View Finder: Niamh O’Malley

It is a sacred place. A site visited by pilgrims and tourists, both reverentially hushed. But by the side of the dusty road there is inevitably a line of tables, each covered with the same objects: small figurines of the holy relic in a range of sizes, postcards, picture books. One has a basket filled with small, 2-inch plastic cameras: through the tiny viewfinder is an aerial view of the surrounding countryside. Looking up towards the sun with the machine over my eye, a button turns through a dozen hypercoloured, grainy images, clicking through a quick snapshot tour of the area’s highlights: seemingly deserted postcard views and panoramic shots that give away only a sense of scale, and possibly good weather depending on where I point the toy.

Giving the imitation shutter button a delicate half-push, I get the excited shudder of making the view settle on the black ‘V’ that separates one picture from the next. Half of a green valley can be seen on one side, on the other an abandoned port, the dark no-space sitting uneasily between them. Like thinking about your own blinking, its normally thoughtless and automatic process becoming slowed and intentional, it is unsettling and revealing. It is a boundary, the limitation of how we see what we see; but this image of the material of the picture slide itself is also another view, another location, another entity. It is this liminal space, its uncertain dominion and hazy substance that is explored in the work of Niamh O’Malley.

The drawings, sculptures and installations of her exhibition ‘Island’ are a labyrinth of crossed perspectives and expectantly empty spaces meditating on visibility. Confronted with the monolithic presence of Glass (water) (2010) sitting at a slight angle, the tops of the gallery walls and the roof’s vaulted ceiling are reflected on its dark surface, while we can see through to the rest of the gallery space behind the tinted glass. Hovering between these, though, is an opaque, uneven rectangle. It is only when we walk around the other side an image reveals itself, a painting on the downturned reflective side of the two-way mirror of a rippled surface of water, a hazy white circle piercing the middle like a retinal burn. In the corner, another large sheet of glass is propped against the wall, that at first appears like a another white circle painted onto a mirror; but on approach we can see through this shape to the shadows of the mirror on the gallery walls, a space where the mirror’s reflective coating has been scraped away. Two adjacent sheets of paper hold hard, silvery strips of liquid metal that only in close scrutiny can be recognised as dense, meticulous pencil drawings depicting swathes of paint.

Niamh O’Malley, ‘Island’, 2010, still image from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Niamh O’Malley, ‘Island’, 2010, still image from video. Image courtesy the artist.

With these reluctant revelations, O’Malley leads us to encounter a set of enigmatic, unfolding obstructions and absences; even the images we do see are surfaces that we might see behind, but they don’t yield anything more than shades of inscrutability. This room of holes and doubled mirrors could suggest a fractured distance that cannot be breached, a mark of the tragic impossibility to find a whole view of the world outside ourselves. But this Lacanian reading of the work would also imply casting it as the stern arbitrator of some external order, controlling and anxiously imposing. On the surface, the pieces appear final, fixed and certain. Among the fractured and doubled reflections of the walls, columns and glimpses of our own bodies, though, they disclose an instability, and enable a reinterpretation of that same mirrored moment. The experience unfolds again as a more open-ended process; each piece holds a multiplicity of viewpoints that brings not only a self-awareness, but also an equal sense of the look of others. Here, as it was for Merleau-Ponty, Lacan’s claimed moment of looking in the mirror is not about the detracting misrecognition of external hierarchy, but about the affirmative realisation that the subjective body can be perceived from both without and within.

This revelation of bodily consciousness extends and expands throughout O’Malley’s film work. Her short film loop Island (2010) is, on the surface, a black and white silent documentary. Through a series of eight tracking shots moving slowly left to right, we are given an even portrait of the eponymous island, the camera running along its edges and textures like a finger calmly tracing the lines in the palm of a hand. Through clear winter sunlight we can see snow in the distant hilltops, as we pan along the walls and courtyards of an archaic worn and lichen-crusted stone fortress-like structure. It is expectantly empty, like an unused film set. The camera follows the rushes at the water’s edge, an overgrown wall behind which three crosses suggest what might be a cemetery.

Niamh O'Malley, 'Island', 2010, still image from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Niamh O’Malley, ‘Island’, 2010, still image from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Mediating and interrupting these equanimous observations, however, is a series of fourteen black wipe-action edits, a set of horizontally panning frames that take over the screen and turn the film into a sort of animated slideshow. These frames are both punctuations as well as transitions, in some cases temporarily blocking out the moving camera’s view, in others providing the cut between scene locations. Their rhythmic punctuations leave the audience in pitch black before revealing the next image, creating a procession where the nebulous gaps assert themselves as just as much part of the film as the imagery. In one key shot, the camera follows the silhouette of a church, a gnarled bare tree in the foreground. As we move, the thick trunk of the tree eclipses the church’s tower for several seconds, emerging again framed by branches until shortly after both are swallowed by the onsetting wipe. With this simple incidence, O’Malley highlights the analogous function between the content and form of her film. The wipes effectively are an object in our extreme foreground, an intervening shape.

In its weighted silences and patient emptiness, the film hints at a latent symbolism. Its tone and camera movements carry echoes of other filmic moments—the slow circular panning of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), the final 9-minute single take from Andrej Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) as we slowly follow Gorchakov in his three attempts to carry a lit candle across the drained pool of St. Catherine. Island also bears a striking structural resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a thriller depicted in ten long takes which were edited so as to appear as one long shot that lasts the course of an evening. In keeping with the protagonists’ attempts to conceal a dead body, the majority of the edits of the film are disguised as momentary disruptions of our view by an actor’s back or the open lid of a chest. Island does the inverse of hiding its editing mechanism, but, like Rope, it uses an incorporated edit that transforms what is technically a disjointed montage into the illusion of one durational continuity, the appearance of real time. In a scene late in the film, Jimmy Stewart’s character narrates hypothetically what he would do if he were committing the murder; the camera follows his voice as if by command, moving around the empty apartment to each location and object he describes off-screen. The shot’s empty set has a latent sense of possibility and anticipation, but it also highlights the camera’s role as a perspectival storyteller.

Niamh O’Malley, ‘Island’, 2010, still image from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Niamh O’Malley, ‘Island’, 2010, still image from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Its similarities suggest a corresponding narrator hidden behind Island’s wanderings, an owner for the slideshow in preparation for an impending event. But the film gives us nothing but surfaces and textures in constant motion. Island manifestly lacks the formal and narrative elements film theorists have used to explain what draws us in and how we engage and invest in the screen’s world. But, remarkably, the piece still creates a sense of empathy amongst its many facades. The idea of suture is classically thought of as the way we inscribe ourselves into the characters and gazes within a film, a process, as Slavoj Žižek described it, “producing the effect of self-enclosure…[Where] traces of the production processes, its gaps, its mechanisms, are obliterated, so that the product can appear as a naturalised, organic whole.” In the uninhabited Island, these traces are extended, the gaps almost swallowing the images. Devoid of narrative, or any apparent subject, we find in the open disclosure of its own edits that the materiality of the film is placed on the same level of engagement as the water and stones. Its rhythms and interjections become a familiar character of sorts with which we come to interact. Here, filmic space is physical space, the film itself is a body with which we are coming into intimate contact.

Standing on our own among the film and objects of ‘Island,’ we are surrounded by clouds, bodies of water, walls. But with these silent surfaces and mute objects there remains the heightened sense that we are conscious of other consciousnesses, that we are interacting both within and beyond ourselves. Merleau-Ponty was describing the interaction between two people when he wrote that, “there is woven between us an exchange, a ‘chiasm’ between two ‘destinies’…in which there are never quite two of us, and yet one is never alone.” As the multi-layered works push at both their and our own limitations of what we are able and aware of seeing, these words echo in a new light. O’Malley foregrounds the issue that an image, a glance, a look, is always already framed, a look from a particular perspective. ‘Island’ reminds us that the image is already a subjectivity, a corporeal entity which mutually intertwines.


This essay was commissioned by the Centre Culturel Montehermoso, to accompany the exhibition ‘Island’, May – August 2010

London September Round Up

You would think the more we disappear into screens, the more we would forget about our bodies. Judging by the shows on this summer in London, the opposite seems to be the case. Whether it is the right sort of attention is another question, but it was filled with floating heads, phantom limbs and more 3D-printed objects than you can shake your e-cigarette at. Artist Will Benedict’s ‘Nuclear War: What’s in it for you?’ at Vilma Gold began with bodies on the streets of Berlin. Encountering the figurative, heavily allegorical public sculptures of Czech artist Ludmilla Seefried-Matějková from 1984-85 found in places like the facade of the criminal court, it’s as if Benedict gathered these six artists to retrospectively recreate the laden Cold War atmosphere which led to their creation. The title comes from a 1982 book informing readers about the facts of the impending fallout, and a bomb alarm echoes from a bunker built in the middle of the gallery. Inside, Seefried-Matějková’s On the Edge (1976-77) is a full-size polyester sculpture of a half-naked woman sitting on a bed, looking dejectedly into infinity. The sound comes from a small television in the corner playing KP Brehmer’s short black-and-white video Madame Butterfly (1969) reimagining Puccini’s opera as a raucous essay on transgression: at its close, we see a bottle of Coca-Cola on the ground and a communist star flashing intermittently on the screen. A naked woman walks over the bottle, squats, and begins moving up and down on top of it. This desolate bunker is surrounded by four of Brehmer’s large matter-of-fact statistic-based geographic paintings. Geography 3 Colours Localisation of Yellow/Red (1970) is a simplified map of South America with countries coloured pink, red, yellow and orange under the typeface heading ‘Investment Climate’. An adjacent key explains that Brazil in pink means ‘uncertain’, while Chile in red is ‘troubled’; Argentina and Colombia in orange, it seems, are ‘best’.

'Nuclear War: What's In It For You?', installation view, image courtesy Vilma Gold.
‘Nuclear War: What’s In It For You?’, installation view, image courtesy Vilma Gold.

In the next room, we are bathed in a radioactive shade of orange, with tinted lights and painted walls and a single panel of apparently stolen perspex that makes up Gaylen Gerber’s Silver leaf, varnish on souvenir from Daniel Buren’s Crossing the Colours, a Work in Situ (2006). A slim figure in a full-body black leather suit and a Jackal-faced gasmask stares out at us from Will Benedict’s 2014 photo print that is eponymous with the exhibition. Working with mostly older artists and artworks, Benedict’s ambitious installation scenes feel like teasers from a larger museum-style show on politics, realism and annihilation; in such a small dose, though, the activisms and anxieties here seem cartoonish and cutely outdated. Through the hallucinatory orange haze, it seems as though Benedict is yearning for the earnest polarities of the Cold War days, when artistic gestures could be political with a forthright, and fairly po-faced, literalness.

A man stands in a dark room, window blind slats of shadow and light running over his bored face and slouched posture. Eloise Hawser’s video Sample and Hold (2013) shows the artist’s father as he is being 3D scanned; in the next room, Medivance, 2014, is a 3D print of his shoes in green rubber that sit empty on the floor, as if he has been uploaded, Tron-like, into the digital ether. ‘Ends Again’ at Supplement brings together four female artists in a small show which looks, as many recent exhibitions have, at ‘the body and the self in relation to technology’. Here, the topic benefits from a modest scale and a set of approaches which don’t quite gel together as they each try to trace where the body has gone. And it has already gone: Jesse Darling’s slight Standing Sculptures (2014) are steel stands draped with power cables, light bulbs, bungee cords and packing air pillows, like temporary accidental sculptures left behind once the logistics workers have walked away. Even the non-humans here are worried about disappearing, with Cecile B Evans’s Serpentine Galleries resident AI bot Agnes going through an existential crisis in the video AGNES (the end is near) (2013-14). Philomene Pirecki’s Image Persistence (2008-2014), a set of six photographic prints in which an original black monochromatic photogram is re-photographed each time it is shown lines the wall: gradually, layers of the artist taking the picture and surrounding light in recapturing the recapture turn it into a blurry, collapsed and vacuous hall of mirrors. ‘Ends Again’ ends up feeling like the waiting room for a clinic addressing a new, digitally inflected strain of body dysmorphic disorder, obsessing over proxies and stand-ins, haunted by the figure that has left the building.

The building, though, was more the concern in ‘A Merman I Should Turn To Be’, a branching eleven-artist group show at Laura Bartlett Gallery curated by artist Dan Coopey. Three slabs of red brickwork lean against the wall just inside the door, two bags of bright orange powder sitting on top of them. It looks like could be a psychedelic concrete dye, but it is actually processed cheese dust, Rupert Ackroyd’s Untitled (2012-14) providing a surrealist construction worker’s introduction to the show. At the heart of the exhibition is Graham Ellard & Stephen Johnstone’s floating and wondrous 16mm film Machine on Black Ground (2009), a montage of shots of stained glass and concrete facades, the close-ups of coloured squares animating the ambient soundtrack as if part of a hand-wound music box. The layers of the film begin to unpick themselves over its 14 minutes, mixing original and archival footage of the creation of Coventry Cathedral, and excerpts from a 1976 Tangerine Dream concert in the cathedral, which provides the pensive and resonant music for the film. Weaving between shots of a model of the cathedral before it was built and the building itself, and between the modernist stained glass of Basil Spence’s circular Meeting House in Sussex, and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnickirsche, Berlin, it melds into a mesmerising flow that atomises these bulky icons into their basic units of light and colour, turning walls into potent abstractions.

'A Merman I Shoudl Turn to Be', installation view, image courtesy Dan Coopey and Laura Bartlett Gallery.

‘A Merman I Shoudl Turn to Be’, installation view, image courtesy Dan Coopey and Laura Bartlett Gallery.

That seemed to be the aim with ‘Merman’ overall: trying to focus on how a range of artists absorb and dissolve the things in front of them into more malleable matter. While the film was the most effective at this, other works hovered around it like attendant thoughts. Alex Dordoy’s Super G3 (2014), for instance, silicon casts of what look like printer and photocopy cartridges hung flat on the wall, become uneven textured surfaces that seem to sit uneasily trying to pretend to be paintings. Coopey’s own copper etchings of images of machine parts adapted to make swirling patterns are partially oxidised, giving them an archaeological feel. Piling on such moments, some more melodramatic, some more incisive, Coopey manages to create an atmosphere of dream-like potential, an accumulation of attempts towards unmoored patchwork surfaces. Like the Jimi Hendrix song the show takes its name from, it is comfortable being meandering and indirect, acknowledging that some things can only be examined obliquely.

Originally published in Art Monthly 379, September 2014.

Alms For The Birds

Cabinet Gallery, London, UK
21 March – 26 April 2014

“Write down a desire,” comic book writer Grant Morrison advised in his wildly engaging talk at the 2000 DisinfoCon, “take out all the vowels and the repeated consonants, and turn that into an image that looks magical.” Coming up on drugs, speaking to a crowd of conspiracy theory devotees, Morrison describes a simple entryway into magic, trying to revive the sigil practices of people like artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare, a spell of sorts meant to focus a wish into something realisable. “This shit works!” I tried it once. It didn’t work, but it says a lot about the self-fulfilling determination of magical adherents: if you’re looking for something hard enough, you’ll find it in some form. An undecipherable glyph of jumbled letters – an e, an i, a backwards c and k – painted in faded reds and blacks adorns the stained cloth banner of Elijah Burgher’s Mictlantecuhtli’s grin (2013), which presides over ‘Alms For The Birds’, an eight-person group show curated by artist (and Turner Prize nominee) James Richards. This compact but pleasurably elusive exhibition is filled with remnants, tokens and traces that, like Burgher’s sigil, leave us to imagine the desires and strange rituals that led these artists here.

'Alms For the Birds', installation view. Image courtesy the gallery.
‘Alms For the Birds’, installation view. Image courtesy the gallery.

What does seem evident is that those rituals were fetishistic, sex-fuelled affairs. Lining one wall is Maracaibo (1991), an edition of prints by General Idea reproducing 20 pages from a friend’s private photo album. They feature dozens and dozens of men, in various states of undress and arousal on the same bed; some are relaxed or coy, a few are defiant, arms crossed and stern-faced to the bulb’s flash. Scattered on the floor is the work that gives the show its name, Adrian Hermanides’s Alms For The Birds (2009), itself referring to the Buddhist ‘sky burial’ practice in areas like Tibet where a body is left outdoors for the elements and beasts to make of it what they will. Hermanides’s ‘burial’ is a collection of items found in a Berlin apartment, and from those remains we can struggle to piece together a personality: a felt uniform, a leather mattress, some cameras, photographic magazines, and lots of images of apparently homemade erotica. Hanging from the ceiling around this constellation of objects are Tony Conrad’s two Untitled (both 2014) works: thick glass rectangular panels, each with a small hole drilled through them. Blocking the viewer from approaching some items and framing the rest of the small room, these begin to feel like windows into some sort of peep show, and suggest, as we pick at the remains of the German amateur pornographer and Maracaibo’s hidden photographer, that we are the birds that are being fed.

Haunted by these elusive, absent characters, ‘Alms…’ holds up a set of vessels in which we can find and project a series of narratives and identities. Richards sets up a skilful balance of denial and intimate disclosure that poses our act of projection itself as a form of practical, banal and immediate magic, and suggests that, as Morrison suggests, magic can be found in anything, if we want it to be there.

Originally published in Art Review, Vol. 66, Number 5, June – August 2014

‘Snow Crash’ / ‘opti-ME*’

The end, as always, is nigh. There is a murky spy-versus-spy world of data liberationists and anti-terror absolutists sprouting around us, and a Neo-Cold War on the horizon, so surely the days when the drones finally decide to take over is just a fortnight away. As Justin Jaeckle points out in ‘opti-ME*’ at Auto Italia South East, Dolly Parton once wisely sang: ‘We’ve been living in the last days ever since the first day, since the dawn of man.’ But what’s happening at Auto Italia and simultaneously at Banner Repeater’s group show ‘Snow Crash’ are two shows attempting to find the productive possibilities while we anticipate the supposed digital apocalypse, in what Jaeckle termed the ‘#memewhile’. Maybe, these shows suggest, instead of just being passively and unwillingly co-opted into the incipient networked world, we should be actively co-opting ourselves. Maybe, they suggest, we should be looking for the dawn of something else, a being that can take the cyborg ideology and just vamp with it.

Erica Scourti, installation of profile research, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Erica Scourti, installation of profile research, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

The six-artist show at Banner Repeater is a morphing collection of works-in-progress, crammed into the small room whose four walls slowly dissipate as you get lost in the mental corners each work provides. The exhibition takes its name from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel, a sort of ironic cyberninja adventure story set within a future where everyone plugs in to an immersive version of the internet called the Metaverse. Stephenson’s book is an apt touchstone; it helped popularize the term ‘avatar’ as well as inspire more than a few programmers to imagine software like Google Earth. But Stephenson’s dated idealizations are also pointed; the titular Snow Crash is a virus that can infect people both in the Metaverse and the physical world, and in the story he proposes a form of programming as ur-language that can control the physical world, and the hacker as the essential liberatory role in society.

The ‘Snow Crash’ in front of us at the moment is similarly obsessed with language, but rather than using it as a means of liberation it is used to map a set of predetermined relationships to technology. Several of these are overtly apprehensive, from Tyler Coburn’s pamphlet Robots Building Robots, 2013/14, a hyper-conscious travelogue essay musing on ‘lights out’ factory production, to Ami Clarke’s ‘live app in development’ Impossible structures: ‘the eye that remains of me that was I’, where a floating mouth whispers a nine-minute monologue, catching phrases like ‘algorithms as actual objects, subsecond ultrafast extreme events’ – Samuel Beckett’s Not I, 1972, recast for a kitsch rehearsal of digital confusion rhetoric. A set of clipboards nailed to the wall displays Erica Scourti’s research into the book she’s making during the show: an autobiography, of sorts, written by a ghost writer who has been given only what information exists about her online. Hiring a data miner, social profiler and privacy researcher to supply the research for this ‘Google confessional’, the project is an embrace of big brother that attempts to turn the fiction of online presence on its head and data culling into critical introspection. But looking at her results and how actively she uses networking platforms (she is given a ‘Google history social people’ rating of 94: ‘One of the highest results we have ever seen!’), it is hardly surprising that there is a lot out there that can be used. It is more data narcissism as self-portrait, and circularly self-fulfilling.

‘Reflections cybersquaring, trying to hold onto the screen, and you hold on to time,’ is the nonsensical advice for a potentially more productive cyborg relationship. Anna Barham’s spoken-word piece Penetrating Squid, 2014, is a short text passed through a range of voice recognition software, casting technology as more of a welcome guest and a happy interference. It seems, though, paranoia wins the day in ‘Snow Crash’, as you are constantly reminded to be wary of where this dance with the digital might take you. A small yoga mat and a pillow sit in front of Jesse Darling’s untitled video, a new-age guided meditation video gone horribly wrong. A drone of sine tones fills the room as you follow the moving squares of color on the screen, the text narration of the video asking you to imagine a force moving through your arms, ‘breaking every bone in turn. Your hands are a soft useless pap. Relax.’

'opti-ME*', installation photo. Image courtesy

‘opti-ME*’, installation photo. Image courtesy

The slightly off new-age sheen also reverberates around the large empty sets at ‘opti-ME*’. At one event during the show, actor turned plagiarism philosopher Shia LaBeouf, now almost an institution in Postmodernism in himself, led a ‘Meditation of Narcissists’ session live via Skype: dressed in a track suit matching the oranges and greens in the display units in the show, he simply skipped rope for an hour. With the subtitle ‘visions and strategies for tomorrow, today’, Auto Italia invited Jaeckle, writer and artist Ingo Niermann, and modeling agency/artist project Special Service to create a series of workshops throughout the duration of the show, with the space itself designed as a ‘trade fair for identity capital’. Bright colors in oblong shapes adorn the walls and floors. Special Service, which claims to collectively ‘renegotiate their agency in the field of fashion’, has so far held an open call for new models. Niermann will hold a workshop on his concept of ‘drill’, advocating for humans to adopt more machine-like directives (a call echoed in Tyler Coburn’s pamphlet, citing Philip K Dick’s 1955 story ‘Autofac’). A video with a Star Wars-style scrolling text introduces Jaeckle’s ‘#memetime’ project, proposing a future where live streaming events have become the norm, and rampant exhibitionism our main commodity. He didn’t have to look far for substantiation, getting LaBeouf on board and streaming into the space the Diva, one of South Korea’s leading ‘mok bang’ celebrities, who make a living broadcasting themselves eating live online.

‘opti-ME*’ is a conscious staging of ‘intensified self-commodification’, as Special Service calls it, and from the display images in Auto Italia the models certainly achieve this: familiar vacant-eyed faces stare at us in soft focus. Delving into the future is no easy business, but the rehearsal of the modeling role and the roll-calling of LaBeouf seems to imagine a future defined solely by a fame economy, the new subjectivities they envision as simply magnifications of our current individualism. That surface dwelling seems not much of an update on the shallow celebrity-dropping of, say, Sam Taylor-Wood, Francesco Vezzoli or, um, James Franco. LaBeouf is also an easy target; in the age of unicorns farting double rainbow memes, we could also recognize that anyone could, or should, be skipping that rope, and that the memetime’s attention economy can also be diffuse, anonymous and accumulative.

This new cyborg being, it seems, is more than a little self-obsessed; between ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘opti-ME*’ there is hours’ worth of run-on texts and durational performances, with the sense of an adolescent constantly wondering out loud: ‘I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up?’ Both acknowledge, in their events and adaptations through their openings, that it is a changing set of entities in process. Yuri Pattison’s video colocation, time displacement, 2014, in ‘Snow Crash’ places footage from the Pionen data center, a high-security former civil defense center in Sweden that has been used by WikiLeaks and Pirate Bay, alongside texts from archival webchats by a figure who posted as ‘TimeTravel_0’. He comes, he claimed, from 2036, after a 2015 nuclear war, and when the Air Force have created time travel, here in our time to get an old IBM. The data center, itself modeled on 1970s sci-fi films like Silent Running, doesn’t quite mesh with the time traveller’s chats, which, as some theories go, were just a smart branding seed for a future Disney movie. Although these two layered fictions fail to mingle productively, Pattison’s pairing raises a pertinent issue: technology consists of and is formed by the fictions we want to believe – what type of vamping cyborg do you want to be?

Originally published in Art Monthly 377, June 2014.

Return Journey

MOSTYN, Llandudno, Wales

January 18–April 6, 2014

Return Journey, installation view. Centre: Simon Fujiwara, Mirror Stage, 2009 - ongoing.

Return Journey, installation view. Centre: Simon Fujiwara, Mirror Stage, 2009 – ongoing.

“It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,” rapper Rakim once claimed. Curator Adam Carr disagrees. Treating “geography as biography” for Return Journey, he assembles more than 20 artists to testify to the potency of the birthplace. Perched on the north coast of Wales in the faded seaside resort of Llandudno, the exhibition title refers to a Dylan Thomas radio play of the same name, Carr thus acknowledging the show’s gambit: Thomas made a career waxing lyrical on a homeland with which he had at best an ambivalent relationship. (He once wrote, “Land of my fathers. And my fathers can keep it.”)Filled with images of abandoned bikes, rusty sheds, empty shopping malls, and missed connections, Return Journey has a similar tone of self-distancing and resignation.

Carr’s return seems determined, most of all, to trace the fringes of the British art scene—to attempt to claim, perhaps, that artists’ most compelling attributes have little to do with whether they emerged from the Big Smoke. The mapping principle guiding the show is foregrounded by a wall-sized outline of the UK islands, peppered with 22 Google map-style dropped pins. A sizable panel bearing a map and the latitude and longitude of each artist’s hometown prefaces every work in the show. As if to corroborate this indexing that ties meaning to place, more than half of these works involve lens-based media, with several examples of classic documentary photography such as Paul Seawright’s images of Belfast and Andrew Grassie’s snapshots of Edinburgh. Dean Hughes undermines a simple shot of a dreary street scene in Salford, Greater Manchester, with an accompanying text claiming that he was, as the title of the piece indicates, Filling Puddles on Days when it did not Rain (2000). Ryan Gander’s photo of the outside of his plain, brown suburban home in Chester similarly came with a footnote on the wall: “There’s significance in here somewhere.” For Hughes and Gander, the evidence of photography is recognized as a stand-in for “home,” and so just another fiction to pick at, unravel, and re-inhabit. Tris Vonna-Michell’s Finding Chopin: Dans l’Essex (2014) does this most effectively. The work is a nonstop stream of words sputtering over a slide show, and only after a few cycles do we begin to understand that it is, ostensibly, about the artist’s attempt to find Henri Chopin, the French concrete sound artist and poet. Asking his father, “Why was I born in this place?”—“this place” being the suburban netherworld of Essex—he is cryptically told to find Chopin and ask him. The narration and images chart the wild goose chase, though once he finally finds Chopin, Vonna-Michell is speechless, and unable to understand French. Chopin passes away a few days later. The snapshots invite us to believe in the story, although both its veracity and the answers sought seem to matter less and less with each sequence of images. Why are any of us born anywhere?

Carr’s vision of an ambiguously regionalized Britain is dreary, dark, and hyper-aware of its own tendencies for idealization and fictionalization. It is also—it has to be said—overwhelmingly white. Only Simon Fujiwara, a half-English, half-Japanese artist, presents some sort of vague alternative, his video installation Mirror Stage (2013) only glancingly dealing with race. The piece is a neatly neurotic and layered casting-call-as-play that dwells on a self-revelatory childhood moment in Tate St. Ives.It shows a young actor re-enact the encounter with an abstract painting that made the young Fujiwara realize not only that he wanted to be an artist, but also that he was gay. As with Fujiwara’s finding solace for his alienation in art, the unspoken subtext of Return Journey is one of escape. Of the 22 artists in the show, 12 are currently based in London. Tracey Emin’s short video, Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995), seems a trite reminder of this migratory fact. As the artist narrates her humiliating exit from a teenage disco dancing contest in Margate, she resolves: “I’m getting out of here; I’m better than all of them. I’m free.” Nearly 20 years later, we know the outcome of Emin’s particular Cinderella story.

MOSTYN’s adjacent solo exhibition featuring photographer Tom Wood’s images of Ireland, Merseyside, and North Wales proves an insightful counterpoint to the exhibition, presenting gathered shots of landscapes and the people who inhabit them, with an obvious reverence for both. In contrast, Carr’s show has a distinct scarcity of human faces, leaving its charted territories abandoned, even haunted. Wood’s images document place as a constellation of moments, of ongoing relationships and dynamic memories. For the majority of the artists in Return Journey, place is more a static, sardonic idea—something already left behind.

Originally published in Art Papers, Vol. 38, No. 2, March/April 2014.


London Round Up

‘No one has ever tried to establish chaos as a system, or to let it come,’ claimed sound artist Henri Chopin in his 1967 polemic against the hegemony of the intelligible word, ‘Why I am the author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry’. ‘Undoubtedly there would be more alive beings and fewer dead beings, such as employees, bureaucrats, business and government executives, who are all dead and who forget the essential thing: to be alive.’ Talking sense, writing sense – to him it was all making us ignore the strange and wonderful sounds and irrational ways of communicating we have at our disposal. While Chopin’s work is currently on view in Colchester’s Firstsite, his anti-sensible, divergent-sensory spirit could be found zipping around London, albeitin the guise of plastic bags, tree leaves and green goo. The small group show ‘Flow’ at Peles Empire perhaps spoke most directly of the lives of the bureaucrats and executives Chopin derides, making use of the generic advertising imagery and stiflingly managed environments these ‘dead’ people might inhabit. Eric Bell and Kristoffer Frick’s Generator (front), 2014, is a sterile portrait of a small, egg-shaped machine that claims to be an ‘Ozone Generator’. On Not Yet Untitled, 2014, one of the small mechanisms is mounted on a blank sheet of white polyurethane foam, whirring away, supposedly pumping ozone into the gallery. The gizmo is sold as an air purifier for stuffy office environments; it doesn’t smell any different (I find out afterwards direct inhalation is harmful) and the sound of its rush is the type of white noise that is initially calming but soon becomes disconcerting. Crammed in the corner are two PCs set on a cheap chipboard table; complete with flimsy fold-out chairs, rough lino on the floor and crappy headphones, the means of presentation for Lloyd Corporation’s video Form follows feeling, 2014, is a scarily accurate recreation of the cramped, rushed constructions of an internet cafe. The two flatscreen monitors alternate in flashing up unconnected, well-composed images of mountains, a rocking chair and several scenes of electronics being assembled. In one section, we see in close-up a cigarette lit by a heated filament, hearing the low crackle of the burn but no other movement or breath as nobody is there to smoke it. Between the works, it feels like a place not just abandoned but creepingly hinting at designed spaces that are actually working against us. ‘Flow’ holds a compact mirror to the corporate atmosphere, and finds that it is slowly pushing us out of the picture, or killing us off altogether.

Instead of looking at screens and billboards for inspiration, Josh Blackwell at Kate MacGarry felt more like he was looking in bins and gutters. His ‘Never Uses’ series is like a private yarn bombing campaign, taking plastic bags as his material of choice and adorning them with erratically stitched colourful patterns. His ‘plastic baskets’, as he calls them, are an enthusiastic embrace of detritus, using the bags’ colours and designs as the basis for what look like textile designs, masks or animal-like shapes. They are quick, hurried compositions, even the most intricate of them – like Plastic Basket (Zappai), 2013, with its multi-coloured patches and fat, striped worms of yarn on a yellow bag – feel like playground efforts. Over a dozen of them adorn the walls, with a roughly bag-shaped motif spray-painted in black as a backdrop on one wall and a pile of as-yet-unused bags sitting in another corner. Plastic Baskets (Stay Gold), 2013, is a mass of nine ironed-together black bags with bright yellow yarn embroidering the outline, their original gold stripe design messily reiterated in heavy gold marker zig-zagging in various directions. Blackwell’s incessant attempts to transform the bags are fun, but he seems satisfied with the process stopping at making kitsch semi-formal patterns. He has taken on discarded ephemera as a system and, as if by rooting around in the rubbish, discovered a form of scuffed-up modernist primitivism.

Becky Beasley Auxiliary Flora (1) (Passive Voice) 2013 Digital Silver Gelatin Print, green plexiglass. Image courtesy the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery.

Becky Beasley Auxiliary Flora (1) (Passive Voice) 2013 Digital Silver Gelatin Print, green plexiglass. Image courtesy the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery.

Becky Beasley’s search was a much more even-tempered, pedestrian affair, looking instead to the natural world, or at least what is left of it in our lives. ‘The Walk…in green’ at Laura Bartlett Gallery reimagined the urban neighbourhood as a walled garden of sorts, suitable for a contemplative evening stroll. A suspended bronze stick rotates slowly in one corner of the gallery, although closer inspection reveals different textures and junctures – evidence that we are looking at the joined segments of five different sticks. Making a new branch, the compacting of time and space represented in Bearings, 2014, is Beasley’s emblematic walking stick for this journey: the fifteen images in the show were taken by the artist between 1999 and 2003, reconfigured here as one green-thumbed walk. Flora, A Life, 2013, was a postcard rack, filled with green-tinted postcards of various shrubs and trees that each bear the identifying name and facts on the origins of the plant (‘the edible fig is one of the first plants that was cultivated by humans’). Beasley’s stroll is pleasingly aimless, and quietly engaging. The centre of her walk seems to be somewhere between two adjacent photos; AUX (1) (Passive Voice) and AUX (2) (Passive Voice), both 2013, are large prints of photos framed underneath green Plexiglas that depict a large pile of wilted leaves, palm fronds and other dumped plant matter sitting on the kerb outside an apartment block. One is printed in reverse, creating a photographic vortex where, impossibly, you are seeing the same side of the pile from apparently different angles. It turns out that Beasley’s subject isn’t the plant, but the photograph of the plant and in its rhythms she finds a calm, quiet, paradoxical maze.

Benedict Drew’s ‘Heads May Roll’ at Matt’s Gallery may be closest to courting chaos as a system, but then Chopin’s essay is cited directly in the press release accompanying his exhibition. Drew’s installation is a set of three progressively more anarchic settings. The first is the detox room, a white box with a single screen. The video is a fast-cutting stream of textures and body parts, a twitching disembodied hand or turning knees interspersed with close-ups of pink gloop and ice flakes, all with a sparse soundtrack of blips and occasional high-hat sounds. But if the first room is the clinical precision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the second room is Plan 9 From Outer Space: red, blue and green lights lining the floor reflect off shiny silver foil on the walls, two stacks of old speakers barraging us with a digital decrescendo spacey sound effect. And finally completing the journey from slick sci-fi to b-movie sci-fi, we arrive in the jumbled circus of the last room. Two projections loop on layered screens propped up on stages, while in the corner a confetti swamp monster in vaguely human form slouches over a snare drum, occasionally giving it a weak tap. In one video, an astronaut is apparently discussing crying in zero gravity, a wobbling glob of liquid jiggling in the recession between his nose and eye; in the other a black motorcycle helmet oozes green goo, coating its visor. So, this sensory immersion has been re-orienting and priming us for … what? The chaos that Drew has tried to ‘let come’, as Chopin put it, is that of contemporary life – its stumbling technologies and entertaining illusions. But even if this final room plays the unfiltered subconscious to the other rooms (or even the world outside), its media jumble and arbitrary indulgence is still all-too-familiar to us. ‘Heads May Roll’ accepts, and tries to amplify, the chaos of contemporary life as a brain-melting confusion, evoking some half-formed being trying to figure out, through the noise, how to be alive. But I get the feeling that the Chopin whom Drew cites might have been seeking chaos of another – less familiar, and perhaps more aspirational – order.

Originally published in Art Monthly, No. 375, April 2014.

Alexandre Singh: The Humans

Sprüth Magers, London

24 January – 29 March 2014

Alexandre Singh, The Humans, insallation view. Image courtesy Sprueth Magers.

Alexandre Singh, The Humans, insallation view. Image courtesy Sprueth Magers.

It all sounds like so much fun. A reworking of ancient Greek comedies, with sculptor Charles Ray epitomised as a Prospero-like figure ‘seeking,’ as he says, ‘pure form in geometry’ on an island supposedly run by a deity who communicates through an air conditioner and a Nespresso machine. His demigod offspring try to disrupt celestial machinations, only to bring about the calamitous creation of humanity itself. Alexandre Singh’s three-hour play The Humans (2013; video 2014) has singing, dancing, existentialism and toilet humour, and oodles of nods to The Tempest (1610–11), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590–96), The Jungle Book (1967) and Dumbo (1941). But as Singh has said himself, ‘I often prefer reading plays to seeing them.’ Contemporary comedic musical dealing with theological and philosophical issues it is. The Book of Mormon (2011) it is not.

Singh’s ambitious theatrical debut is a verbose mashup of origin stories and theosophy, about the struggles between rational, Apollonian traits and wild, Dionysian emotions. Desire is the engine that moves the plot, whether in the suppressed tryst that produced the demigod protagonists Tophole and Pantalingua, Tophole’s unwittingly incestuous love for Pantalingua or the humans’ own unleashed anarchic cravings. But tellingly, those desires are always offstage, mediated only by language; even N, the silent rabbit embodiment of earthly, bodily fecundity, can only be understood through translation by her daughter Pantalingua, a hyper-intellectual Victorian dandy. Singh seems to take his commitment to the dramatic genre very seriously, filling his play with familiar stock characters, whether plucked from Shakespeare or The Office; Tophole seemed written for Martin Freeman or Richard Ayoade, and the human Prime Minister is, inexplicably, an overweight Scouser.

With its constant musings about determinism, of course we know what’s going to happen: the statues made by Ray will become humans, their transformation marked by donning Greek drama and commedia dell’arte-inspired grotesque masks; the humans will make their own pathetic pantheon from the comedy of errors we’ve witnessed. Singh’s version of dramatic irony, though, isn’t so much to lead us on a cathartic journey through a well-told tale. It seems more to want constantly to point to its overstuffed trunk of references to Nietzsche, Leibniz, Hegel, Kant and on and on. For a newly written parable about the search for meaning in life, what Singh mostly seems to be saying is that contemporary culture hasn’t added anything particularly insightful to the debate; it’s just good for a few quick butt-in jokes.

Singh took pains to emphasise the theatricality of this work; that despite it being shown only within the framework of the Witte de With in Rotterdam and Performa 13 in New York, it is meant not as a visual artist’s project, but as musical theatre in itself. The video documentation of the performance is accomplished but loses some of the allure that (I’d imagine) the live performances held; instead we end up focusing on the microphone scratching and sometimes incomprehensibly muffled voices of the humans behind their masks. Despite that, and surprisingly, this exhibition does the project a favour. Rather than just the ‘sellable bits’ from the stage, the drawings, props, sculptures and character portraits shown here at least give the ideas more room to breathe, and allow the audience more of their own ways in than the hermetically sealed creation on stage. Perhaps, as in his earlier installations, Singh’s strength lies more in the creative suggestion of intertwined, referential narratives than in their realisation.

Originally published in Art Review, Vol. 66 No. 3, April 2014.