Lost in translation

Migrant bodies and uncanny skin

in Mid-century gothic
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The 1946 exhibition of artefacts from the newly excavated Sutton Hoo ship burial presented the grave-goods as the cenotaph of a chieftain whose body was missing. New questions arose for a generation scarred by the absence of those killed in the war: if the residual charisma of long-buried objects could even fill in for an absent king, what kind of power might be invoked by the objects of modernity, which surrounded and interpellated the post-war consumer?

While the Sutton Hoo hoard evoked the pharoahic glamour of status and wealth, exhibitions mounted in the early 1950s by Barbara Jones and the Independent Group challenged the verticality of aesthetic systems of taste and value. Jones’s 1951 exhibition of popular art, Black Eyes and Lemonade at the Whitechapel Gallery, brought mass-produced objects – sweets, retail packaging, souvenirs, kitsch – together with unsettling one-offs like taxidermy specimens and tattooing patterns, into the space of art.

Skin is also made uncanny in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which a mid-century post-colonial gothic emerges via the hypervisibility of newly arrived people of colour. A new sense of home and what it means to belong in a city is also elaborated in the work of the Independent Group, and in Lorenza Mazzetti’s film Together.

Mid-century gothic

The uncanny objects of modernity in British literature and culture after World War II

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