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Marcus Wood

The Journeys of the Slug Queen

Between May and July 2001 a seven foot slug, ten gallons of tar, forty kilograms of feathers were used in performances and events across London and Brighton.


These pages and the linked film give the narrative of the Slug Queen.  She takes a journey on the Northern line from Charing Cross to West Hampstead.  She is immersed in the tar bucket at an old dipping factory.  She becomes the centre piece in an exhibition at the Royal College of Art.  She is lynched and burnt on Brighton beach.

And what did she do to deserve it all?  Joseph Conrad gives an insight: ‘the public is all of humanity, a bottomless sack, sublime, apparently it has no eyes, no entrails, like a slug, and yet it can weep and suffer.’

Tar is a baby.  The tar baby may look like anything – a wood-louse, a penguin, an elephant, a telephone strangled by its own cord, a slug; they all come from the same place, they all come to the same thing.   The Wonderful Tar Baby Story is the first Brer Rabbit story.  The Tar Baby is a ‘contrapshun’ made out of tar and turpentine by Brer Fox and set up in the middle of the road. Brer Rabbit hates the Tar Baby because it won’t say anything and it won’t do anything.  Black still and voiceless, the Tar Baby is an enigma. It is a black space we must fill.

Tar is slippery, a difficult thing to hold down, to keep down.  Black shiny and sluggish in more ways than one, what is it worth, what does it mean?  For something so slow it lays many trails. 

Tar is driving.  Tar the stuff that ruined the planet, and stitched us all up in a network of black lines, roads, and pavements, ebony veins of progress, black scar tissue everywhere.

Tar is Torture.  Tar dark, mean and painful, tar and feathers,  a black and white history of ritualized humiliation, pain and punishment.  Here is the punishment code for Crusaders who traveled with Richard Coeur de Lion in 1189:  ‘A robber moreover, convicted of theft, shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a cushion shall be shaken out over his head’.

Tar is smoking, translate them how you like, the words ‘low’ ‘middle’ or ‘high’ turn aspiration on its head, give new depths to inspiration re-invented as emphysema and lung cancer.  The healthy lung and the smoker’s lung, one pink and perky, the other like a gigantic dried out banana skin dipped in molasses.  A horrible thing, a hot thing, a living death.  

Tar is a trap, and tar is the pits. The meeting point of earth, air, and water, the borderline between liquid and solid, the tar pit, the tar grave, the asphalt lake, black seas, black water.  Coaxing dinosaurs and woolly mammoths to take an early bath.  Vast maternal presence, arrangement in black and black.


Tar is Slick.  Tar is inside and outside the boat.  Crude oil, the very essence of tar, floating in huge baths across the sea.  Black tankers of tar, vast black tombs, hulls gutted on the rocks, spilling their black guts, and now it floats from coast to coast, black coagulated.  Whole bays, and rocky shores, wrapped up in the stuff, shoals of fish drowned in it, colonies of birds tarred and feathered spontaneously in millions.

Film High Tar Babies 2001

George Berkeley, A Hymn in Praise of Tar

Hail vulgar juice of never-fading pine!

Cheap as thou art, thy virtues are divine.

To shew them and explain (such is thy store)

There needs much modern and much ancient lore.

While with slow pains we search the healing spell,

Those sparks of life that in thy balsam dwell,

From lowest earth by gentle steps we rise

Through air, fire, ether t the highest skies.

Causes connect with effects supply

A golden chain whose radiant links on high

Fix’d to the sovereign throne from thence descend

And reach e’en down to tar the nether end.

click here to view more drawings in  this series

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