The dark storybook world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is reinterpreted in Anna Gaskell’s uncanny Wonder series (1996–1997), her first set of photographs created after completing her MFA at Yale University School of Art. In Wonder, the artist takes liberties with Carroll’s Victorian tale, casting a pair of dark-haired twin girls in the role of Alice. Dressed in angelic blue pinafores, white tights, and black Mary Jane shoes, Gaskell’s Alices appear in mysterious and disquieting scenes that echo the disorienting adventures of their fictional counterpart. Revealing the influences of cinema and the theatrical images of photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, Gaskell’s staged pictures straddle the line between fiction and reality. Artificial lighting, unexpected camera angles, and extreme cropping contribute to the filmic quality and introduce a dreamlike atmosphere to her narrative. By thrusting us from one vantage point to another and by varying the dimensions of her works with images as small as 8-by-10 inches and as large as 50-by-60 inches, the artist recalls Alice’s disorienting make-believe world and the dramatic, unsettling shifts she experiences in her size and identity.
In Gaskell’s carefully choreographed scenes, Alice appears frolicking in a meadow and exploring the woods, adopting enigmatic poses that establish a realm in which girlhood is both sweet and sinister. In Untitled #2 (Wonder) (1996), for example, Alice and her doppelgänger appear in a tightly cropped image with one girl crouching over the other, holding her head and nose as if about to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Both girls appear again in Untitled #15 (Wonder), where it is unclear if they are fighting or playing, or if they are struggling together or against each other. With neither girl clearly defined, the focus of this picture is on one girl’s face covered in the dark, wild tresses of the other—her teeth clenched tightly on a lock of hair. The frenzy of such images turns to eerie stillness in Untitled #11 (Wonder), where now only one girl appears, lying face down on a stone garden walkway, strangely reminiscent of a forensic crime-scene photo. While the ultimate fate of Gaskell’s Alice is ambiguous in this magical and dangerous world, we are left with a wonderfully unsettling view into an alternate reality in which logic collapses and nothing is as it seems.