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Review
Zoe Williams's ‘Sunday Fantasy'
at Mimosa House

Jordan Harrison-Twist

08.06.19

Zoe Williams, Sunday Fantasy, 2019, installation view, film co-directed by Amy Gwatkin, courtesy of the artist and Antoine Levi gallery, Paris. Commissioned by Mimosa House and supported by Arts Council England. Photo: Tim Bowditch

Wedding cakes are grotesque. Like little headless brides, perversely they are useless until cut into. Guests flock to watch the newlyweds make an incision and open her up from top to bottom. They gawp and salivate and applaud. Then they devour her. The cake is the butt of many proverbs, similes, and metaphors. How to say this thing was easy. How to make fractions. How to furnish a completed task. You may not eat your cake and have it, too (which, I insist, is surely the correct way round). Beat eggs with cream, caster sugar, and flour until silky, pour into its mould and bake until the mixture rises; use it, for your own ends, to illustrate Marie Antoinette’s detachment from the breadless poor; use it, once a year, to symbolise the day on which we should celebrate your emergence into the world; use it, as Wayne Thiebaud did, to mourn the evenly distributed Neapolitan stripes within all things: that we are more predictably ordered than we care to admit.

Zoe Williams, Sunday Fantasy, 2019, installation view, film co-directed by Amy Gwatkin, courtesy of the artist and Antoine Levi gallery, Paris. Commissioned by Mimosa House and supported by Arts Council England. Photo: Tim Bowditch

I came to know the work of artist Zoe Williams through her cake sculpture Village Baroque (2016) shown at the Austrian Cultural Forum. A part-collapsed nightmare, it sops into its base like the head of Robocop’s Emil Antonowsky after crashing into a vat of toxic waste. Its polyp-pocked facade conceals a cholesterol-like lining of buttercream, and you can imagine the thing smeared across the face of some niece or nephew snoozing on the lapel of their adoring father. It’s a cake of bourgeois excess, insipid sweetness, and waste. Cake walks also into Williams’s most recent exhibition at Mimosa House in Mayfair entitled ‘Sunday Fantasy’, a film produced in collaboration with filmmaker Amy Gwatkin, and artists Deniz Unal, and Nadja Voorham. It’s there in the burbling ceramics that festoon the scene, gnarled like hardened infauna on the seafloor; it’s there gorged by a subject in a leather jacket and purple wig, interpolated by shots of ants scaling a stone wall; it’s there in the palette, with peardrop pink and eyeball white, overlaid with a seagreen rot.

Zoe Williams, Sunday Fantasy, 2019, installation view, film co-directed by Amy Gwatkin, courtesy of the artist and Antoine Levi gallery, Paris. Commissioned by Mimosa House and supported by Arts Council England. Photo: Tim Bowditch

‘How does desire work and who is allowed to wield it?’ is the question posed through the film’s central conceit: an ancient vial that contains a potion which, when drunk, materialises fantasies. So as we are led into this Astral wooziness, each of the subjects lives out her own fantasy. The first is a colouring-in of a pair of buttocks with smacks, scratches, and bites, “I will have to think about which mark I will leave first”, says our fantasist, faced with a roseate arse on a massage table. Again, cake-like, it is pert like jelly flan, and teeters through a hole cut in a satin sheet. Between each of the subjects’ various tumbles comes a recurring shot of tanked eels, calligraphic against a cerulean tableau. Chosen to embody the phobia of Deniz Unal, the eel is a good choice for these slippery interstitials: the creature’s powers of metamorphosis — from larva to glass eel to elver to silver eel — drive its adaptation from one environment (saltwater) to its opposite (fresh) and back. Desire, too, takes on contradictory forms: flashes with electricity or else is shocked: erotic control may be maintained or relinquished, dangerous or susceptible, upright or prostrate. As Williams takes on this complicated impulse in her queered story, she bottles within her protagonist's vial the frustrations involved in a woman realising her desires.

Zoe Williams, Sunday Fantasy, 2019, installation view. Photo: Tim Bowditch

In one episode: patent leather gloves finger their way over bare collarbones as she sits in the passenger seat. For thrillers, it’s a familiar scene. In the blueblack of those gloves is the night sky of every early morning disappearance, every stalker’s indulged self-entitlement, the predatory void in Jonathan Glazer’s film Under the Skin in which the extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson) secretes and ingests her victims. Portrayed with a startling coldness by Johansson, the creature’s victims are more like battery hens than trophies, and tellingly it is to cake that Glazer turns to symbolise her disinterest. Unable to savour her exploits, the cake makes her retch and she spits it out as soon as it enters her mouth. The alien’s true form, an absent black figure, smooth as cherry, is revealed only when she is molested, her skin, her security, her identity, ripped away from her. Several of the episodes in ‘Sunday Fantasy’ involve similarly featureless, or else totally disembodied, limbs — particularly hands, whether begloved or painted green. Attention is therefore more expediently drawn to the architects, the women themselves, but I wonder whether the preemptive disembodiment (of the buttocks, of the patent leather gloves, of the massaging hands in another episode) is to dissect into components, to distinguish the desirable from desire itself. In other words: to be both creator and subject of these fantasy worlds: to both eat and have one’s cake.

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