“I JUST CAN’T HELP BELIEVING”
by Claire Hazelton
Beneath the hills of the Lake District, with its entrance tucked beneath the flower beds in the back garden of an old, rickety cottage is a peculiar land where a sacred river meanders through the valleys of strange, dark mountains, before spilling into a deep, black sea that has never seen the sun. Haunting voices bounce off the sides of the mountains, lamenting loss and separation and prophesying war. In this bizarre and dark underground landscape, however, a man – Kubla Khan – has built a most stunning construction – a pleasure dome filled with exquisite flowers and trees, with caves of glistening ice: filled with perfection, magic and impossible spots of sunlight. It glows amongst all else.
Xanadu, this underground land with its impeccable pleasure dome, came to the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in an Opium-fuelled reverie. Kubla Khan, the protagonist, cuts off all contact with the death, grief and violence present in Xanadu and lives, instead, in constructed perfection. In reality, Coleridge, too, cloaked his children, as babies, in similar worlds of wonder – placed them under domes, in a sense, in which he allowed them only to see the best and most beautiful of the world. In 1817, Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” a term which, ultimately, means to succumb to a lie – to submit and surrender to falsity and fantasy, to pretend to believe in the unbelievable – in return for pleasure, entertainment and, at times, peace.
Suspend Disbelief is artist Stuart Semple’s first London exhibition in four years. It is, too, his most ambitious, both philosophically and technically, to date. The notion of suspending one’s disbelief is a prevalent theme throughout – an obsession, perhaps, of the artist’s – explored in two forms. First, there is the conscious action of suspending our disbelief, in which we can create and experience truth – build whole lives and imagine them to be real – in order to enjoy films, plays and books etc. and to be entertained, rather than disappointed, by magic tricks and illusions. Second, Semple explores the larger notion that, on a more complex level, aspects of our disbelief are, in fact, in constant suspension; we build pleasure domes around our fragile lives, surround ourselves with entertainment, culture and, ultimately, magic, in order to separate ourselves from the facts of our mortality: in order to untangle life and death and cloak ourselves in happy, care-free denial.
The works in this exhibition share with Coleridge’s poetry a common understanding of life’s closeness to death. Without sacrificing this perception, both create, within their work, opportunities to actively suspend disbelief and enjoy life, away from death. However, we are always, whether in a poem by Coleridge or a painting by Semple, reminded of death’s presence and encouraged to remember it, briefly, before returning back into the dome.
Omega (2013), a sound installation comprising of one hundred strung-up radios swarming around a light-bulb, crackles in the basement of the building and acts as this reminder of the presence of death. Emitting from each speaker is the white noise found between stations, a sound that contains leftover reverberations from the Big Bang. Omega is intended to not just represent the beginning of time, but also expose it – to play it and present it to the audience. Considering the theory that time is cyclical, Omega also, as a result, plays the sound of the end of the universe too. The piece simply surmises the togetherness of the beginning and the end: of birth, life and death. This confrontational piece abstractly, yet purely, mirrors the darkness and violence of Coleridge’s Xanadu, a land that seems to linger on the border between life and death. It draws the audience to the brink of mortality in preparation for the constructed pleasure – the suspense of disbelief – that is evoked in the rest of the exhibition. It acts as a reminder in Suspend Disbelief that every life encounters death: a premise that the audience can choose to either leave behind completely or continue to return to.
“Once we accept death – that we are all dying every day – we can really start living. Then, we can suspend our disbelief and enjoy things truly with the knowledge still there, and the acceptance, of death,” explains Semple. The majority of the works in Suspend Disbelief, paying exception to Omega, deal with the use of entertainment, pleasure and illusion as means of coping and continuing happily in life; many of the works act, in a way, like pleasure domes dotted about across Semple’s Xanadu. In Bloom (2013) – a piece in which, to experience it, the viewer climbs into a constructed space – projections of over a thousand brightly coloured flowers light up the walls inside, blooming, in time-lapse, from buds perpetually, never wilting and never dying. Despite the mesmerising beauty of the event, the audience is aware of the fact that the preserved life and growth of these flowers is, quite simply, a lie. Only through momentarily allowing one’s disbelief to be suspended can the pleasure of this artwork be fully indulged in. Through omitting death completely, the moment – the experience – loses its sense of truth and honesty; it becomes a form of entertainment. The immortality of the flowers renders them less special and less meaningful, less attached to human life. Considering this, Bloom acts to explain the emptiness of life when death is removed.
However, to those able to suspend disbelief to a great capacity – those able to leave Omega behind and to truly allow notions of illusion, magic and pleasure to completely envelop them – Bloom might not resemble an emptiness at all, and inspire only a wonder. Semple, in many of his works, seems to yearn for this state, the ability to truly escape death and to really believe, fully, in the lie. The capacity to believe – to open the mind fully to magic, belief and life away from endings – is one that is mostly only accessible to children. The innocence of a child is the lack of need to suspend disbelief, or, more simply, the lack of disbelief in entirety. The painting David Copperfield Saws Himself in Half (2013) and the video projection Effect (2013) (the latter in which Semple performs simple magic tricks) explore the different perceptions possible towards magic and illusion: firstly, to believe fully, like a child, secondly, to suspend one’s disbelief and enjoy the tricks as entertainment and, thirdly, to do neither and to not be affected at all, to be just disappointed and to see only the truth (trickery) of the act. In the work I Was Young, I Was Wrong, It Couldn’t Last (2013), these three possible attitudes (also translatable as belief, the wish and hope for belief and lack of belief) are personified in a young child, a slightly older child and an adult. For children, magic is believable (and hope, sometimes, seems like magic); lies and trickery are much less probable. Perhaps this is because, to them, death, the ultimate truth, often does not exist at all, or if it does exist, it is something that is far, far, away, in the distance.
“There is a moment in life, for everyone I think, where you suddenly see how close death is, or you suddenly are exposed to the darker realities of the world; you’re shown, usually through an event of some sort, that you are not immortal. Childhood ends here. Childhood ends where life begins” (Semple). At the age of nineteen, Semple suffered a near-death experience from an allergic reaction. This traumatic event – being made so brutally aware, at a young age, of the fragility of the human body and the unpredictability of mortality – has proven to be significantly influential in both Semple’s artwork and the manner in which he has lived life since. Death is a presence and awareness permanently and constantly for him. The truth – Omega, Xanadu – lingers behind each instance of pleasure and entertainment.
In a sense, however, it is unnatural that death is not more closely connected to life in everyone’s minds. The lies associated with illusion and trickery, which we submit to in order to be entertained, are present, too, on a broader and more significant scale in each of our day-to-day lives. It is Semple’s belief that popular culture and culture in general – entertainment, consumerism, lifestyle – suspend our disbelief without our realising it, holding us all, frozen, in a state of pure life, separating as much as possible the dark realities of death and mortality from the thrill of existing. Instances where popular culture is referenced in Semple’s paintings usually explore this notion.
Michael Daydreams (2013) a painting depicting Michael Jackson sitting in his dreaming tree – a tree in which he climbed in order to connect, spiritually, with the world and write his songs – portrays the pop icon as a believer of sorts and, in some ways, a child. The struggles of fame, the definite difficulties Jackson must have fought against during his lifetime, suggest that, like Kubla Khan, in his tree, he built a pleasure dome, of which the outside world could be shut out. “People see the controversy in Michael Jackson – the crazy stories, the effects of fame, the celebrity side of his life – over the fact that he was a true artist. People forget that he was, at the core of it all, an artist,” explains Semple.
Semple appears in Suspend Disbelief in a multitude of different forms. Sometimes, we see him yearning towards the hopeful state of childhood, as in I Was Young, I Was Wrong, It Couldn’t Last and Michael Daydreams. Sometimes, he is the creator, the magician or the illusionist. In Happy Clouds (2009), for instance, he creates the object upon which the audience can suspend their disbelief around: soap bubble, smiling faces to cheer people up at the height of the recession. In Jump (2013), too, the audience is invited to bounce their troubles away on a soft, inflated floor.
However, at other times, Semple seems to fail to suspend his own disbelief and looks, quite honestly and openly, at hopelessness. In Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker (2013) for example, the journey across Moonriver in the song of the same name is illustrated at its close, where the Huckleberry friend has come to the end of the rainbow – a place where hope and treasure are expected – to find just an amusement arcade instead called ‘Rainbow’s End.’ “They traveled such a long way,” Semple explains, “and all they get at the end is a vague promise of entertainment for a few quid.” The hope of childhood, here, is obliterated and replaced, instead, with disappointment. Semple’s most vivid apparition, however, is not in one specific work, but, rather, in the collective exhibition. As notions of truth – the inevitability of death and destruction – crackle in streams of white noise beneath the rest of the show, Semple tiptoes on the floors above, creating a lifeline in moments of dishonesty and, perhaps, ignorance, to ease the process of living: to conjure humour, happiness and pleasure. “If we opened our eyes to reality, things would appear more frightening than we’re letting ourselves believe they are. We’d be too frightened to live. So, to solve that, we suspend our disbelief every day.”