London Roundup, October 2021
“No one / expects the violence of glances, of offices, / of walkways and train stations, of bathroom mirrors,” a woman states. I am standing in a dark basement, the small room filled out with the bulk of three identical black sculptures, something like oversized, stylized Us, that make up the setting for Torkwase Dyson’s performance Liquid a Place: A. Encounters (2021) at Pace Gallery. Standing in the shadowy gallery with these swelling, Minimalist behemoths feels unmoored, as if I’m zooming out from the minutiae of life for a moment. But the poem punctures that sensation with a precise description of casual dissolution, of “wingless days” and smiles of “aluminum teeth,” that seems meant for the renewed weirdness of standing solemnly with a group of strangers in a small indoor space. I listen for a good five minutes before a shadow moves on the floor from under one of the rounded corners of the sculpture, and I realize that what I thought was a recording was actually the Canadian poet Dionne Brand, right there, reading her poem “Ossuary I” (2010).
The mistake—misplacing liveness or just not registering what was right in front of me—was an unintentionally apt start for my attempts at exhibition-going. It turns out that the majority of art on display this autumn across London isn’t about subtlety, but presence, bald and puckered. From grandiose gestures that at this point feel grotesque or just tone-deaf (like Marina Abramović’s endless deaths at Lisson, or George Condo’s mildly deconstructed horny paintings at Hauser and Wirth), to Frieze London’s return after two years with a heavy preponderance of fey abstract paintings, to more pointed appearances (like the four women in the painting Republic #2  who disinterestedly oversee Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings’s Disgrace, a quietly epic dissection of conservative feminism at Arcadia Missa; or Claudette Johnson’s crackling and direct self-portraits at Hollybush Gardens) it seems a moment for galleries and artists to raise a hand, to note that they are, as Johnson’s show is appropriately titled, “Still Here.” Though stepping out, or indeed going into rooms and giant tents amidst the latest wave of the pandemic in the UK, is not without its dangers. Aside from the obvious health implications, there’s also a metaphorical risk, where gestures are taken to mean more they can bear, objects are given more authority than they are due, and signs, as Homi K. Bhabha long ago put it, are taken for wonders.Continue reading