The British Art Show is a five yearly survey of contemporary art being created in these islands, which travels around selected cities in an attempt to counterbalance the gravitational pull of the capital and show new work elsewhere in the country (although the Hayward Gallery in London is one of the stopping off points this time round). This is its seventh incarnation, and it has made a rare detour beyond the cultural barrier of Bristol, venturing into the hinterlands of the South West and pitching up in Plymouth (as you can see from the youtube video here). This may be something to do with the Dartington Arts College decamping to Devon’s largest city, a consolatory bonus for what was otherwise a disappointing piece of economically motivated centralisation. The Plymouth College of Art actually plays a minimal part in the proceedings, the smallest of five sites around which the art is distributed. The disparate whole is given a loosely connective theme through the title In the Days of the Comet, the title of HG Wells’ 1906 novel. This was written after his initial burst of intense creativity, during which he wrote the concise, richly imagined and metaphorically resonant science fiction novels for which he is best remembered (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man and The First Men In The Moon). In the Days of the Comet’s science fictional premise, the transformative green vapours of the passing body’s tail bringing renewal and hope to a tired world, is a device which enables Wells to didactically elaborate upon his utopian political and sexual ideals. It is a transitional book, which combines his novels of character and social observation such as Kipps and Love and Mr Lewisham, with his increasingly self-important tendency to set the world to rights exhibited in SF utopias such as A Modern Utopia, The Sleeper Awakes and Men Like Gods. These are little read these days, so the Art Show’s chosen title gives it a sense of belatedness both in terms of its implication of living in the end days, and of the sense (whether intended or not) that the best lies behind us, that we are drifting through a period of cultural anomie in which contemporary art often fails to connect beyond a small and cosy clique. The science fictional element, communicated via Wells’ title if not his book, prompts artists to look beyond this moment into possible futures, to imagine alternative ways of seeing the world, and of representing that vision in new and startling ways. Which is what artists should be doing anyway, of course. Not all the participants take up the underlying theme, rightly refusing to be bound by prescriptive demands. But there is a definite imaginative thread to be traced between various of the works on display which evince a science fictional flavour – the scattered fragments left in the wake of Wells’ comet.
The show is certainly well-advertised, with a large banner being the first thing you see as you leave the station, enlivening the dark grey concrete of the car park with which you are immediately faced. Even more impressive is the huge banner which is draped down the side of the Civic Centre, visible at the end of the long post-war pedestrian boulevard leading down towards the Hoe which is central to the post-war city plan. An impressive vote of confidence in the exhibition’s popular potential, it also serves to positively highlight the virtues of the 1962 building, whose recent grade II listing has caused considerable controversy. The first site you arrive at is in the equally impressive modern edifice of the University’s Roland Levinsky Building, which was opened in 2007, with its burnished copper exterior punctuated by variably sized and spaced vertical and horizontal windows. This houses the Peninsula Arts Gallery. The first of several interstitial works by Edgar Schmitz set in the thresholds and intermediary spaces of the galleries, was ironically the victim of the unusually sunny weather in a city whose weather forecast seems permanently set to ‘partly cloudy’. The projection in the lobby was thus bleached out by sunlight dazzle. Wolfgang Tillmans’ large picture Freischwimmer 155 immediately catches the eye as you walk into the gallery, and could be specifically designed to illustrate Wells’ story (it would make a good book cover). It’s miasmic, Brownian swirl can be seen, in this context, as the vaporous trail of the comet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the inspiration for the exhibition’s subtitle. The means of its production also echoes the blend of science and spirituality in Wells’ novel: It is a photographic image created without the usual camera equipment, instead producing an image by exposing the photographic paper itself to controlled shafts of light. Tillmans also produces a series of collaged news and entertainment images pressed beneath glass in museum like display desks. Art students were milling around these, listening to a seminar and remaining stubbornly dumb when asked for their opinions – perhaps it was too early for their brains to have engaged fully. This made it difficult to appreciate these reportage collisions of the terrible and the trivial, whose immediacy we were perhaps, in context, being asked to view as if from the historical perspective of citizens of the future. David Noonan’s large untitled tapestry adopted techniques usually associated with crafts to present a monumental representative image in a traditional style, rather like Grayson Perry does on a smaller scale with his ceramic pots and vases. It seems to depict a street scene in an African or Middle Eastern country, or possibly an imaginary city. The meaning is unclear, and the withholding of an explanatory title suggests such ambiguity might be deliberate, encouraging the viewer to make up her own story. The whole is woven with black and white threads, and rather perversely includes peacocks amongst its elements. Again, perhaps this is an encouragement to the viewer to colour it as they will with the unlimited palette of the mind’s eye.
Wolfgang Tillmans (copyright the artist)Luke Fowler and Toshiya Tsunoda’s Composition for Flutter Screen immediately took on an air of mystery and ritualistic expectation as we had to part heavy black curtains and make our way in darkness into the space in which it was installed. The flutter screen was a loosely fixed white expanse of silky taffeta, which was periodically set into billowing motion by a fan at the side. A light shining on this screen from the other side highlighted its sheen and shadows, casting the moving contours of the material into dramatically contrasted patterns and emphasising the waves rippling across its surface. The whole seemed to be capturing a materialisation of breeze, of the currents of the air. Elevated speakers on either side produced two low-pitched tones of varying duration, and with a crackling aura of burry static. They sounded like foghorns, or Tibetan horns, their baleful braying sending a muffled aural beacon through the fog or clouds of the flutterscreen. Projections were cast onto the screen, all of them images of elemental evanescence and change, conveying the intangible and less solid qualities of the world – a moth’s strobing wings, water filling a glass, its protruding meniscus trembling, candles, the sky and telegraph wires. These images were blurred and did not always immediately reveal their true nature. The lit surface and the movements of the screen made it seem like it was itself a liquid surface, the projections as if refracted beneath, like the sequences of objects viewed under water in slow-panning motion in Tarkovsky’s films Stalker and Nostalgia. A group of primary school children were sat watching this one, occasionally giving each other bewildered or amused looks, before their teacher quietly ushered them out. I wonder if it will linger in their minds. With its repetitions of image, sound (including the soft whoosh of the fan) and rippling motion, it certainly exerted a hypnotic effect which increased the longer you sat before it.
Across the busy road from the very modern Roland Levitsky building is the more stolid Edwardian brick façade of the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, all backward looking, weighty baroque, which it the location for the next segment of the show. It provides a neatly incongruous setting for a modern art exhibition with its eyes on things to come, leading my thoughts towards the long-disused museum discovered by the narrator of Wells’ The Time Machine in the distant human future of the Morlocks and Eloi. Walking up the stone staircase to the first floor gallery spaces, we hear a cosmic music cue from Edgar Schmitz, a short sigh of electronic sound which is another of his occupations of inbetween spaces. It acts as a prelude, arousing anticipation and ushering us into a new zone, separate from the local archaeology and natural history displays below, with their flint spearheads and stuffed birds. The first thing you see upon entering the gallery in which the Art Show is housed are a series of sculptures by Sarah Lucas, perched atop brutalist breezebock plinths in prefab emulation of the elevated display of classical statuary or urns, which she’s called NUDS. They look like grossly fleshy tangles of extruded phallic meat, magnified versions of the curly mounds of sandy deposit left on the seashore by wee beasties burrowing beneath the surface. On closer inspection, these turn out to be made from tights packed full of white fluff. What looks to the casual eye like heavy and rocklike marbled material is in fact soft and pliable. A chap was crouched below these, sketching their edgeless organic forms on a large piece of paper and effectively setting them against the rigidly ordered grid of the old gallery’s roof struts and columns. Lucas’ relish in grotesque distortions of the flesh is carried across into the paintings of Milena Drajicevic, which she labels her Supplicant series. These head and bust portraits subject human features to disturbing alterations, turning mouths into rigid pillarbox slots or obscuring the face entirely beneath layers of cabbage-leaf growths. These appear like the results of mutations, alien fungal diseases or strange future fashions for self-erasing genetic manipulation. Phoebe Unwin also paints vaguely fantastical figures, creating hybrid or distended forms. The surface of her Man With Heavy Limbs is divided in to four equal areas. Three are patterned in an op-art style, with harlequin grilles of black and white and grey, and contain the limbs and torso of the seated subject. The top left quadrant crams in the head and upper body, leaving the whole looking very bottom heavy, and leaving the impression of a rather brutish giant.
George Shaw - Blocked Drain (copyright the artist)
George Shaw’s paintings are devoid of human figures, depicting the marginal and on the surface uninteresting nowhere spaces of his Coventry upbringing. They are made with Humbrol enamel paints, the kind which would have been used to paint a completed Airfix plastic model kit, which gives them the gloss of photographic prints. Such associations with childhood, both in subject matter and material, point to the construction of memory models, the gloss the transformative sheen of nostalgia. These suggestively empty places, the unpaved tracks running behind gardens and the fenced-off, rubble-contoured construction sites, are areas of great imaginative potential. Just as, in childhood, they were used as a stage for stories, games and adventures, so they are now ready to be filled with memories, real or invented. Ian Kiaer’s piece was something of a puzzle, composed of several discrete and scattered elements which challenged the viewer to put them together and make sense of them. Big shiny panels hung on the wall, a mirrored shop display plinth was attached to the floor, near to which a shower of small, bright circular spots dotted the wooden floor tiles, with what looked like a white-walled modernist mouse cage or fancy chocolate box positioned at the far edge of the whole assemblage. Perhaps sensing that a little explanation was needed to ward off peremptory dismissal, a helpful member of the museum staff came over to point out the relation of the work to Konstantin Melnikov’s modernist Moscow house, built in the late 1920s, of which she showed us some pictures. The yellow panels and circles suggest the play of light through its varied rectilinear and lozenge-shaped windows into its cylindrical interior. Melnikov’s futurist art and design fell foul of Stalin’s iron vision, with the imposition of a style which reflected the monolithic power of the state condemning him to internal exile and creative death. The tiny representation of his house is dwarfed within the gallery room, which is made to appear imposingly monumental in comparison, could easily be crushed by a stomp from the foot of any passing visitor. But it casts magnified areas of light, suggested by the other elements of Kiaer’s installation, its influence radiating beyond its own physical decline. I still wasn’t entirely convinced by the whole thing, however, which seemed to me to hog too much of the room to little real effect. Perhaps it needed to the sun to shine on it to bring it to life.
The centre of the room was dominated by a ramshackle structure erected by Spartacus Chetwynd. Disappointingly, this turns out to be an invented monicker, the artist’s real first name being Lali. But its still a great title to work under. Her mother is Luciana Arrighi, a film production designer. I wonder if she’s any relation to Nike Arrighi, so effective as the bewitched Lilith in the 1968 Hammer film The Devil Rides Out? Chetwynd’s work was an elevated shack constructed on a platform, its walls made out of old, discarded windowframes, giving it a patchwork look echoed by the rug on the floor. The whole can be folded away and transported on the platform, and there is a photo which shows it erected in a field. On the way up the stairs there were a couple of stray round portholes stood upright beneath the museum’s lengthy window, eliciting an initial ‘you call this art?’ response. Upon encountering this mobile home of which they are a detached element, they come to seem like spare wheels, or components which have yet to be discovered and incorporated. The house is like the dwelling of some post-catastrophe band of nomads, scavenged and built from the ruins.
Charles Avery (copyright the artist)Charles Avery’s installation also has a post apocalyptic air to it. He’s set up a tableau, a 3-D freeze frame, in a large vitrine, whose metallic frame rises into geometric, crystalline shapes at its apex. The bottom is covered with drifts of greyish sand, which a crouched examination reveals to be layered in chiaroscuro gradations, like a reject souvenir from Alum Bay. The vitrine’s crystalline frame in grey metal makes it seem like a magnified version of a particle of these sands – a world in a grain. The sedimentary layers, drained of all colour, form the base of a blasted landscape, with wiry, dessicated growths spiking up through the surface. The tableau played out upon this bleak lunar desert relates to a text pinned on the wall opposite, which tells an explorer’s tale of journeys to a mysterious island, a locus of the weird, and the adventures he has there with his idealised female companion, Miss Miss. The story is fractured and vague, perhaps an insight into the confused mental processes of its narrator, and offers only tantalising hints as to the true nature of the imaginary world it depicts. It could be seen as an exploration of the creative process itself, the workings of the imagination made manifest with all its naked and unedited subconscious urges given symbolic form in the frozen fragment of story preserved in the glass cage. In this, it is a variant of some writers of old pulp SF and fantasy, whose rough-hewn and vividly imagined scenarios inadvertently projected powerful fears and desires in new configurations reflecting the spirit of the age, all of which amounted to a literary form of naïve art. Of course, many more writers in these genres wrote with a great deal more conscious control over their material. The tableau presents Miss Miss (an old shop dummy who more resembles a Miss Selfridge or Chelsea Girl) strikes a weary pose before the forked branches of a dead tree which suggests she’s been travelling for a long time through this unforgiving wasteland. Her backpack lies open and discarded behind her, its contents spilled. Before her, a snake leans on the sand, propped up on its single arm. Is this the end of Miss Miss? It’s a strange scene, full of genre surrealism which is enhanced by the fact that we don’t really know what’s going on. Like Miss, we are stranded at the mid-point of a story whose beginning and end we may never know.
Karla Black’s sculpture is also composed of sedimentary layers, this time of earth, the stuff of temperate rather than desert climes. It is open to the gallery air, unconfined by the containing, protective encasement of glass. Its stepped levels, with their subtle gradations of earthy colour, are textured with pebbles, clods and grains, providing naturally rich detailing. They rise to form the shape of an Incan ziggurat, with a flat plateau on top. This was dusted with what looked like yellow sherbet dab, with a scattering of brightly coloured sweet shards – sulphurous and gemlike mineral deposits. The whole could be a great geological formation or ruined temple on an alien planet, or simply a monumental chocolate cake. The schoolchildren in the gallery, let loose to draw what most caught their fancy, loved this one and had to be kept back from investigating too closely. It did have that quality of making you want to leap up on top and declare yourself king of the castle. The incongruity of soil heaped up on a well-polished parquet floor gave it a naturally intriguing air, with its indeterminate boundaries challenging the preciousness of immutable ‘do not touch’ modern artworks. Surely some of the loose crumbs of earth chaotically fringing the mound had tumbled down from the slopes during its period in the gallery. It’s a sculpture subject to the wider geological processes of erosion and the universal force of gravity, its form changing by the day, resisting attempts at anything more than superficial tidying and maintenance.
Simon Martin’s videos focus on the changing effects of slowly moving light sources on static objects. He shoots a lemon as if it were an astronomical body, observing it as it goes through phases of eclipse – a citrus moon or ascorbic asteroid. The shifting areas of shadow and light throw certain features into sharp relief. As with the moon, the divider between light and darkness brings out detail with preternatural clarity, highlighting the lemon’s pitted surface, its own craters and plateaux. In Martin’s other video, an African mask has its mouth, nose and eyes hollowed by richly dark shadows as the light source makes its steady sweep across its stern visage. This highlighting is reminiscent of the old movie keylighting through which cinematographers sculpted Marlene or Greta’s faces into exquisite masks. The bulky black boxes of the Trinitron TVs become like modern techno extensions of the ancient mask (although they themselves are like venerable relics in the speeded up historical time of the modern technological age). Black wood is backed by a distended skull of black plastic. The lemon, on the other hand, takes on a distinctly fleshy aspect at certain phases of its cycle, its sensuous curve contrasting with the foursquare black plastic moulding in which it is framed.
Elizabeth Price - User Group Disco (copyright the artist)A door at the side of the gallery led into a dark space through which children were forbidden to pass. This promised forbidden and illicit pleasures, but was presumably because of the strong language and sexual references in Emily Wardill’s film Game Keepers Without Game. We saw the last 10 minutes or so of this 76 minute film, which had received its premiere at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter the previous year. It featured disembodied conversations and reveries, some quite explicit, spoken whilst the camera focussed on small details of dress, furnishings and décor. Without wishing to give the end away (which is precisely what I’m about to do) it all concludes with a shocking image of someone lying in a pool of their own blood, an axe embedded in their head. I’m not sure what led up to this gory conclusion, and I didn’t feel like sitting through the whole thing on the hard wooden bench to find out. The fragment I saw was intriguing enough, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of showing lengthy films as exhibits in art galleries (I must admit, I never sat through it in Exeter either). Perhaps I’m a fogeyish traditionalist, but I think a cinema with comfortable seating would be a more appropriate setting. Around the corner from this partitioned area, heavy curtains parted to let us into another room in which a film was projected, this time Elizabeth Price’s shorter 15 minute User Group Disco. This took place in what purported to be a Hall of Sculptures, with lines of text occasionally flashing up providing an accompanying commentary, as if the whole thing were a guide book to a museum of the future. These announcements had an authoritative air, partaking of the academy and the corporate boardroom. They were applied to a series of familiar domestic objects – whether kitchen implements, spinning LPs or ceramic female figures – which were lit against a dark background and made strange by their isolation and treatment as artefacts of a bygone civilisation. The kitchen implements were made to spin and roll as if components of a great mechanism set into action, and the camera roved around the objects in atomic orbit, giving the whole film the feel of a dance of perpetual motion. Pulsing, moody music finally broke out into A-ha’s Take On Me, which really set everything vibrating, giving these objects reverentially filed away in the mysterious Hall an uncanny life of their own.
Coming up...Alasdair Gray's portraits and Christian Marclay's 24 hour film The Clock.