Signs Taken for Wonders

London Roundup, October 2021

Torkwase Dyson: Liquid A Place, installation view, Pace Gallery London, photography by Damian Griffiths, image courtesy the artist

“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 [2021] 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.

There are some, thankfully, who manage to side-step any urge for explicit meaning. On a set of pallets on the floor of the Gagosian Gallery, Kahlil Robert Irving’s Milennia – (through space and street) (2021) is an uneven grid of cracked, black tiles flecked with shards of white ceramic. Embedded at random points in a few of the tiles are glossy tangles of what look like collaged newspaper clippings, screen grabs, and image searches. It is an understated part of the group show “Social Works II” curated by Antwaun Sargent, a sequel to the show he curated in one of Gagosian’s New York spaces earlier in the year, which brings together a range of international Black artists and architects. In one section of the sculpture, a small icon of the artist’s face sits next to a diagram attempting to set out the nature of the beverage mascot the Kool-Aid Man, posing this street-pavement constellation as a fractured from of portraiture.

Marian Goodman’s project space is dotted with a set of loosely framed sketches and small resin oblong objects trapped in aquarium-like vitrines. All sharing the same title, Nairy Baghramian’s Side Leaps (2021) each feel like something just more than a maquette and just less than a sculpture. In one, three translucent resin shapes in pallid shades of black, blue, and tan sit at jaunty angles to each other, each looking like a component from a dismantled car door. Baghramian’s tentative placements feel like insistent whispers, suggestions to keep moving, keep shifting, to remain unsettled.

“My name’s Christopher Columbus,” a man says pleasantly, almost intimately to the man he sits astride, “welcome to my new world.” Then he bites his neck. The undead Columbus of Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s looped film at Gasworks, Nosferasta (2021), is dressed like a fifteenth-century explorer, complete with collar frill and pantaloons, but he speaks like a cool tech bro, calm and cocky. Columbus initiates Oba, a young African man washed up on Caribbean shores, into a cabal of vampires who run western colonial endeavors. Aristotle, Marco Polo, Mussolini; “we’re influencers, not activists,” Columbus boasts, recruiting the African to help undermine slave and worker uprisings from the inside. We see him later, as an ageing Rasta—played by the real-life Oba, an artist and musician, who co-wrote the film as a fictional autobiography—struggling with renewing his green card. Jumping back and forth over six centuries, with a mixture of set period scenes and contemporary documentary-style footage, the story never quite fully surfaces, acting more like a smart, self-conscious cross between a dream narrative and the playful kitsch-horror implied by the title.

The bratty Columbus character’s claim of a “new world” stuck in my mind, as a parallel to attempts to assert a “new normal”: rhetorical elisions to normalize unequal conditions and hasten the acceptance of reactionary, or now irrelevant, states of being. Nosferasta manages to nimbly tie in debates about imperious statues, immigration paperwork vapor trails, and the workings of dominant narratives, as well as ask how one might start to acknowledge complicity with them. The question, the film suggests, is how to begin to make amends, how to un-new, and un-normal the world.

Sebastian Jefford, installation view, Gianni Manhattan, Frieze London 2021. Image courtesy the artist and the gallery.

At the Frieze London fair, while most efforts were made to assume business as usual and act as if the past two years didn’t happen, a few installations did attempt to acknowledge some form of complicity in exhibiting at a trade fair. “SAME OLD SONG,” reads a framed print in Martin Gross’s installation at Galerie Eigen + Art. The phrase is being smirked at from the frame hung next to it, with the Cheshire Cat’s floating eyes and grin, while the entire booth’s walls are backdropped with the words “BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT.” In this context, such irony reads as optimistic. An inlet at the Alison Jacques booth provides a welcome alcove for a set of small sculptures and drawings by Veronica Ryan. What look like crustacean shells and oversized teeth are bound together in string and colored nets like so many bundles of fruit arranged on a shelf. Multiple Conversations XXIV (2020) looks like a squat, transparent plant pot that wouldn’t look out of place in Kinfolk magazine, though it is actually over a dozen teabags sewn together, the green leaves on top printed with the words “Tea Forte.” Ryan’s assemblages suggest an improvised fruit and veg shop of sorts, but one aware of the threads of sacrifice and extraction that have formed it.

The fair itself even attempted some self-conscious gestures, with a section of ten booths curated by Cédric Fauq under the theme of “Unworlding”, consisting of artists “whose practices are centered around the idea of the undoing the world as we know it.” Gyan Panchal at Jhaveri Contemporary presented a set of small works apparently made from dismantled toys; L’appat (2018) is a drooping fold of orange felt shaped like half a flower, a brown button secreted inside. In the display of Fanny Gicquel’s work next door at Hua International, one of the rare instances of live-action works in the fair, a performer takes a hit on a vape, kneels, and blows the smoke into an intestine-like glass tube dangling from a cloth. What exactly is being undone here I don’t know; but self-reflexivity does not an excuse make, and someone here is definitely having smoke blown up their ass.

On the other side of the fair, a set of comical celestial bodies adorn the terracotta roof tiling that lines Gianni Manhattan’s booth. Sebastian Jefford’s The sun staring at the son staring at the sun (V) (2021) is a giant circular rubber mat, its yellow face depicting a wrinkled man with a toothless grin; a green icon of a boy’s face dots the bridge of his nose. Jefford’s series of similar suns and moons grounds the cartoon habit of anthropomorphizing astronomical entities: instead of cheery, round-cheeked stars we get grumpy grandpas and haggard, surly neighbors, one of whom glares at us looking like the demon from Ghostbusters 2 (1989). They’re an imposing, jocular presence.

Cosmic Mothers, installation view, Mimosa House, 2021, photography by Damian Griffiths

The peculiar light from these suns came back to me standing upstairs in the group show “Cosmic Mothers” at Mimosa House. The floor is lined with wooden panels painted in various shades of blue, each spotted with white circles of varying sizes. Alexandra Paperno’s Abolished Constellations (51 parts) (2016) is a set of 51 ink drawings, each depicting a portion of the sky that contained a constellation, but were excluded when the International Astronomical Union drew up a standardized list of constellations in 1922. We don’t know what each is meant to depict, but their ghosts flutter about, intermittently punctuated by the mechanical squeak of Annie Goh’s Cyber-quetzal (2021). Emanating from a rotating directional speaker, the sound piece apparently draws on the sonic qualities of a Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan which creates echoes resembling sounds made by birds; this digital version sounds something like a deflating balloon bouncing off the floor and ceiling, a form of echolocation that might be one of the voices of a nullified mythical creature. Somewhere between Irving’s ground-sky, Jefford’s full moons, and Goh and Paperno’s drifting, searching space is a reconfigured cosmology. Yes, it suggests, we are still here. But we each have a fair amount of orientation to do to figure out where that actually is.

Originally published at ArtAgenda, October 2021

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