that you could easily attribute to a video playing in another room or someone talking a short distance away – unless you’re a small child. The sockets are housing for speakers emitting a quiet voice urging any viewers – particularly children – capable of hearing them to get on the ground and put their tongue in, presumably for them to then be electrocuted.

There’s something endlessly fun about this sort of work. I can’t help but picture a young family going for a cultured day out and losing sight of a little one for just a second, only to look on in horror as a toddler appears to be barrelling towards a sharp shock of 240 volts. Obviously there’s no real danger but it does create the potential for a very real experience of horror, a distinction that these exhibitions do a fantastic job of deciding when to blur and when to emphasise.

There’s a big difference between the works included by Larry Clark (a collage from a newspaper and a photo taken from his 1971 book, Tulsa) and the work of someone like Mike Kelley, at least in terms of their inherent irl implications. MHIAHH and Dracula’s Wedding function as an opportunity to explore the scope of horror, fear and the macabre realities bubbling under the surface of contemporary life in a broad way that remains engaging throughout, at no point feeling like a cheap shock tactic or a sanctimonious warning.

Accompanying both is a publication. It’s a thick book of (mostly) lo-res images of film stills, crops from comics, pictures of Marilyn Manson, spooky memes, and uncanny images of unknown origin. Going through it, I noticed myself catching more and more references, noticing where things were from and putting them together.

None of these were necessarily related to contemporary art. They came together from my own personal interests (and hours of wasted time) and the references I was particularly interested in (for my knowledge of their origin or lack thereof) were unique to me. This is something that is important to consider regarding both shows.

You can bring anyone to these exhibitions and they’ll have something to say, some kind of inroad into talking about what they’re seeing. In terms of generating dialogue, it’s a fantastic gateway to contemporary art for people who may either be interested but feel unable to enter into discussions or for people who’d never thought about the relationship between art and their own engagement in pop culture before. It’s the kind of show you could come to and start talking about The Shining or Buffy or Frankenstein and end up leaving having learned a little bit about the evolution of contemporary art over the past fifty years, maybe even developing a new interest in it or a new confidence in engaging with it.

That’s something I think that this pair of shows does very well, it makes itself accessible to a wide audience as well as emphasising the potential value of entering into a dialogue with those who might have absolutely no background in art – they make a successful jab at popping the art world bubble in a way that feels fun and interesting.

My Head Is A Haunted House, curated by Charlie Fox is at Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 10 August 2019. Dracula’s Wedding is at Rodeo, London, until 3 August

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