Part 1. Performance & installation in Villa Medici gardens, Rome, 2003

Part 2. Two screen video installation with model garden sculpture (9 minutes), 2003


For the last episode of 'The Bunny Lake Series' Georgina Starr created a two-screen video video installation—Inside Bunny Lake Garden (2003).
The work began at the Villa Medici in Rome when Starr was invited to make an outdoor work for the famous Villa Medici gardens. She reconstructed the set from the final scene in the Otto Preminger film (Bunny Lake is Missing, 1965)—the garden, complete with 3 metre impenetrable brick wall and child sized grave, was used as the backdrop for a performance and also to film the video for what would eventually become Inside Bunny Lake Garden. In the two screen installation we can simultaneously follow the action in the final sequence of the Preminger movie alongside the movements of a young child imprisoned in Starr's reconstructed garden. The subtitles overlayed on the video reveal what seems to be a more personal connection to the Preminger film—recounting a 'memory' of watching it as a child. In the work 'Bunny Lake' comes full circle, returning to the walled garden where she was last seen in the Preminger film—setting up camp with a rabbit and a portable record player she now inhabits the enclosed fictional world. As an extra layer of narrative Starr created a detailed miniature model of the garden set. The sculpture sits in the gallery space alongside the videos and further adds to the mystery and ambiguity—questioning whether the garden in Rome, like the film set of the movie, was ever real.


Click for interview with Georgina Starr about Inside Bunny Lake Garden 


Richard Read describes encountering 'Inside Bunny Lake Garden' at the Villa Medici in Rome in his essay ' Representing Trauma: The Case for Troubling Images' :

I stopped off in Rome on my way back from a conference in UK and accompanied some friends to the fabulous 'Tuttonormale' exhibition of contemporary art in the grounds of the Villa Medici on the hillside of the Pincio overlooking the city. Its brief was to bring the bustling modernity of a major city into creative rapport with the privileged seclusion of a formal garden normally closed to the public. Each artist mounted their work in one of the rectangles of the symmetrical garden divided from each other by low hedges, ombrageous trees and gravel paths. All I knew in advance about Georgina Starr's installation 'Inside Bunny Lake Garden' was the single sentence on the exhibition hand-out sheet:

"This British artist has reconstructed a secret children's playground in an area of the garden, representing the final scene from the film Bunny Lake is missing, which tells the story of the disappearance of an innocent young girl."

If I can put it thus, to encounter this work was both better and worse than the experience offered by the formal garden. Worse because one was confronted by a square of stark brick walls affording no access to the interior they skirted. Better because of the melancholy warmth of an infinitely relaxing song I didn't really notice at first. Ladders afforded a precarious view from the tops of the walls down into their interior where playground equipment, abandoned toys, washing, cooking and gardening equipment, a shallow grave and a vinyl disc revolving on a children's plastic record player provided eerie signs of recent occupation like some land-locked version of the Marie Celeste.
Sinister perplexity gave way to a flood of empathy only when I was sitting down a little way away from the walled garden attending to the melancholy strain of what I later discovered was Tim Hardin's 'Misty Roses' re-recorded by a 13-year-old boy (Ben Walford) and amplified beyond the confines of the garden walls.
On my return to Australia I was consumed with curiosity about the work and wanted to see the film on which it was based - Otto Preminger's 1965 Bunny Lake is Missing, which far from being on general video release could only be secured on two dusty 16 mm reels sent from the National Film archive of Australia. It was an excellent film noir about the abduction of a little girl who was blocking her uncle's incestuous involvement with her mother. Its final scene corresponded in many ways to the view down into the installation, but the girl didn't die and where was the music? Good as it was it's tenor seemed different from peculiar emotions generated by the exhibition and, if anything, only deepened its mystery.

Instead, for me, the unlikely analogy with its peculiar structure of feeling was of all things William Wordsworth's Romantic poem 'The Solitary Reaper' which was suggested to the poet by a sentence in a manuscript tour of Scotland written by a friend, which ends, 'Passed a female who was reaping along; she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle, the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious. long after they were heard no more.'

What I think the contemporary installation and the Romantic poem share is a cognitive dissonance between an emotional affect and its unknown cause that generates a productive shearing of temporal and spatial relations and sets the mind racing towards the discovery of a larger and more inclusive equilibrium. Writing of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved of 1989, the literary theorist Peter Nicholls employs Freud's concept of belatedness to illuminate a disruption in the traditional notions of causality. The excessive character of trauma requires a second event to release its traumatic force, but the second event presents itself as the cause of the first, and its retroactive logic forms the past in retrospect as 'the original site . . . comes to be reworked.' The difference from a redemptive theory of art and this postmodernist historicism is that it is no longer a matter of putting humpty dumpty together again or recording its parts but of making something new: 'the effect of the present on the past is to cause a repetition of the "event" within which something new is taking place.'

Georgina Starr has told me that her interest in the film derives from a terrified viewing of it as an eight-year old when she was alone with her adopted sister who, it transpired much later, never recovered from the traumatic circumstances preceding her adoption.But it strikes me that neither this very personal tragedy, nor its fictional refraction in the film, nor any of the child murders in England that may have informed the installation is really what it is 'about'. The haunting effect of that music, whose words may seem asinine in print -

Flowers often cry but too late to find
Their beauty has been lost with their peace of mind

- would not be so moving if one hadn't been blocked or assaulted with perplexity beforehand: what's inside the wall? Where is the child? What happened in the film and in this garden?

Likewise, although the poem explains the trains of thoughts the troubling event gives rise to instead of just prompting them as the installation does, the foreign language in which the Reaper's song is heard ensures that in search of an explanation a series of radically incompatible possibilities are passed in review before the imagination without any proving adequate to overiding impression of 'the Vale profound . . . overflowing with the sound':

Will noone tells me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago,
Or is is some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?

Either in the case of the installation or the poem the dissonance between affect and speculation upon its causes lowers our emotional defences so that something foreign lodges in the centre of the self, something that, loosed from the gruesome specificity of Witkin's portraits, collects kindred future instances of 'sorrow, loss or pain /That has been, and may be again?'

The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Troubling works of this kind may not register the scale of mass disasters like the holocaust, but they enlarge empathy by triggering a collective sense of working through instead of perpetuating the trauma displaced by transcendence, repressed by denial or merely repeated in representations serving the violent logic of acting out.