The celebrated artist Wolfe von Lenkiewicz talks to John-Paul Pryor about the dark heart of his visceral debut novel
Author Henry Hemming describes John-Paul Pryor’s novel Spectacles as a “full-on miasma of sex, violence and shuddering anonymity punctuated by glimpses of the sublime.” With the country convulsing in rioting the book seems scarily prescient – a dreamlike vision of a lawless dystopian future London, focusing on several characters embroiled in an ultra-violent society and Videodrome-esque psychosexual matrix. Suffice to say, the brutality of the grotesque imagery and taboo subject matter combined with flashes of romantic poetry makes for a reading experience that is simultaneously repulsive and compelling.
A very similar marriage of darkness and beauty lies at the heart of work by British artist Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, which is the reason he invited Pryor to launch his novel at this recent exhibition at All Visual Arts, and it’s little surprise he has been working on an artwork based upon the novel – subverting the classic Leda & the Swan by Da Vinci, with reference to the book. Here, the two of them discuss stepping into the black of night to steal back the light.
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: What I find interesting about Spectacles is the question of what is truly authentic. It reminds me a little of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep in that sense – the question of what is real, what is synthetic?
John-Paul Pryor: Well, the book is kind of meant to be a riddle as much as it’s a metaphor for human cruelty. I guess the reader has to be pretty attentive to grasp what is happening with all the shifts of character going on. I was just trying to create the logic of a dream and apply it to the real, if that makes sense. In a way, the book is all about reflections – none of it is presented as ‘real’, just as a series of mirrors…
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: It’s a mirror in which the grotesque frames the opposite. I mean, on the one hand, you present the unreal plastic beauty of the beautiful ‘screen presenter’ Colette who is degenerate, profligate and ugly under her surgical scars, and you also give us the shattered innocence of the homeless teenager Lamia whose open nerves seem to be drenched in tears.
John-Paul Pryor: I think I was getting at the way in which all striving for synthetic or skin-deep beauty hearkens back to eugenics. I think eugenics are the ultimate evocation of power, fascism and maybe even fashion. It’s all about the notion of manufactured synthetic perfection isn’t it? I think we both share that interest in the possibilities of genetics and the sequencing of different things to make new forms.
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: Yes, the collision of mythos-genetic parallels.
John-Paul Pryor: Everything is a phantasm but everything is also real... or maybe at least everything has the possibility to be or become real, which is something I think you explore too, no? That whole notion that myth is as real as anything else…
Wolfe Von Lenkiewicz: It’s The Magic Lantern. In Proust’s Swann’s Way there is a lantern that casts a series of medieval picture stories of a knight on a bedroom wall. Proust notes how the doorknob of the room was projected upon and turned into a kind of astral body. He remembers being fascinated by this but also denying it in some way as an intrusion into his accustomed environment. The lantern projects a myth but the child’s perception is disrupted – his normal ‘real’ bedroom to which he is accustomed has temporarily disappeared. You’re definitely trying to disrupt customary ways of seeing to create something new. It’s about switching the track and blurring the boundaries of intersections so that you can see with new eyes – the eyes of someone else’s parapsychology.
John-Paul Pryor: That’s why lots of the book is first person, to put the reader in the role of both aggressor and victim. Seeing with new eyes is important to switch the mind into a different mode isn't it? I guess I am trying to make people aware that even the tabloid demons are human too... That is one thing that really drives me – this terrifying idea that we are all of the same capably murderous species.
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: Shakepeare once said ‘Black is the badge of Hell and the school of night’ when referring to Thomas Hariot, the man who made the first lunar drawing through a telescope. It’s alone in darkness that one meets one’s own fate, and in the black of atheism that one doubts heaven. In darkness one’s curiosity finds a way out. I think all of those things that strike fear in us are truly beautiful – beauty doesn’t stop or falter at drowning us.
John-Paul Pryor: That's a good notion, beauty doesn’t care for our measuring apparatus – a tornado is beautiful, so is a terrible storm or the sun glinting off the axe before it falls. Personally, I can see the world getting even worse as we all become more genetically modified and separated into worlds of virtual experience. In many ways, we already have these horrors among us. The book seems to have disturbed some of the people who have read it… and it disturbed me to write it.
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: It is unsettling. In the work I’ve been making, I was thinking about the transformative element of the siamese twins in the novel. I made a correlation there with Da Vinci’s Leda And The Swan – the hatching of human beings from copulation with a swan. Da Vinci was interested in the grotesque and beautiful as well. He made many drawings of grotesque beings and equine fine young angels. He understood the curiosity in the contrast.
John-Paul Pryor: The beauty is in the contrast, isn’t it?
Wolfe Von Lenkiewicz: (Laughs) Alice goes through the looking glass and climbs out into the Nuremburg trials…
Spectacles is published by Seabrook Press and available now