Alive For Your Pleasure

Zerelda Sinclair and Andrea Blood, aka The Girls, bring the macabre to the Naughton Gallery at Queen's

The words ‘British seaside’ conjure up many images for this reviewer, most notably happy memories of family jaunts across the water to Brighton and Eastbourne. However, for all of the shore-side fun of the beach, fairgrounds and fish ‘n’ chips, such destinations often feel imbued with a palpable end-of-the-pier creepiness.

Perhaps it is due to the inherent carnie kitsch of the ghost train and other attractions, but for many the British coast is a place where things old and evil reside. Even the Great Beast himself, notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, moved to Hastings to live out his final years.

Bournemouth’s fantastically named duo, Zerelda Sinclair and Andrea Blood – collectively known as The Girls – clearly see something similar in their hometown, as demonstrated in their first Northern Irish exhibition, Alive For Your Pleasure.

Currently on display at Queen’s University’s Naughton Gallery, and curated by Ben Crothers, this ambitious show encompasses film, photography, costume and tableau vivant, all inspired by the carnivalesque elements of the Bournemouth seaside. The results are a heady mix of the surreal, the nightmarish and the absurd.

Upon walking into the darkened gallery, the viewer is met with an ambient seaside score and a disembodied circus ringmaster bellowing that ‘this could be the finest thing in the universe’. The sounds emanate from a number of small (and slightly anachronistic looking) CD players, surrounded by electric tea lights.

A flickering, high contrast film is projected against the wall, showing a group of synchronised swimmers practising their moves on the beach, bathing boxes in the background. While this grainy black and white footage may have the look of vintage 1940s 8mm film (replete with cigarette burns), it is actually a short directed by The Girls in 2011.

Shot on the Bournemouth seafront and featuring local performing artists, it shows the swimmers begin to jerk and twitch like human puppets, contorting into sickening shapes. It is clear that Sinclair and Blood share a taste for the macabre and the comical.

Circus imagery abounds throughout the exhibition, which is Lovecraftian in its depictions of vintage decadence. Most of the photographs on display feature The Girls in some shape or form as mermaids or, for want of a better phrase, ‘gothed up brides’.

The most engaging piece, however, is undoubtedly ‘Grand Grotesque Parade Choir’, a photograph of a staged re-imagining of a forgotten Edwardian carnival, conceived by Sinclair and Blood and featuring hundreds of local volunteers.

Accompanied by a choral recording, the host of weird and wonderful characters in this piece ensure that it comes across as a fusion of classic commedia dell’arte theatre and a Robert Wiene expressionist still. A perfect mix of hilarity, spookiness and innovation.

Elsewhere we see an array of costumes – a redecorated Girl Guides uniform and a ghostly wedding dress suspended from the ceiling, to name but two – as well as some pleasingly subversive images of royals presented as wicked witches.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is another photographic work, ‘Diamonds And Toads’, featuring The Girls squeezed like sardines into a bathtub, somewhere between alive and dead. Featuring billowing dresses, pearls and trickles of blood, the piece is visceral and gripping. (Those who attended opening night were treated to a tableau vivant recreation, Sinclair and Blood themselves, slumped in a bathtub in the middle of the gallery.)

With the waxy automaton faces of The Girls bringing to mind Georges Franju’s gallic surgery-horror Les Yeux Sans Visage, this fun slice of performance art adds to an already eclectic exhibition.

While admittedly elements of Alive For Your Pleasure do feel like they might have fallen out of a fifth form goth girl’s jotter, there is plenty of virtuosity on show. Regarding the hollering ringmaster’s claim, it might not be the finest thing in the universe, but it is rather good.

Alive For Your Pleasure runs in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's University until May 26.