The first thing that should be said about Laura Kikauka’s new exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, Celebration of Failure, is that looking around it is just such damn good fun. This is not a quality which is frequently associated with modern art and may even be disapproved of in some quarters. It’s worth emphasising this because the exhibition notes (fine though they are) are rife with the usual gallery lexicon, the issues addressed, questions raised and debates reflected which can sometimes overwhelm the spectator’s own personal reaction to the work. This is the kind of spiel which has its place, but which can put off those outside the bubble of the art world, with its shared linguistic codes (and possibly handshakes). That would be a shame in the case of this exhibition, as it’s the sort of experience which needs no theoretical justification and which could be really enjoyed by people who (in the words of Neil Tennant) wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. The children who were there for their Saturday morning art club when we visited were certainly having a whale of a time.
The first thing you notice as you enter the gallery (having taken in the paper cut outs which cover the windows as you pass outside) is the transformation of the smaller space on your right into an object-strewn blizzard of whiteness. A carpeted area is bounded by a tiny fence, but you are invited by a hand-written message which follows the edge of this unimposing barrier to take off your shoes and enter. This gives you a nice feeling of being personally ushered in and welcomed to the exhibition, which immediately takes on the aspect of the artist’s own personal trash palace. Polystyrene packing chip snow drifts across the floor outside this open domestic interior, something which I imagine will create a daily chore of sweeping up for the gallery staff. The centrepiece of this room, which draws the eye with its motion, is a bath with a disembodied torso of polystyrene statuary reclining in it, a small fountain cascading from just below it’s truncated form. It’s a mildly, inoffensively dirty joke which the kids will enjoy and which possibly gives the nod to Duchamp (taking the piss you might say – sorry) and de Chirico (one of his figures relaxing after a hard days posing in the piazza) although spotting such references is wholly unimportant beyond the dubious pleasure of self-congratulatory smugness (mea culpa).
The rest of the room is filled with white objects, some altered or given 3-D enhancements by Kikauka’s glue gun (white glue, of course) but all adhering strictly to the colour(less)theme. Do go to the loo, too, even if you don’t have to go, otherwise you’ll miss an added, hidden element to this part of the exhibition. A list posted on the door gives some listening suggestions: White Room by Cream, The White Album etc.
Passing under the door, which is covered by pictures of nude ladies in vivid 70s hues juxtaposed with implausibly sized items of fruit and other food (statuary at the gates of the palace? Abandon All Taste, Ye Who Enter Here?) you enter the main gallery space. The corridor, whose surfaces have been painted a very 70s tone of orange, is bedecked with multi-coloured tights, with vintage tights packaging forming a collage of 60s and 70s stylings on the wall to the left. It is indeed a tight spot, a pun which the artist may have intended, or which may have simply arisen rather too readily in my mind (or to give credit where it’s due, Mrs W’s in this case).
To the right, in the main gallery space, you enter the real heart of the exhibition, a recreated lounge bursting with the detritus of discarded leisure pursuits. I've known people's teenage bedrooms which looked very much like this. Hell, my teenage bedroom wasn't so very far off. The wonder is that it’s all in such good condition. Kikauka has organised everything into thematic areas, so that the apparent chaos is given form. It’s a veritable cornucopia of cheerful crap, guaranteed to have people of a certain age (me) wondering around saying ‘ooh, I used to have one of those’.
There’s a plastic skull covered with pieces of broken mirror glass, placed on an old revolving turntable, with light from a cheap bedside lamp bouncing off it, transforming it into a mirror ball. It’s a cheeky parody of Damien Hurst’s notorious skull, whose chief value seemed to reside in its obscene expense, a readymade for the bloated art market. This version is probably thousands of times cheaper and is, to my mind, about a thousand times better. It's more reminiscent of the folk art which provides the friendly momento mori which proliferate during the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Oversized novelty slippers form a wainscoting which offers a very off-kilter insight into times gone by (look, there’s Ronnie and Nancy) and the wallpaper is made up of record sleeves from artists justifiably (mostly) consigned to the discount bin of history. Although whoever threw away Charles Lloyd’s Love-In might have got themselves a few bob on e-bay or down their local second-hand record shop for it. Again, the record sleeves are arranged thematically, so you get your Moog section, space-age records, marimba and maraccas exotica and a Saturday Night Fever selection which includes the must-hear Sesame Street Fever, with Super Grover proving a strangely apposite stand-in for John Travolta, his spindly arms perfect for that point-at-the-ceiling pose.
The floor is also partially given a parquetry of discarded vinyl. This reminds me of the exhibition by sound artist Christian Marclay, who covered the floor of the gallery space with copies of a record of his, which visitors proceeded to ‘remix’ by walking over and scratching it. The far side of the room is given over to a table tennis table, with two bats and balls, which encourages people to relax and enjoy themselves with a game, to make themselves feel at home. This is just what the children at their art class were doing, to the extent that their teachers were having a job to coax them into doing some actual art stuff. Hey, the kids were Being art by participating in the exhibition! They also inadvertently made me party to art theft, scoring a hole in one into my bag with a ping pong ball, which I discovered upon my return. Fear not, I shall return it, thereby giving myself a convenient excuse to revisit the exhibition. The feeling of being at home is further enhanced by the small record player to the side of the table, with its attendant pile of 45s from which you can pick your leisure sounds. You could really spend a very pleasant afternoon here.
The exhibition does not confine itself to the usual gallery rooms. The atrium space reserved for the kids club and other meetings is filled with further eye-catching objects and photo-collages, and a glance out of the back window reveals that the courtyard has also been transformed into an oasis of plastic flora. Open umbrellas hang suspended as if they are oversized clouds of dandelion seeds descending gently to earth; a tip of the bowler hat to Magritte’s skies of raining bureaucrats, maybe, albeit in a gaudily colourised version. Or even a Dick van Dyke nod and a wink to Mary Poppins.
The room which is approached by a ramp and which is slightly more enclosed is lent an attic-like atmosphere by its low-lighting and the fact that it is filled with teetering piles of storage boxes. This is the Aladdin’s cave- spring from which such a rich hoard has gushed forth. It’s drab gloominess and musty cardboard smell contrasts markedly with the rest of the exhibition, but there’s a sense that this is the womb from which it has all emerged. A list of contents makes it clear that when these Pandora’s boxes are repacked, it will be according to a strictly regulated plan.
So what does it all mean? A valorization of the rejected? An act of reclamation and classification? A hoarder putting her compulsions to good use? Frankly, who cares. Just immerse yourself in this paean to the phases of passed time. If this is the Celebration of Failure, then we can all be beautiful losers.