Review: ‘The Snow, The Crow, The Blood’ by Layla Holzer

Recently I was lucky enough to get to see Layla Holzer’s Angela Carter-inspired exhibition ‘The Snow, The Crow, The Blood’ at Bristol’s Hamilton House. Here are my impressions.

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Angela Carter fans have been treated to an impressive and wide-ranging set of events over the past several months. Kicking things off in October was the publication of the first official biography of Angela Carter, by Edmund Gordon. In November, Marvellous Machine, an Oxford-based theatre company performed their adaptation of Carter’s story ‘The Tiger’s Bride’. And then in December, the RWA’s exhibition Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter opened its doors. Since then, and as part of the Get Angela Carter festival, we’ve also had public readings, a music concert and an academic conference – all celebrating Carter’s life, legacy and works. As if this were not enough, a second exhibition inspired by Carter recently appeared, though sadly for a limited time only.

Layla Holzer’s ‘The Snow, The  Crow, The Blood’, named after an Irish folktale, was on display at Bristol’s Hamilton House from the 3rd until the 14th February. It featured a range of Holzer’s work, including paintings, paper cuts, puppets and a series of short films, all inspired by the work of Angela Carter. As in the latter’s writings, Holzer’s pieces explore a range of thematic concerns, from issues of gender and sexuality to bodily transformation and violence. They also take inspiration from the full range of Carter’s writings, from her early poetry in the 1960s to her late texts such as Nights at the Circus (1984). Below are some of my thoughts on a few of the pieces on display at this fascinating exhibition.

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The piece in the photograph above was inspired by Carter’s poem ‘Unicorn’, written in the early 1960s when she lived in Bristol and which was based on a medieval myth. Holzer’s piece foregrounds, among other things, the connection between what Carter, in the poem, refers to as the two “fabulous beasts”: the unicorn and the virgin. Underneath the image, Holzer has also reproduced a section from ‘Unicorn’, which can be seen in the photograph below and which demonstrates both Carter’s concern with sexuality and her sense of humour.

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“There’s something faintly sinister, Angela wrote in her Journal, in the utter silence and unresponsiveness of the doll – which confronts the child, for the first time in its life, with the horror of empty space and loneliness. Sinister and attractive.” That’s a quotation from Christopher Frayling’s Inside the Bloody Chamber: on Angela Carter, the Gothic, and Other Weird Tales and I think that idea of the doll as both sinister and attractive has been captured brilliantly by Holzer in her ‘Erl-King’ puppet above. The hint of the sharp teeth, just visible; the texture of his skin, old and wizened as the trees that are his domain; and those green, hypnotic eyes that seem to take hold of you and reel you in. Below the puppet, on its accompanying plaque, are a couple of lines from Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’:

“His eyes are quite green, as if from too much looking at the wood. There are some eyes can eat you.”

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Many of Holzer’s works explore Carter’s fascination with representations of femininity, from the passive and victimised doll-figures to the threatening femme fatales who incarnate (for the male characters) the myth of the vagina dentata. The latter appears in Carter’s 1971 novel Love, which Holzer quotes from in the plaque for the above image. This piece also reminded me of a scene from The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), in which protagonist Desiderio gazes into a peep-show to find an “irresistible vista of semi-tropical forest” framed by the “legs of a woman” that form “a curvilinear triumphal arch”.

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The exhibition also featured several short films, including an adaptation of Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’, seen in the still above. All of these videos reproduce in imaginative ways the bodily transformations, human-animal relationships, and scenes of gendered violence that pervade Carter’s reworked fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). Holzer employs a number of techniques here, including using masks, puppets and on-location filming in order to take Carter’s ideas “beyond the page”. These films can be viewed, along with Holzer’s other work, on her website here.

Two of my favourite pieces were of the character Mother from The Passion of New Eve (1977), which was, incidentally, my introduction to Angela Carter’s work. Mother is the head of a militant feminist group who capture the novel’s protagonist, Evelyn, and forcibly transform him into the titular New Eve. Once again, Holzer provides two quotations from the novel as accompaniment:

“She was a sacred monster. She was personified and self-fulfilling fertility.”
“I am the Great Paracide, I am the Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe, I am Mama, Mama, Mama!”

Both the drawing and the puppet bring out the simultaneously alluring and threatening characteristics of Mother, and perhaps hint at Carter’s taste for black humour also. In the drawing, Evelyn is clearly depicted as a child, hoping to find sustenance and satisfaction in Mother’s embrace. However, her gaping mouth and large scissors suggest both mutilation and consumption, emphasising Mother’s desire and not Evelyn’s.

Although this exhibition was only available for a short period of time, it provided Carter enthusiasts with a mesmerising array of pieces that explore the dominant aspects of her work, from the uncanny dolls to the surreal dreamscapes, and from the melancholic space of the forest to the carnivorousness beasts that must be either tamed or joined. It was an absolute pleasure to explore Holzer’s exhibition and to see the many years of work that have clearly gone into this collection. It was also fascinating to compare and contrast her pieces with the marvellous Strange Worlds exhibition at the RWA, which is available until the 19th March. You can view more of the pieces on display at the exhibition either in the slideshow below or by visiting Layla Holzer’s website by clicking here. And for news about upcoming events that are part of the celebration of the life and works of Angela Carter, head over to getangelacarter.com

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