MOSTYN, Llandudno, Wales
January 18–April 6, 2014
“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.