Two black and white rabbit-like creatures face one another in a dark forest. The creature in the foreground lies on the ground with its back to the viewer. The creature that is further away faces the viewer. They look like mirror images of one another, but one has a burst of colorful spikes that look like fireworks covering its back.

Rachel Rose; Lake Valley (detail of still), 2016, high-definition digital video (color, sound); 8:25 min.; Carnegie Museum of Art: A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2018.2. © Rachel Rose

What Will Become of Us? Childhood Loneliness in Rachel Rose’s Lake Valley

Rachel Rose’s 2016 film Lake Valley plunges viewers into the dream world of her protagonist, who attempts to escape the loneliness of home in search of companionship in the forest. The film’s visual connections to illustrations from 19th-century children’s literature, which are the sources of its textured surfaces, are clear. It is not only Rose’s compositions, but the themes that she foregrounds—loneliness, abandonment, and isolation—that have roots in this literary tradition. Children in stories from this era struggle to be loved and wanted, look for ways to grapple with their inevitable move towards adulthood, and escape to magical realms to deal with trauma and gain a sense of empowerment. The forest offers them a space to do this work. The forest promises Rose’s creature companionship and fraternity with creatures similar to himself; however, in the forest, he is also faced with the limited nature of enchanted escapes and one’s ability to live within them. Like the children in earlier stories, he must eventually return home.

Two forest scenes appear side by side. At left, collaged elements of different styles of illustrations overlap to form layers of trees and a leaf-covered forest floor. At right, a boy and a girl walk towards a house made of candy and gingerbread that stands in a clearing framed by tall, slender trees.
Lake Valley (still), 2016, high-definition digital video (color, sound); 8:25 min.; Carnegie Museum of Art: A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2018.2. © Rachel Rose

The film opens with an aerial view of the suburb of Lake Valley before collaged layers of images begin to coalesce as land, water, sky, and the globe. Eventually, the collage resolves into a forest. In these initial glimpses of the forest, viewers have a clear indication of Rose’s source material—images from children’s literature—as well as her intense interest in the forest as a space of self-growth and discovery. After a few moments, on the right side of the screen, we see Hansel and Gretel standing hand in hand in front of a house made of sweets that is nestled in a green oasis in the dark forest. The children are small in comparison to the trees and the house, reminding us of their struggles in their own story and the smallness and powerlessness of Rose’s creature. This image foreshadows Rose’s use of the forest as an enchanted break from her creature’s mundane life and invokes a long line of children’s texts that use enchanted spaces to reorient the child’s relationship to the home.

The willowy, blond figures of a boy and a girl approach a house made of cookies and candy in the middle of a clearing. The house is framed by brightly colored green trees. The figures step into the clearing from a darker forest filled with large black, gray, and brown trees that form a frame around the image.
Kay Nielsen, illustration for Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, New York: George H. Doran Company, 1925. Image courtesy Smith Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

If “Hansel and Gretel” is one of Rose’s visual sources, stories from the golden age of children’s literature—and the views of childhood that they convey—are among her thematic sources. During this period, which extends roughly from the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), children were understood as unique human beings who operate in their own world set apart from adult institutions, a type of walled utopia. In stories from this era, children often escape by falling down holes (Alice), flying off to Neverland (Wendy and her brothers in Peter and Wendy), and telling magical stories that transport their listeners (Sara in A Little Princess). As the scholar Marah Gubar points out, these stories embrace some of Romanticism’s ideas about children as primitive, existing outside of adult life, while also questioning and pushing back against this view of childhood.1  Even when the protagonist does escape into mystical lands or stories, they often bring the emotions and structures of their reality with them. After all, in Neverland, Wendy quickly becomes a mother to the Lost Boys. And, in the end, the children must leave new lands behind to find themselves back in the world in which they began.

Rose presents viewers with a creature in the vein of these golden-age literary children. We meet the creature lying in front of the forest scene created at the beginning of the film, framed by it but not yet inside of it. Throughout the first half of the film, he walks around his home, looking up at the people he lives with, watching them leave, waiting for them to return, or seeking attention from the people around him. The creature is noticeably smaller than the humans he lives with, and, much like a child, depends on the adults around him for food, shelter, and the ability to leave the house. In these moments, the creature appears to be—and feel—fundamentally different from the other characters in the film, something that estranges him from intimate relationships. It is in the forest that the creature can imagine approaching other beings on more equal footing.

The long, thin tail, hind legs, and paws of a white, furry creature stick out from a cluster of rocks and shrubs dotted with large, brightly colored flowers.
Rachel Rose; Lake Valley (still), 2016, high-definition digital video (color, sound); 8:25 min.; Carnegie Museum of Art: A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2018.2. © Rachel Rose

After seeing strange, human-like collages in the trees, the creature shimmies into the forest between dense bushes in a scene reminiscent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole while chasing the white rabbit. Like other forms of “portal fantasies,” this fantasy location is predicated upon a clear difference of the fantastical world and the frame world from which the adventure begins.2  In books like Alice in Wonderland, the fantasy is more about the setting itself than the adventure therein. This portion of Lake Valley mimics this “portal fantasy” structure. The creature has a heightened awareness of the potential difference between home and the natural world. Instead of a grand, plot-driven adventure, Rose gives the creature space to explore the land and the animals that live there freely.

In the forest, Rose’s creature is met with a blank-eyed mirror image of himself with spines on its back. Despite his attempts to gain the affection of his dream twin, the creature seems to move through the forest alone. He dreams of a multitude of animal friends but wakes up to find that the dream twin is nothing but a pile of fireworks, sending their connection up into smoke (literally). Much like Alice’s fear of going “out altogether, like a candle” in Alice in Wonderland, the creature is faced with what it might mean to stop existing through this surrogate self.3  Fireworks, smoke, and mushroom clouds fill the frame until Rose’s lonely creature falls asleep in the dirt and we zoom out to the same view of Lake Valley that opened the film. In this moment, the clear boundary between the real and the enchanted that the bushes seemed to mark is broken, and we are left to question where the dream ends and reality begins.

Two black and white rabbit-like creatures face one another in a dark forest. The creature in the foreground lies on the ground with its back to the viewer. The creature that is further away faces the viewer. They look like mirror images of one another, but one has a burst of colorful spikes that look like fireworks covering its back.
Rachel Rose; Lake Valley (still), 2016, high-definition digital video (color, sound); 8:25 min.; Carnegie Museum of Art: A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2018.2. © Rachel Rose

In golden-age children’s literature, the enchanted forests of childhood are ultimately left behind, bookended by the return to the real world that their protagonists inhabit. Alice wakes up from her dream of Wonderland, Wendy and her brothers return home to Mr. and Mrs. Darling, and Christopher Robin’s story ends and he goes to bed. Children and adults who stay behind in the fantastical realm are portrayed as ridiculous—as in the case of the adults in Wonderland, such as the foul-tempered Queen of Hearts and the quirky “mad” Hatter—or pitiful: Peter Pan cannot remember his best friends or worst enemies. Though there is something alluring about magical spaces, the children actively choose to return to the civilized world. The forest, and the child’s life therein, is revealed to be finite. While the creature in Rose’s video does not explode like his dream twin, he is faced with the reality of what it would mean not to progress—to cease to exist, or to remain childlike forever—in the real world. Like the children in these stories, our protagonist must eventually return home.

A girl wearing a dress, pinafore, and shoes with straps at the ankles stands in front of a semicircle of tall figures whose flattened features and profiles look as if they have been taken from the drawings of kings, queens, and jacks seen on playing cards. One of the figures holds a scepter with the shape of a heart on its top and extends her arm to point at the girl while opening her mouth wide to yell.
Sir John Tenniel; Alice Encounters the Queen of Hearts, illustration for Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, London: Macmillan, 1865. Image courtesy Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Most children’s texts play with the idea of loneliness while ultimately returning the child to a safe and loving home. The children end their stories with newfound understandings of how to progress into adulthood or skills that will help them get there. Often, as in the case of Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the child decides to return home because of the loneliness and isolation of the enchanted environment. Lake Valley does not exactly return the viewer, or the creature, to the promise of an attentive home, nor does it drastically reorient the creature’s understanding of home. As the film ends, viewers move up and away from where the creature rests in a patch of dirt. The creature grows smaller as the buildings around them multiply until they are a tiny, distant white dot on the screen. If anything, Rose’s creature is more isolated and alone than at the beginning of the work. He is also, perhaps, more aware of his inability to fully escape reality. In this way, Rose’s film positions itself within the history of children’s escape stories while resisting the impulse to return its protagonist to the real world with a fresh, optimistic reorientation. If Hansel and Gretel return to their doting father with material riches and a newfound self-reliance, the creature in Lake Valley returns to the suburb knowing that the forest can be as lonely as home.

The forests and enchanted lands of children’s literature are conflicted terrain where protagonists explore power, test knowledge, find friendship, feel loss, and grapple with their inevitable maturation. Children are aware that the fantastic, as exciting and exhausting as childhood itself, also has an expiration date. Rose’s creature, like the children in classic stories, must return home because the only other option seems to be going out like a candle, or going up in a brilliant firework display.


Rachel Rose: Lake Valley is on view at at cmoa.org until August 16, 2020.


Endnotes

  1. Marah Gubar, Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (New York: Oxford University Press,
    2009), 4.
  2. Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 21.
  3. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 11.