Artist’s Statement: Alice in Wonderland
Suzy Lee

The book 'Alice in Wonderland' was made when I was staying in London few years ago. During my staying in London, I happened to see Lewis Carroll’s manuscript of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and John Tenniel’s original illustrations at the British Library, and this made me reread this all-time favorite classic. Rereading the Alice book as a grown-up reader was very intriguing: the nightmarish atmosphere and eccentric characters of the story fascinated me. Lewis Carroll’s Alice book is such an abundant resource, which evokes many issues in multifarious ways.

This may be the reason why his Alice book has been examined by myriad people in various manners such as in a political sense, with a Freudian view and even as a symbol of drug culture, apart from the argument about whether it is for children or adults. Some people regard Lewis Carroll as the precursor of the surrealists, who dealt with such a paradoxical liaison between illusion and reality. In addition, numerous illustrators have taken on the challenge to re-illustrate the Alice book as actors have done with Hamlet. These enable us to imagine the richness of the Alice book.

While desperately chasing the illusionary White Rabbit, Alice falls into the absurd but verisimilar Wonderland, yet all her adventures were just in her dream. The interesting fact is that other characters are often dreaming as well in her dream. I particularly paid attention to this dream-within-a-dream motif, the core mise en scene of the Alice book; it gives a preview of the illusion and reality of our world. It is precisely demonstrated in the conversation between Tweedledee and Alice, who are talking about the snoring Red King:

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?”
Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”
“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”
“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.
“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

-Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There’

Because it was all in Alice’s dream, an infinite looping happens as if two mirrors are placed facing each other: Alice is part of the Red King’s dream, which is part of Alice’s dream, which is of course part of the Red King’s dream, and so on. Self-referential methods, which reflect themselves such as the dream-within-a-dream, the picture-within-a-picture, and the book-within-a-book, potentially embody innate infinity; the representational experience puts the real world on trial.

Based on this idea from the Alice book, I tried to produce a book that reflects upon subject matters like constructed illusions and realities and the dream-within-a-dream structure, which contains a circular regression and self-reflexivity. Like the epitaph of Lewis Carroll, Is all our life, then, but a dream?, these themes have been one of the eternal pending questions for us, and especially for the artists, who, in my opinion, are dealing with visual matters. I may say that Lewis Caroll’s book appealed to me in terms of illuminating the relationship between illusion and reality.

The title ‘Alice in Wonderland’ suggests the conceptual structure of my whole book in relation to Lewis Carroll’s original as well as the direct plot of the performance, which is shown in the first part of my book. Roughly three levels that I set up as follows overlay this book: a performance, a fireplace and a book.


A performance

I used the idea of a miniature toy theatre with life-like fake prosceniums to perform my version of the Alice story. The attractiveness of the stage format lies in making viewers consistently aware that it is only ‘a play’, whereas a film easily makes them be immersed in it. False layers of backdrops and the shadows of characters on them deny the viewers illusion; the audience is seated on the border of reality and illusion.

Alice and the White Rabbit chase each other as reality and illusion do to each other throughout the performance. Visually, every single scene is photographed, and all the props including characters are photographic cutouts and actual miniatures to give the sense of a real performance. They gradually change to drawings after Alice’s fall into Wonderland. Photography is used as if it is a real event while casual drawings to suggest a dream situation. Alice and the White Rabbit thread their way among backdrop pictures that are related to the matter of illusion and reality in the history of art, for example, ‘Flagellation of Christ’ by Piero Della Francesca.

When Alice is nearly about to grab the White Rabbit, it unexpectedly turns to face her, so they confront each other. Now the situation is reversed, and a frightened Alice falls to her lot to be pursued; she fails to escape. In their confrontation, the White Rabbit shifts to a photographic ‘real’ rabbit whereas Alice still remains as a pencil drawing. The last scene of the performance shows Alice-like-rabbit (or Rabbit like Alice); everything is mixed up and there is no clear distinction between which is illusion and which is reality. They may be clearer in the next stage of the book.


A fireplace

However, what if all of the performance was merely illusion? When the show is over and the cheering audience leaves the theatre, another story is unveiled. While scenes keep zooming out little by little, the viewer (reader) may recognize the stage was only the part of a fireplace, which gave an illusion of a splendid Victorian theatre, in a contemporary room.

Everything was in your dream: this sort of closing always pulls back the viewer (reader) to the starting point. It is a fairly puzzled moment when you awake to find it was just in your dream. All is realised naturally in dreams, even though it may be unreasonable and bizarre after waking: it is hard to determine whether you are dreaming or awake at a given moment.

Which is a dream and which is real? This calls to mind Chuang Tzu’s ‘Dream of a Butterfly’, an anecdote in Taoism: one day, Chuang Tzu dreamt that he became a butterfly flying among beautiful blossom, and did not know he was Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he woke up and recognized he was Chuang Tzu. He came to have a question whether he dreamt of being a butterfly or the butterfly dreamt of being him. Chuang Tzu’s recognition that his being a butterfly was just in his dream means he woke from a dream. And also, his understanding that his state of waking is another dream means that he could re-wake from the previous status of waking; he wakes twice.

‘Wake’ is the poignant word; one should wake from the preceding status to move to another status. Every subversive moment connotes the phase of illusion and reality; one only understands relatively whether it was a dream or not. The action of waking is similar to the action of closing a page to open the next chapter of the book.


A book

After the performance, life-size hands appear on the both sides of pages. The book is handled by fingers that come the edge of each page. Finally, these fingers, which are placed on the back cover, close the book.

One of the characteristics of the codex book form is sequential linearity; this forces the viewer to develop the events of the book by turning the pages. Turning the pages accumulates these sequences by a consistent order and creates a pictorial narrative. Thus, the role of the viewer (reader) turning the pages is a vital component of the bookwork.

The figures of the hand may function as signs that all the preceding performances were only illusion on the flat page of the book; they can be the hands of the viewer (reader), who turned all the pages just before, and closes this back cover now. As the audience was already involved in a scene of performance in the earlier part of the book, the viewer (reader)’s hands are also included in the book itself. Whenever a viewer (reader) holds this book, the process of every stage may repeat equally in a closed circuit.

A ‘book’ itself has a bipolar character; every opening is a closing in the pages of the book, just as you are waking in your dreaming. Likewise, the floating status, which has contradictory terms simultaneously, gives us a clue to the relationship between illusion and reality: everything happens at once.

I repeated building and destroying a fictional set throughout my book in the hope of finding an appropriate visual key to the realm of illusion and reality. Many artists have attempted to reveal a principal of reality by a figurative logic that barely anyone can evade. According to Suzi Gablik, the author of ‘Magritte’, problems are solved, in the manner of philosophy, not by giving new information, but by rearranging what we have always known.

If a reality as an entirety can be experienced, it may exist at the moment of shifting from dreaming to waking, between two pages of the book, at the border of night and day, and also the margin between Alice and the White Rabbit, all of which are in your mind. Hopefully, my book, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, may start enquiring about a long journey into the reality of our world.