"The secret power of the folktale lies not in the motifs it employs, but in the manner in which it uses them—that is, in its form," wrote Max Lüthi in his introduction to The European Folktale. Corpus, a haunting, site-specific installation by artist Ann Hamilton commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, eerily embodies the art of the folktale as enumerated by Lüthi in so many of his writings, but particularly in the gorgeously persuasive volume The European Folktale. The half-magical, elliptically formal Corpus is divided into three spaces—a version of beginning, middle, and end—and turns you into the character of a sensual story. The story is familiar, but you've never seen it quite like this before. An oversized stairway leads to a glowing pink room of hope. Next, a tiny black room of threat. And at last, up toward a cathedral of light. Voices, paper, machines. An expectation of transformation.
The chapter headings of The European Folktale refer to the formal elements of the art of folktale: "One-Dimensionality," "Depthlessness," "Abstract Style," "Isolation and Universal Interconnection," "Sublimation and All-Inclusiveness." As literary interpretations of the aesthetics of fairy tales these have always struck me as perfect, and it is through their lens that I write my own novels. And they easily, at least to this viewer, refer to Hamilton's Corpus. When I stepped into the luminous, liturgical hall of Corpus, and immediately—as in a spell—thought, "Lüthi Lüthi," exhilaration set in. It was the exhilaration of recognition, what some readers of fairy tales call "early rapture."
Corpus embodies a narrative style that, like Lüthi's analysis of form, becomes "a sort of phenomenology." Strictly formal, both are also strangely emotional too. Reading Lüthi, one feels the monolithic in the miniature; one feels the miniature in the monolithic in Corpus. I suppose in some ways this art review is an exploration of how an art installation can be a fairy tale, and how a literary analysis of fairy tales can be an art form.
I. Once upon a time, there was a vast hall lined with windows. The windows were dressed in pink silk, and the light that came in held promise. Above, from the ceiling, heaving machines sigh down onionskin pages. Pure, [End Page 149] they float through the air; dirty, they lie on the ground, piled at the room's edges like bodies. Like some divine reverse, pneumatic devices lower with voices coming from them, sometimes in unison, sometimes not, and what are they saying? (They're bell-shaped, like creepy, oversized versions of arms for Marina Warner's girl with bells for her hands in her retelling of "The Armless Maiden.") You must press your ear in to discover—and as soon as you do, the speaker floats off toward the ceiling, taking its hushed confidences from you. You wish to follow. You walk through this airy onionskin forest, sometimes coming across other women, children, and men. Through a trail you devise among machines and voices and paper, through pink light you go. Toward the wall just ahead, toward a portal, a hole. From this magical world, do you need escape?
"Curiosity, or a sense of transgressing limits grips the person who comes across the trace of an otherworld being," writes Lüthi of one-dimensionality. As the onionskin paper falls, viewers of Corpus tentatively reach down to touch them. I saw at least one person furtively scrawl, then hide her writing in a corner underneath a huge pile of pages. I resisted the temptation—out of fear?—to go see what she'd written. Lifted up by this strange, mechanized world, seemingly governed by those in unison, I was also tentative, frightened. I knew I was meant to walk toward the end wall. I was meant to enter the next room. The machines continued their labor above, sending empty pages that sometimes landed upon my head. The machines that had voices sometimes got alarmingly close—I resisted an urge to console them...