… Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
Edgar Allan Poe, 1849
This quotation by Edgar Allan Poe was the first thought that came to my mind as I stared and touched and looked intently at Suzy Lee’s initial masterpiece (published by Edizioni Corraini – Mantova, Italy, 2002) for like the hundredth time. The quote is likewise found at the end of the book. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Suzy plays around again with the boundaries of what constitutes reality and what is illusory. This book is said to be in the Artist’s Book Collection in Tate Britain in London, UK.
I thought I knew about mixed-media and postmodern picture books until I saw this haunting Inception-like quality of Suzy Lee’s mind game within a mind game within another mind game as watched by the creator of that mind game. If that seemed hauntingly surreal and mysterious, then I have managed to describe exactly how I feel about this ingeniously crafted artwork masquerading as a children’s picture book created by Suzy.
Origins of Alice. In this interview done by Taiwan dpi Magazine, Suzy shared that Alice was her project for her Master’s Degree in Book Art. According to her:
“It was the first book I could say ‘my book’ – I did everything from the story to bookbinding, and it contains every single thought that I had at that time. Having lots of research and preparation, it took me one whole year to complete the book.”
In Suzy’s Artist’s Statement as found in her website, she also related that she chanced upon Lewis Carroll’s manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while she was staying in London. Rereading this classic as a grown-up has intrigued her considerably and she was drawn by “the nightmarish atmosphere and the eccentric characters of the story” – thus, the birth of her own unique and inimitable adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s literary masterpiece – transformed into a wordless mixed-media surreal book-within-a-book as only Suzy Lee can pull off and manage with such ease and grace.
The Infinite Loop Revealed. As I was reading through the Artist’s Statement, there are several things that struck me in terms of Suzy’s creative process as she revealed how the book evolved in her head:
“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.”
Now I begin to understand more and more why I am drawn to children’s literature. Anyone who thinks that picture books for children are juvenile can eat their hearts out with this lovely Artist Statement that Suzy Lee has just written.
Layer One: The Performance. According to Suzy there are three layered levels in the book. It begins with a performance, a toy theatre with an actual audience in shadow, symbolizing their seating “on the border of reality and illusion.”
I like the fact that our little Alice here looks very Asian with her short straight black hair and her decidedly-Asian facial features. She stares at the audience as if immobile, her eyes speaking volumes. The initial image of Alice is portrayed as a photograph. As she follows the white rabbit and drops into the proverbial hole, she gets transformed into a pencil cut-out. In her Artist Statement, Suzy describes in detail how this is created:
“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.”
The beginnings of what would be Suzy Lee’s trademark mirror-image with the margins/book hinges serving a significant function could already be gleaned in one of the pages in this wordless narrative.
As Alice’s pursuit of the White Rabbit (who is always late) nearly comes to an end, the Rabbit suddenly faces her – only this time, the Rabbit transforms into a furry ‘real’ rabbit while Alice remains to be a pencil-sketch staring with horror at this embodied furry creature. And so the hunter becomes the hunted as the Rabbit chases the now-illusory Alice, with the rabbit becoming more solidified in each page. The last scene shows this complex intermingling of creatures that is neither Alice nor the rabbit but one and the other – a playful weaving of the fantasy and the real.
Layer Two: The Fireplace. But wait, Suzy is hardly finished yet, as if that is not enough jolt to keep any reader awake. She now introduces another dimension to the wordless narrative. As she says in her Artist statement: “What if all of the performance was merely illusion?” With the scenes zooming out gradually, the reader sees that the stage was actually just part of a fireplace which initially gave the illusion of a Victorian theatre. And we see a lady cleaning her house and vacuuming the fireplace.
Suzy explains that this actually calls to mind an anecdote in Taoism, Chuang Tzu’s Dream of a Butterfly:
“… 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.”
Now, how is that for a conundrum. But wait, it isn’t over.
Layer Three: A Book. The complexity of the wordless narrative continues with life-size hands appearing on both sides of the pages as soon as the performance is finished. The turning of the pages now becomes significant as it plays an intricately-woven symbolism built within the story:
“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.”
This brings to mind the utter helplessness of modern technology with the vital role now played in this well-crafted book with the mere act of flipping a page, rather than just sliding a window in your Kindle or pressing the next button in the iPad. Of course modern technology may surprise us yet – I have not fully explored the possibilities that iPad may potentially bring in terms of introducing an added layer/dimension in a reader’s experience. But I have to say that at least for now, it pales in comparison with what Suzy Lee’s Alice can offer.
Endnotes: The boundaries of reality and philosophical meanderings. Let me end by once again citing from Suzy Lee herself as she explains how this concept of reality can be experienced in Alice:
“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.”
This book, you would have to experience for yourself.
Alice in Wonderland by Suzy Lee. Edizioni Corraini (Mantova, Italy), 2002. Book loaned by the author.
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