Ellen Harvey: Arcade / Arcadia

The Clay Center, Charleston, West Virginia
August 15 – November 16, 2014

In ARCADE/ARCADIA Harvey joins elements of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s life as a painter and engraver with the history of Margate, the once fashionable seaside resort where he painted and lived for many years, to create a disorienting and seductive space that conflates Turner’s gallery with the largely abandoned amusement arcades of Margate’s recent past. Inside a wood frame that recreates in ¾ scale the proportions of the gallery that Turner maintained in London until his death, Harvey has mounted 34 Plexiglas mirrors laboriously hand-engraved in the style of Turner’s engravings with a 360-degree view of contemporary Margate seen from the beach. The arrangement of mirrors is based on that of Turner’s paintings in his gallery upon his death. The mirrors are mounted on thin light boxes so that the engraved drawings glow, superimposing themselves over viewers’ reflections. Large illuminated letters spelling “ARCADIA” on the exterior of the structure reference both the amusement arcades of contemporary Margate as well as Turner’s own intense love for a place that he declared had “the loveliest skies in Europe.”

Walking into Harvey’s hall of fun-house mirrors, the viewer is immersed in an eerie panoramic view of a run-down seaside resort; there are no people visible in the engravings and the monochrome glowing engravings create uncertainty as to whether or not the scenes are depicted by day or night. The subdued lighting emitted by the engravings transforms the space from a simple room to an experience where reality and illusion merge, creating an unsettling embodiment of how easily the desire for the sublime can collapse into an acceptance of commercial spectacle.

ARCADE/ARCADIA was originally commissioned for the opening of the Turner Contemporary in Margate, England in 2011.