Ah, the Victorians! – their cabinets of curiosities, their obsession with death, flowers, and taxidermy, and their love-affair with dreamlike engravings and woodcut prints. It's no wonder that the era of empire and expansion has provided so much inspirational fodder for contemporary artists, even if most of it has to do with rejecting "oppressive gender norms" and other stuffy nonsense from which we have since thankfully liberated ourselves.
Victoriana: The Art of Revival at the Guildhall Art Gallery celebrates work by artists from the past 20 years that reinterprets or subverts the art and design from Queen Victoria's reign. The exhibition is a delight, with such oddities as a wedding cake made of human hair and a chair bursting with stuffed foxes. While it isn't particularly hard-hitting in terms of analysis or historical context, its sense of humour and playfulness makes it one of the most enjoyable shows to usher in the autumn season.
Grayson Perry, perennially obsessed with reinterpreting historical forms (the best examples are The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum in 2011, in which he intermingled ancient artefacts with his own work, or his modern take on tapestries in 2012), injects his particular variety of humour into the exhibition. Posing for a sepia-toned photograph that could easily be found in any family archive, Perry sits primly in a Victorian dress, his mock-severity making this cross-dressing all the more ridiculous. It's not quite subversive, though one could easily make that argument – but simply sticks its tongue out at the po-faced seriousness of those earnest Victorians.
Lining the main wall of the Guildhall's crypt are large-scale black-and-white prints from Yinka Shonibare's take on The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he translates into a narrative of race and privilege in Diary of A Victorian Dandy (1998). The images themselves are of arresting quality – beautifully crisp even at such large sizes – and Shonibare's replacement of the title character with himself is a bold move in terms of questioning the place of black people in the literary canon.
There are also plenty of amusing one-liners and lighthearted pieces livening up the display: Jane Hoodless's grotesque hair cake, Shorn Out of Wedlock (2012); Rob Ryan's I Remember, Nobody Remembers (2010), a pair of Staffordshire figurine-like dogs cheekily done up in garish gold paint; some brilliant neo-Victorian tattoo designs; and at the exhibition's close, Tom Werber's brilliant "Lovecraftian rap battle" music video using Victorian cut-outs and monsters is a masterpiece of postmodern pastiche.
Steampunk and all its anachronistic gadgetry gets a fair bit of attention here, too – the requisite pair of goggles holds pride of place. More intriguing was an installation that attempted to recreate an unrealised Victorian invention – a machine designed for viewing at a distance, much like an elaborate periscope. Of course, digital technology makes this kind of thing look like child's play to modern eyes, but it does highlight some of the more interesting aspects of steampunk: namely the act of "retro-futurism" – projecting technology forward while simultaneously looking back.
It's hard to miss Tessa Farmer's Swarm (2004) – a postmodern memento mori in which dozens of ants, flies, and bumblebees have been suspended from the ceiling surrounding a rather generic marble statue in the roman tradition. Pieces such as these, the hair cake, and other gimmicky works have somewhat short-lived impact – I couldn't help but feel that the exhibition could have done with a bit more substance in places; a little more text, a little more analytical probing.
Clearly Victoriana emphasises whimsy and playfulness above all, and its design is as playful as its content, with fantastic posters and brochures – even the entry tickets are reminiscent of a Victorian fairground bill or world exhibition pamphlet. The whole is an eclectic exhibition of charming pieces, with something sure to please everyone, from steampunk aficionados to those with a whimsical bent.