Trickster Notation

Press release for Alex Bag’s solo show, 'Exhibition' at Luca’s Gallery, London - September 2023


Holding a great intellect or secret knowledge, the figure of the trickster defies conventional behaviour. Upturning clearly defined states, it permits itself the freedom to transgress boundaries that others cannot. Just as the secret genius is mistakenly cast as the deadbeat slacker, the danger and cunning of the trickster is revealed through an acknowledgement of its own position, where perceptual naivety becomes its greatest weapon.

Unsure whether I’m a trickster myself (which proves that I’m not one), I google the phrase. Translated from Vulgar Latin, triccare means to "be evasive” or to “shuffle," While tricæ denotes "trifles, nonsense, a tangle of difficulties". I see a court jester in a patterned outfit of red and yellow diamonds, playing an elaborate game. He drinks but is no fool: like a dog must love and never mess the rug, the jester must remain the butt of all jokes to earn his keep. Ergo, a trickster requires covert, illusive and hysterical qualities in order to fill its proverbial curved and belled shoes. It may be helpful here to examine why people fear figures aligned with trickiness. Coulrophobia - a fear of clowns - is present among both adults and children across many cultures. I believe that my own fear emerges from an inability to fully locate a human other within clown-kind’s exaggerated features. With hidden faces, warped bodies and fabricated personas, the rules they obey become similarly uncertain. With social convention garishly flipped on its head, truth becomes ambiguous.

I sit and wonder why humanity hasn’t put more thought into conquering commonly feared entities. A fear of ghosts - phasmophobia - literally means a ‘fear of apparitions’. This notion of fearing surprise, as a kind of apparition, reminds me of the pressure of opening a Birthday present, and of Victorian parlour tricks. The magician and the showman - like the trickster - acknowledge and obscure their abilities in order to gain control. An early instance of a scientifically achieved illusion being performed live, John Henry Pepper, through a series of refractive mirrors, presented ‘ghosts’ to a Victorian audience. The apparitions, back-projected from below the stalls, were able to interact with on-stage props through an elaborate wirework, effectively creating a live moving image. More recently, Elvis, Tupac and MJ have been reanimated by more complex renditions of Pepper’s Ghost Illusion, drawing the notion of the spectre further into the cultural imaginary through the possessed lives of celebrities.

I often think that to define anything at all, something to oppose, or something to be measured against, is useful. In hiding the truth, the trickster’s status is mirrored by the idea of revelation: a key trope in European fables. The trickster of these stories - often depicted as a fox - is able to outsmart its opponents through poetic teachings. In England, illegal fox hunts recur regularly as a ‘fundamental rural pastime’. Led by a pack of scent hounds, a group of followers on foot or horseback aim to confuse, exhaust and eventually kill the creature. The fox’s tricksy aspect, I suppose, lies in its ability to outwit and escape its outnumbering enemies, establishing a dynamic between the Big Other of the hunting party and the plucky determination of the fox as a sympathetic individual.

So, the natural opposite of the trickster is that which remains rather than evades, that which deals in fact over nonsense, and that which is not tangled, but is rather slick and streamlined. To achieve the eternal, the factual, and the efficient, I start to think of broader systems of control, and of the regulation of the market. Imagining a space to oppose this type of authority, the fairground seems to parallel the trickster’s resistance: made from bright, colourful cloth, its erected big-tops and portable activities instigate a temporality that operates outside of traditional market values. Corrupting commerce with excess and festivity, the fair, like the trickster, hangs in a limbo between the ‘real’ life of labour, and the wilful negation of this imposed reality. Unable to match the velocity of the working city, the fairground threatens to strip commerce of the association between toil and reward. The resulting punishment is the fair’s relegation to sticks, before a final expulsion to a life on the road, becoming its own kind of ‘rural pastime’. Today, urban space is ever more moderated, with established venues continuously razed for the benefit of high-rise onlookers. It becomes clear why the resistance of the trickster, in its ability to create limbos free from market pressures, is demonised.

From my window, I watch ants at a crossroads below, digging. To me, roads seem timeless, comfortably outlasting the verticality around them. In folklore, crossroads represent a space ‘betwixt and between’ worlds, where paranormal contact can occur. In Christian England, self-death victims were denied proper burials, instead coming to rest at crossroads in unmarked graves before passing into purgatory. Similarly, in contemporary voodoo practice, thresholds such as doorways and windows are afforded great importance as portals between us and the spirit world. I imagine the tarmac streets as an enormous threshold, shielding us from a secret history of fossils, mausoleums and unmarked plague pits. These everyday limbos, as sites of waiting and judgement, are today psychically hindered by the obtrusion of furniture and commerce; by IKEA rugs and Deliveroo drivers.

The spectre of the fair’s liberation still haunts us, repressed into the same Underground tunnels and dualcarriageways we use to commute home. When I Google ‘true ghost story’, I discover that Poltergeist (1982) is defined as a ‘domestic horror’ movie. Invoking ‘everyday fears of suburban life’, a nuclear family is fractured when paranormal entities - communing through the TV screen - kidnap the youngest child, ‘causing disturbing rifts in the safe structure of the home.’ My idea of domestic horror is using the wrong toothbrush while the toilet overflows behind me. Still, the film illustrates the idea that collectivity - whether at the scale of the family or the workforce - hides the haunting memory of a disordered, liberated past. The collapse of the family unit - like the collapse of rules in the fairground - is projected negatively, manifesting in their punitive spooking. What would happen if we were to let go for a moment, to wallow in our own unstructured abjection? Malevolent spirits would lunge from our TV sets, of course, a libidinal excess pouring through the screen.

In flux between truth and deceit, hiding and revelation, the trickster is a figure that conjures portals into otherwise enclosed spaces. A covert operative outside social normality, perhaps its vital essence relates back to my coulrophobic anxiety: the desire to unveil the clown; to reveal the mechanisms of the parlour-trick; to experience the moments where the fabric betwixt and between bodies collapses. The structural suppression of these moments of unmasking is perhaps where the trickster flourishes the most, disrupting one space through the fostering of another. In retaining its own masque, or by abetting the audience through a knowing wink to the camera, it holds the absurd power to outwit any adversary. As a conduit at a symbolic crossroads, syphoning aspects of work into play, trade into pleasure and economy into culture, the figure of the trickster continues to haunt structured life. My own hope is to guiltlessly revel in the knowledge of its ever closing proximity, taking comfort in the fact that there are no actual ghosts in our machines.