Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olivia Plender at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

Olivia Plender’s exhibition Rise Early, Be Industrious, on at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol until September 9th, makes maximal use of every room available, each turned into a world with its own particular character, offering a series of alternatives or parallel possibilities. A common theme underpins the otherwise diverse experiences awaiting the visitor as they pass through these worlds. As the title suggests, this theme is the nature of work, the moral or philosophical framework within which it is placed, and perhaps most importantly, the question of who stands to benefit most from the industrious labour which is so often put forward as a means to personal and spiritual improvement. There is also a strain of utopianism throughout, an interest in althernative, less hierarchical approaches to education, religion and social organisation.

The first room features two tabletop models, one (Empire City – The World on One Street, 2009) reconstructing the layout of the exemplary buildings in the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley in 1924, the other (The Truth Itself Speaks Through Me, 2012) giving form to the allegory of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. In the latter, a narrow stair winds around and up mountainous hills to the Celestial City on its crest. This shining, domed, white-walled vision of paradise looks like some of the larger buildings in the Empire exhibition, offering a parallel with its version of the perfect world. It’s crowned with a radiant golden aurora which could have been cut out of a William Blake print, the new Jerusalem realised. The whole tabletop landscape, with its winding paths, railway modellers shrubbery and dramatic contours looks like the set for a particularly abstruse and esoteric episode of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. It’s indicative of the nature of the exhibition as a whole that it is both accessible, engaging and fun whilst at the same time embodying serious and thoroughly researched historical, social and political ideas. The hand-woven banner How Paul’s Penny Became a Pound takes its homily and its depiction of an earnest, bright-eyed ‘good boy’ from a nineteenth century children’s book which inculcated the idea of economic investment as a sure way to happiness and prosperity from an early age. The Victorian ethos of hard work, dogged piety and parsimony is promoted in all of these works as being both morally and materially improving. There is an ironic distancing or critical questioning implicit in the use of the kind of banner more commonly associated both with the Arts and Crafts movement, and with the socialist solidarity movements to which its leading figure William Morris and others such as Walter Crane allied themselves, to deliver a message proclaiming a moral foundation to capitalist accumulation. There’s also a marked atemporality and symbolic contrast in the juxtaposition of the Celestial City with the cluster of Manhattan-style skyscrapers which lie on the plains below. Bunyan’s city is a utopian destination rewarding spiritual aspiration and moral virtue, and it dwarfs the miniscule modern city below, hinting at an abandonment of the moral basis of the Victorian outlook on work, and of financial dealings in particular, in a world which no longer feels the need for myths and parables of the upstanding life. The relatively stunted stature of the towers of finance, in reality built to impress, and to outdo one another in an ongoing and deeply symbolic competition to see who can rise the highest, points to a diminution which Plender, critical though she is of the exploitative basis of Victorian business and financial expansion, perhaps regrets. The model’s comparisons of scale suggests that a void of purposeless and directionless wealth generation has replaced the certainties of the nineteenth century world.

Celestial and earthly cities - The Truth Itself Speaks Through Me
These certainties are represented by the buildings of the Empire Exhibition, which brings them into the more unstable environment of the early twentieth century, and the post-First World War era. It’s a period in which the foundations of empire were beginning to seem shaky, and the assertive monumentality of the buildings reflects an attempt to reassert the idea of a solid and unified global economic system drawing on a strong central authority. The pavilions laid out in this ideal city each stand for a different country, with the design shorthand for an instantly recognisable national style or defining agricultural product for export. It offers a utopian, one world vision of global unity, laid out according to a well-ordered plan. Numbers next to the buildings and an accompanying key show how systematised and ordered the condensed world of the Olympia site is. But all the buildings are a bleached out, bony white, with all differences and distinctions eradicated. It might be a utopia when viewed from a particular elevated perspective, but from others it is an imposed order, mere tyranny. The currency and power structure of this tyranny is revealed by the mobile of magnified cut-out engravings which hangs at the back of the hall, in which symbols of sovereignty slowly spin above and in front of dangling farm animals, peasant workers and seeds.

A game for losers - Set Sail for the Levant
Upstairs, the origins and future directions of such a world order are laid out in a room which has a floor plan outlined with lines suggesting the pattern of a formal garden. A model of enclosure in miniature. In the corner, stacked bales of hay point to a rural past which can be played out in a game which Plender invented in 2007: Set Sail for the Levant. It’s a standard ‘who can get to the end first’ board game, with various obstacles and set backs encountered along the way. But the odds are stacked against the peasant playing pieces, with indebtedness, exploitation, starvation and resultant enforced criminality, imprisonment and early death the more usual outcomes. Nuggets of gold are hidden inside the oversized dice, the rewards of rare fortune, and the cards are printed and written in the style of mid-17th century dissenters’ pamphlets of the sort produced and distributed by the Levellers, the Diggers and other groups proposing alternative systems of land ownership. The World Turned Upside Down card emulates the famous image of the spreadeagled figure stood on its head which served to sum up the radical aspirations of the age, the sense that a real realignment of power was possible. You can sit on the bales of hay and play the game, and see just how fast you sink into oblivion. The Levant (the Middle Eastern lands beyond the Mediterranean) once more holds out the shimmering, mirage-like prospect of a golden Jerusalem, a paradise of plenty beyond the next horizon. Here, it is an escape from rather than a reward for hard labour, however. A promised land which you may only get to beyond the veil of death.

Duck houses and hobby horses - Ignoble monuments
Set Sail for the Levant, which is a kind of anti-Monopoly exploring the roots of modern capitalism, points to the way in which games and toys can have a core of cultural programming embedded within them. A more positive way in which toys can be used as a means of educational programming is found in Friedrich Froebel’s ‘gifts’, wooden building blocks which offered a gradually unfolding developmental system allowing for the creation of increasingly complex shapes over a structured period of time. A similar opportunity is afforded the gallery visitor through the collection of wooden blocks created by Plender and called Social Construction, the underlying programmatic purpose of the toy exposed by the title rather than covertly disguised. Towers, gateways, buildings and city walls can be fitted together, but the different architectural elements are fairly limited and solidly classical in form, so the variants on the basic social patterns which you can create are strictly circumscribed. The form of the architecture also promotes traditional ideas of social order, along with the continuance of established hierarchies which classical styles imply. Clearly there’s a heavily metaphorical element at work in this constructive play. On the far wall, three objects sit on shelves just above head level (for the averagely sized person, that is), seemingly random and unrelated neighbours. Each has a double meaning which connects them to the room, to each other and to the exhibition as a whole, however. A wicker model of a beehive offers a craft-made symbol of agricultural labour, and stands as a symbol of industriousness, and of a strict and unquestioning hierarchical order, with queen at the apex. Next to it are two objects labelled with bronze plaques positioning them as sarky equivalents of the monuments erected by the great and powerful to honour themselves and their achievements. One is a Swedish duckhouse, the absurd emblem of the recent MP’s expenses scandal; the other is a battered model of a rocking horse, marking a similar semi-comical expose of power and preferment, David Cameron’s riding of a ‘retired’ police horse owned by the former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks. The latter two objects give the lie to the ethos of the former, which further expresses the sense of righteousness and god-given order propping up the Victorian age of industrialisation, and the extent to which its rigid and self-justifying moral order has withered along with its imperial hold on the world. All three are interesting objects in and of themselves, even when divested of symbolic meaning – odd ornamental knick-knacks scavenged from the rubbish dump of history and tarted up to make them presentable.

Chat space - the informal TV studio
The next room is dominated by a wide, raised platform which you can leap up onto if your feeling agile, or ascend to via the ramp at the rear if you’re not (I took the latter option). Having thus attained an elevated perspective, you find yourself in a blend of relaxed seventies pad and open plan TV studio. Brightly coloured square cushions are scattered around to sprawl on and there’s a central declivity in which you can sit, or on the edge of which you can perch, and discuss art or anything else which takes your fancy. The whole is designed to evoke the spirit of the Open University programmes of the 70s, which sought to bring cultural education to a wider reach of the populace, and use the televisual medium to encourage participation and interaction. TVs are place around the central well, one showing Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC series Civilisation, an attempt to deliver a definitive survey of canonical Western art. Sir Kenneth’s TV is propped up on a plinth-like box to emphasise his authoritative approach to presentation. Facing him are two smaller tellies showing Open University programmes involving children on modern housing estates engaged in various forms of play, and a young, long-haired lecturer in casual clothing, which in itself rejects the formal conservatism of Clarke’s tweed jackets, holding forth on various ideas about alternative social and cultural models. There’s obviously an opposition being set up here, similar to that between Civilisation and Marxist critic and author John Berger’s response to it in The Art of Seeing. Civilisation is fairly easy to criticise from a modern perspective, with Kenneth Clark’s patrician tones (why does he pronounce mythology ‘mai-thology’?) coming from the upper ranks of the art establishment and his view of art history tending to present a parade of great figures the value of whose work as an index of both genius and of the progress of western civilisation remains largely unquestioned. Actually, watching it here and from the copy I borrowed from the library a while back, it struck me how beautifully filmed it was, with slowly panning cameras lingering on the frescoes, sculptures or paintings being discussed, or sometimes keeping the frame still for long enough to contemplate the work in question. It’s also noticeable how little Clark imposes himself on the material, appearing relatively infrequently to talk directly to camera. Indeed, he often leaves significant periods of silence to allow the art to speak for itself. I’d certainly stick up for Civilisation. It does what it sets out to do very well, and presented a definitive outline of the standard view of Western art against which Berger and the Open University lecturers could offer alternative perspectives, paying more attention to the political, economic and historical contexts within which the art was produced. The presenter of the OU films presages elements of the modern documentary approach, with his informality, his walking towards the camera and the broad gesticulations which accompany his expostulations.

A gallery attendant was perched on the edge of the central ‘forum’ well, and his presence invited discussion and involvement in line with the OU ethos. He was effectively incorporated into the installation (and I wonder whether an attendant’s presence was a prescribed part of the set up) and the engagement of the visitor was encouraged. Behind the scenes of the ‘studio’ were small heaps of communications, recording and viewing technologies from the time. There was a reel to reel tape machine and a stack of bulky, wooden framed TVs which brought to mind the multi-channel wall set up by David Bowie’s alien visitor in Nic Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth to feed his addiction to American media. There was also an office desk with scattered rolls of Dictaphone tape, local business telephone directories from the 60s and 70s (one from the Bedfordshire area allowed Mrs W to look up her grandparents’ old numbers) and a couple of phones with the old circular dialling wheels. It was surprising how evocative the ratcheting wind and release sounds of the dials were – a particular sonic aspect of everyday life which has completely vanished. This and the other pieces of redundant technology were a reminder of how bulky, tactile and time-consuming the means and methods of communication were in comparison to the modern day.

An adjacent room offers a display of materials from a 1976 Open University course which Plender is particularly interested in, Art and Environment. These booklets and posters are strongly redolent of the preoccupations of modern ‘hauntological’ artists and musicians, and many have a distinct Ghost Box air about them. The guide book for Danebury Hill Fort; the flexidisc record of ‘Natural Sound’ attached to a page opposite a black and white picture of Stonehenge casting dramatic early morning shadows; the field of newly harvested corn with the presence of big science on the horizon in the form of ‘golf ball’ satellite tracking stations, the message ‘art is not yesterday’ written across the centre; the follow up picture of a dramatic storm cloud in front of which a crudely sketched figure descends below a pyramidal parachute, the second half of the slogan, ‘art is tomorrow…’ almost acting as another riposte to Civilisation; and the various striking posters on the wall – the one for electronic sound, with clouds accumulating around the concentric ripples of a speaker, and that for natural sound, with its sketch of an ear looking like the rocky entrance to a cave; the unit Our Conversation with Things and Places borrowing Heath Robinson’s satirical portrayal of 30s modernist flats and the reduction of the Englishman’s garden to the boundaries of his balcony, and the Empty Box unit’s sculptural close up of pencil shavings and graphite dust; and the Art and Political Action module using a Maoist poster of happy red book waving peasants gathering around a cringing Nixon caricature and menacing him with giant pens, brushes and spades whilst a comrade leads the revolutionary singing on his accordeon. All of them could be part of the booklet for a Belbury Poly or Focus Group CD, featuring as they do that blend of tradition, folk custom and modernist futurism which the good folk at Ghost Box find so fascinating (a fascination which I wholeheartedly share). The module on witchcraft is also in that line, and exemplifies the strong feminist perspective which is brought to many aspects of the course. An investigation of folk song is also promised in the radio programme ‘Oral Culture’. The introduction to this module reads like an explanation of some of the central ideas behind Plender’s exhibition, which is perhaps why it has been left open at this page in its glass display cabinet: ‘There are some areas of struggle which have been so drastically concealed and distorted that they appear only in reverse: witchcraft is an example of this. There are other areas of protest and creativity that do not pass as recognised art forms and are consequently not ‘art’ and not valued’.

In the small gallery on the third floor of the Arnolfini, Plender has created artefacts which derive from or give expression to social movements which, to a greater or lesser extent, also took on the mantle of religious organisations. She has made another banner in honour of the founders of the Spiritualist movement, Katie and Margaretta Fox. She points to the fact that Spiritualism was a belief system which emerged from the common populace. It attempted to approach supernatural manifestations with the rationalist, scientific frame of mind of the Victorian age, incorporated wider progressive ideals concerning social equality, and eventually won recognition as an established church in 1951. The banner is designed to be hoisted above the heads of marchers, but unlike the young person’s guide to capitalism offered on the wall of the first gallery, this one, unlikely as it might at first seem, wouldn’t be out of place in a dissenters’ rally. There are also some brightly coloured felt tunics, which look like they might gave emerged from the cleaner and more wholesome end of the communal 60s. In fact, they originate in the communal 20s and 30s, from the kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a proto-New Age group which drew on Native American cultures for its beliefs and outlook. They emphasised outdoor living and traditional crafts, had a covenant outlining their communally held ideals, and created their own iconography and symbology. Besides the costumes, Plender has made a model, smaller in scale to those in the first room, a landscape tableau in which a colourful Kibbo Kift encampment is contrasted with the grey figures and industrial buildings beyond its boundaries.

Having created a different environment in each gallery, Plender then expands her exhibition beyond the official spaces into the reading room and library on the top floor, turning it into what she describes as an Entrepreneurial Garden. Once more inviting active visitor participation, this is her take on the modern ‘creative’ workplace, which has absorbed 60s notions of serious play and leisure as an alternative to the traditional concept of the working life and incorporated them into an environment which gives space and time for innovative ideas to flourish. A hammock strung across the corner was occupied when I looked in, although no-one was playing on the bar football table at the time. A model on a side table depicted the Arnolfini itself as such an Entrepreneurial Garden. Again, there was a great deal of fun to be had here, but with an underlying seriousness of purpose (serious fun, then). Plender made the point that such workplaces were still, indeed, places of work with hierarchical management structures in position. The products of creative work and play engaged in within these bright, relaxed anti-offices were still owned by large companies, often in the form of ‘intellectual property’. The siting of this part of the exhibition in a public space beyond the ‘official’ galleries was a clever way of showing how this new model of work affected to blur the boundaries between work and leisure. As a natural endpoint to the circuit which had begun two floors below with the Imperial and Celestial Cities, it suggested an illuminating contrast with the initial promise of material and moral improvement achieved through hard labour. Here, play can also produce value, but the question of ownership remains. And if the Victorians promoted the idea that every waking hour should be filled with productive activity, then the optimistic modern view of leisure and work combining and co-existing in and ideal balance often devolves into a competitive struggle for personal progress in which the imperative to work becomes just as dominant and all-consuming. A modern day materialist Pilgrim’s Progress, perhaps, to the moulded white plastic apex of the Dream Corp., the penthouse paradise of the CEO.

Social Construction
Plender has managed to combine an engaging and enjoyable visual (and tactile) experience of immediate appeal with philosophical exploration of real depth and breadth, of those who wish to investigate further. A couple of small boys in the first gallery seemed genuinely enchanted by the models, and a discussion was in full swing in the informal TV studio installation, which showed the exhibition could be enjoyed on many levels by people of all ages. A thick wodge of accompanying notes, offered as a glossary, gives background information on a number of the themes which run throughout the exhibition, including the OU Art and Environment course and the Dartington College of Art with which it was indirectly linked (a local connection for me, there), Google and the modern workplace, the political scandals, comical and serious at the same time, for which she has produced her amusing proposals for official monuments, the Kibbo Kift and Spiritualism movements, and cybernetic and systems theories (as recently explored in Adam Curtis’ documentary series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, itself in line with Plender’s ideas about cultural TV programming). All of which further demonstrates the extent of the research which lies behind the exhibition, and the links and associations which Plender has forged between different cultural and historical ideas and movements. The kind of unconventional route through knowledge which the OU would have encouraged, in fact (and still does, of course). You can hear Olivia Plender explaining in clear and cogent terms the many ideas behind the different rooms in her exhibition over here. Rise Early, Be Industrious continues until 9th September, when it will be put to bed.

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