Peter Liversidge's Symbolist exhibition at The MAC is a psychosexual Where's Wally?

Here is an art exhibition that play’s into my hands, as it were. Peter Liversidge’s Doppelgänger, in The MAC’s tall gallery, is playful and fun, a show about ideas that shows it’s working.

Based on a series of ten etchings by the German Symbolist, Max Klinger, entitled Paraphrases About the Finding of a Glove (printed 1881), Liversidge blows them up to almost life-size, so that every scumble and scratch becomes raised as vividly as a welt.

The original pictures were based on dreams that Klinger had on finding a glove at an ice skating rink. The artist anticipates the work of both Freud and Krafft-Ebing with his feverish dislocation of the fetish object. He also clearly informs the work of the Surrealists, the way that so many Symbolist artists (and writers) did.

These pictures resemble both De Chirico and Ernst’s work, as well as illustrating Lautreamont’s dictum on 'the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table'. An evening glove would be an excellent embellishment.

The exhibit also contains Liversidge’s typed proposals. There are two of them present, framed, explanatory notes, typed on a typewriter at his kitchen table and complete with artful typos. In them he delineates the two ideas that make up the show.

In the he first he declares: 'I will install copies of all ten prints, the etchings transformed by screen-printing to near life-size. In front of each will be a matching glove carved from Carrara marble.' And so we start with 'Handlung' ('Action' – I love German!), which sees our young hero (a dead-ringer for Klinger himself) first spotting the dropped glove on ice.

There is a peculiar echo of the bowling alley here, from the artist’s crouching position, to the ice skaters splitting like ten pins in front of him. The artist imagines himself smitten with the gloveless lovely whose face we never see, but it is the glove that become’s his idée fixe – she is soon 'out if the picture'.

What follows is a picaresque and increasingly melodramatic journey: the artist follows the glove out to sea: it is maddenly out of reach in 'Angste (Anxieties)', as he is washed up on the shore, his hollow-eyed horse dead beneath him. It is kidnapped from the slit of a window in 'Entffuhrung (Abduction)' by some sort of pterosaur, only to return once again, rising from the sea like a four-button Botticelli’s 'Venus', riding a scallop.

The gloves in the portraits, inconstant in size and shape, billowing like clouds or windsocks, are mirrored exactly in the perfect marble hands stretched out on the floor beneath them, as though their weight had made them drop from the frame. They are beautiful.

The largest picture, the two colour screen print called ''Ort' (Place) after Max Klinger', has no glove to call its own. Seemingly not part of the rest of the set, it is more of an establishing shot. It features a bustling street scene: there is a bit of business with a dog, a little girl falling on her bustle on roller-skates, men doffing silk toppers at young women in mufflers, while older men, bent into hoops and balancing on sticks, look benignly on.


It seems entirely free of the melodramatic bluster of the other pictures – busy but banal, a snap-shot of Victorian life. But there is something sinister about the warped glass in the windows behind these characters, the reflections of brooding, bruising clouds, the panes bulging obscenely behind them, fleeting outlines etched into them. The glass looks fit to burst, to spill a hard and jagged rain upon these oblivious bystanders.

Liversidge’s second proposal leads to the creation, cunningly realised to look like a re-creation, of 'a small room at Klinger’s house, a windowless parlour saving the occupant from the distractions a window brings'.

Real wooden floorboards are laid out on a vestibule, leading into the small, enclosed space. The floorboards are dusted with dead leaves as though they had been tracked in from an autumn garden. The prints line the white-washed walls. There is a large mirror and a fireplace. The mantelpiece is strewn with more dried foliage. Herr Klinger should fire his cleaner.

There are supposed to be subtle discrepancies between these prints, based on Klinger’s originals and the blown up ones in the gallery, either by figuration or degradation. But I can’t see them. I feel like somebody staring into a magic eye puzzle. While everybody else in the room declares 'Oh yeah... I see it', I grow increasingly frustrated. Doppelgänger is a Belle Epoque, psychosexual Where’s Wally?.

And this is why it works. It is a piece about translation and transposition, about chasing an idea through a hall of mirrors. It remains elusive, of course, as elusive as Klinger’s protagonist’s glove fixation, as it floats, forever just out of reach. But that’s the fun of it.

Doppelgänger runs in the The MAC, Belfast until October 19.