Coleman Project Space

Coleman Project Space is currently hosting Debra Swann’s new site-specific exhibition, Curiosity Shop. The gallery is around the corner from a housing estate. A police board appeals for information concerning the killing of a cat last summer. Poor kitty was hurled from the top balcony of a block of flats. The stunt was filmed, then posted on a website. These details have not been exaggerated. As with the sights you see walking to the gallery, the exhibits inside fill you with disbelief, fear and wonder. Hanging in frames on one wall are the skins of small animals and vermin. Is that a squirrel? A rat? A groundhog even? The eyeholes are cut out. The fur looks dirty. Wait. That isn’t fur. One skin seems to be made from brown paper, the kind used to wrap black-market beef after the war. So that animal skin rug on the floor, is that fake too? Yes. But somehow being fake doesn’t make it any less real. Curiosity Shop is brimming with beautiful fakes and macabre mock-ups: bugs and scorpions fashioned from Sellotape, and imprisoned in the old-fashioned parochial killing jars favoured by English schoolboys. How were they, and the other creatures in the exhibition, captured? Perhaps with the nets, and wire hoops, that are festooned improbably with sequins and glass beads, making a mockery of practicality. Behind the main gallery is a dark, dank shed where you might sleep if you were on the run after committing a murder. You don’t really want to go in there, but then something catches your eye in the corner: a cluster of pods in the ceiling, some of them split open. What has escaped from there? Whatever it was, you dread feeling it on your shoulder, or brushing against your leg. By now an interesting transformation has occurred. You have stopped wondering how fake it all is. You simply absorb it, disbelief effortlessly suspended, as in a horror film. The killer punch is saved for an installation that feels out of step with the rest of the exhibition in all but its shocking directness. A long-handled mallet stands on its head in front of a hanging pinafore. The implied violence, the juxtaposition of the daintiness of the pinafore and the blunt, cumbersome mallet, with its dumb fat head and spindly handle, makes the stomach turn over. Something horrible has happened here. The child who collected the Sellotape insects has grown into a wicked adult, devoted to experiments and sadism. There is a narrative here if you want it. Swann gives you the props and invites you to play dot-to-dot. I don’t know where the mallet and the pinafore come from: excavated, perhaps, from the bottom of a dreadful nightmare, like grisly trophies uncovered after the police have dragged the lake. A little longer captivated by these objects and the inflections shift. Now the mallet looks silly, and the pinafore is sexy. It’s all fun and games, isn’t it? As devilish as Duchamp, or the films of Buñuel or Hitchcock. No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. It’s too horrible.