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27 September 1996 —
27 October 1996

James Charlton:
Snowball Fantasy

James Charlton, Snowball Fantasy, 1996 (installation view).
James Charlton, Snowball Fantasy, 1996 (installation view).
James Charlton, Snowball Fantasy, 1996 (installation view).
James Charlton, Snowball Fantasy, 1996 (installation view).
James Charlton, Snowball Fantasy, 1996 (installation view).

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“The Universe or Nothing, which shall it be?”
– Raymond Massey in Things to Come, a 1936 film adaption of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things To Come

Charlton’s exhibition Snowball Fantasy develops on from his last exhibition: Whiteware Ecstasy, an exhibition which explored ideas around the modernity and cleanliness of contemporary culture. As H.G. Wells predicted, civilization has defined itself against the dirty, germy state of nature. We are clean, therefore we are civilised. In The Shape of Things To Come, cleanliness is achieved by removing society from the surface of the earth and creating a clean, white underground world, that escapes the vicissitudes of nature. Science creates a better world than nature. Fortunately we have electricity and scientific innovation to help us create the tools of this modern ideology, to keep our Kitchen and Laundry clean and whiteware in operation.

Charlton links this modern ideology with the development of modern art, he equates the dream of cleanliness, the fantasy of the modern with modern art. Modern art could be characterised as clean and hard, strong organised shapes are positive and solid, sculptors answered to the credo “be true to your materials”. Charlton however is not.

This sculptural installation is within a glossy, 1950s cornflower room. There are 100 plastic snowball vitrines mounted on motorised brackets evenly but randomly spread over the walls. The vitrines, which have been imported from China, are the same as those used in snowball souvenirs, available in most tourist shops around the world. Charlton has arranged with the factory in China to supply the vitrines without the usual generic vacation signifiers; the landmark building, the snow capped mountains and the happy but distorted tourist figurine. All that will be in them is water and plastic chip snow flakes.

A mechanical murmur catches a movement in the corner of your eye. The vitrine is vibrating, in this motion a cloud of sparkling white flakes are thrown up inside. They swirl gently around the confines of the capsule and settle, even again, on a sterile ground. The world to which this ground belongs has no heavens; no landscape features that mark its terrain, no familiar identity from your memory.

Where there should be hills caped in snow – there is none
Where there should be sheep dotting the hills – there is none
Where there should be “Greetings From...” there is none
Where there should be heavenly choir – there is fantasy
Where there should be fantasy there is only made in China.

The issue is not physically who makes these fantasies, as fantasies are things constructed inside our heads and hearts, but what are the social mechanisms which determine what I will want to fantasise about. To what extent does the generic vacation souvenir, and the industry and economics behind it, construct the vacation of our dreams?