There are hundreds of cultural artifacts inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Through these many iterations, a complex creature has emerged – intricate variants that have sought to either deviate wildly from the original text or follow it with severe closeness. The iconic imagery of the monster remains at the forefront of all of these forms, ensuring Frankenstein’s beastly creation has entered into popular consciousness a predominantly cinematic artifact rather than literary. Each concurrent cinematic version perhaps striving to be better, or the more ‘complete’, ‘detailed’, ‘gory’ or ‘complex’ version of Shelley’s myth.
Frankenstein’s monster itself has become its own cultural hybrid, and this lineage is explored through the photographic work In Search of Frankenstein – Mary Shelley’s Nightmare, by British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews. This subsequent refraction of comment, the result of a residency, presents a creative rebirth of the original text. The proliferation of artifacts and images that remain comprise part of the greater commentary that is still evolving, as the ‘Frankenstein’ project remains unfinished. Weaving between societal and political change, questions and passions of the time in which it was created, the condensation of these fears center upon differing themes inclusive of biology, creationism, cultural differences and the future of humanity.
This milieu of Frankenstein texts tend to reflect on the personification of the monster, what that could embody, and the ethical and neural ramifications of hybrid bodies and hybrid minds. Chloe Dewe Mathews’ work, however, chooses to focus on the environmental setting of the book and the potential for human-generated societal destruction – centered upon the significant site of Lake Geneva and the nearby mountains in Northern Switzerland. Upon her arrival at the infamous site, the artist reflects that ‘I looked at these beautiful, fragile expanses, searching for Frankenstein’s creature but realized I was, in fact, looking for another incarnation of the beast. The grey bulk of melting glacier became, like Frankenstein’s creation, an embodiment of human folly’.
In 1815, an extreme frost took over much of the world, a consequence of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. 1816, the year that followed, became known as the ‘longest winter,’ as the effects of this event trickled towards greater Asia and then Europe. This environmental condition verged on catastrophic and almost inhuman climates – albeit temporary, charged Mary Shelley’s claustrophobic holiday in the region, leading the inspiration for her story initially labeled The Modern Prometheus (Prometheus being the analogy to the Greek God whom made man out of clay). The fateful night, dramatically immortalized in the film Gothic by Ken Russell – contextualizes the actual evening the story was conjured through the immense weather and geographic setting.
Having examined and included actual scanned pages of Shelley’s handwritten notebooks from the period in question, Dewe Mathews’ body of photographic work situated alongside these literary remnants focuses on the landscapes that inspired the book. The conceptual poignancy of this work is Dewe Mathews’ discovery that deep beneath the mountain landscape she photographs is a now deserted network of nuclear bunkers, built by the Swiss Government in the 1960s. This revelation combined with the literary notoriety of the area positions it within many thoughts. All places are political, and all spaces are imbued with complex meaning – and as Dewe Mathews cleverly reveals to us, are often ironically linked in ways stranger than fiction. Through the ages and with the historical evolution of the site, and Shelley’s words, the question is posed – What would Mary think of all of this?
I’m not sure if Shelley would have reveled in the fact the site of her longest winter and arguably the birth site of literary science fiction now presents as a remnant of human refuge in the face of more climate annihilation. This situation piqued with irony, could it be both of ire or comfort to the local residents one must wonder? Dewe Mathews considers this conundrum, reflecting that ‘it was, a course, a threat that we humans had created’.
The photographic style itself could be said to be reminiscent of Jan Kempenaers’ early work or Robert Voit, clearly presenting the natural world with the imbued potential of human intervention in a way that is visually simplistic but intellectually complex.
What stands stark in this work is the literary references interwoven within the book – one not so common in the photobook genre, especially when combining the text from another, extremely notorious text. The inclusion of Shelley’s written words although at times extremely difficult to make out – (Dewe Mathews affectionately describes Shelley’s handwriting as ‘Spider-y”) to add strength to the images and contextualize them within an entirely different setting: that of two women’s creative visions; that as part of a historical oeuvre; and that of environmental considerations of place that have stretched centuries. As Shelley’s eyes saw these mountains first, now 200 years later Dewe Mathews has been there also and captured them in turn for us.
The 200th Anniversary of the publication of Shelley’s Frankenstein fell in 2018. The events strangely prophetic as we enter the new epoch in Earth’s evolution, the Anthropocene, where the first time in our evolutionary and environmental history humans are the determining factor in global shifts. In search of Frankenstein cleverly focuses on these conditions with a subtle eye to provoke and initiate further thinking about our world. Shelley’s writings themselves remain so pertinent so many years on – as the relevance of environmental questions, human intervention and the sinister possibilities of technology still linger.
Text — Angela Garrick
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Chloe Dewe Mathews is a photographic artist based in St Leonards-on-Sea. After studying fine art at Camberwell College of Arts and the University of Oxford, she worked in the feature film industry before dedicating herself to photography.
Her work is internationally recognized, exhibiting at Tate Modern, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Museum Folkwang and Fotomuseum Antwerp, as well as being published widely in newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, Sunday Times, Financial Times, Harpers and Le Monde. Public and private collections have acquired Chloe’s work, including the British Council Art Collection, the Irish State Art Collection and the National Library of Wales. She has also received commissions from institutions such as the Contemporary Art Society, Oxford University and Photoworks.
Her awards include the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award, the Julia Margaret Cameron New Talent Award and the Royal Photographic Society Vic Odden Award and her nominations include the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, the Prix Pictet and Paul Huf Award.
Chloe’s first monograph ‘Shot at Dawn’ was published by Ivorypress in 2014 and in the same year she became the Robert Gardner Fellow in Photography at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. In 2018 she published Caspian: the Elements with Aperture / Peabody Press and In Search of Frankenstein with Kodoji Press.