The ‘displaced New Yorker’, Lisa Bradley, here showing her interactive piece ‘Studio’, is surprised at the lack of politics in her fellow students’ work. ‘I’m surprised, because there is so much in American art right now, but nothing here, even concerning the world outside,’ she says. It is true, that on face value, there seems to be very little preoccupation with current affairs in this exhibition, an interim show of MA and Research works from the University of Middlesex art faculty, but if one digs a little deeper, the political, social and personal awareness is clear.
Perhaps in the States, where a shiny new President has just taken seat, there is more inspiration. Indeed, the last several presidents have provided so much theatre that fresh waves of creativity have whipped up cyclones around them. Even in the UK, a change of Prime Minister, especially when that regime brings fresh hope, has coincided with surges in creative activity. Think Tony Blair and the YBAs; Margaret Thatcher and the writers Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Hanif Kureishi and Ian McEwan.
Alas, Gordon Brown doesn’t quite elicit the same sense of euphoria on his global travels as Obama; David Cameron’s gloss has diminished with time and context, and in a society where everyone is trying to fight for their own individuality in the face of inexorable change, it seems that artists, in London at least, are comfortable to remain in their own box, exploring mental illness, sex, landscape, religious iconography and symbolism, amongst other things; it also seems that Britain is a little jealous of the new American face, and has turned away into the mirror, to concentrate on its own.
There may not be much to smile about or devote concerted thought to in the farce that is current British politics, but further afield, Helin Anahit, an Istanbul-born Armenian, explores memory and imagination through a video installation, captured in a garish picture frame that parodies Western painting. Islam has traditionally prohibited painting, so here an Islamic film ironically presented as a classic European landscape. In it, the sea is separated into three parts, with nothing seen to cross the no-man’s land in the middle; the viewer’s eye is channelled through a crescent icon on the roof of a mosque, redolent of the logo on the bonnet of a Mercedes S-Class; the viewer sees as if from the rear passenger seat – one can imagine himself to be a Western diplomat travelling across for critical talks to try to diffuse the deepening political angst between the EU and this Islamic state. Indeed, Anahit parodies this tension further through the introduction of a cruise ship with both European and Arab flags positioned relatively on its front and rear.
Rebwar Rashed presents his political views in the form of a diary, with twelve rolled up acrylics on canvas. Here, the symbols we normally associate with colours are altered. On Iraqi mornings, a blue sky came to be associated with air raids, imminent death and destruction; grey therefore gains a peaceful, life-retaining element. In Iraq as in Britain, black is a funereal colour, whereas in India white takes on that same role. As it is, the canvases are rolled up so as not to reveal the true compositions of the twelve paintings, and so essentially we are looking at mere snippets of Rebwar’s diary; the effect, with figures from different canvases appearing to dance with each other across the face of all twelve, is redolent of a Guernica in full colour.
In the Christian corner, Ginette Fiandanca depicts the Cathedrale de Chartres, most easily seen through the representation of its famous labyrinth in one leaf and dolmenic crypt in another. Time and history are amalgamated into the triptych; a hopscotch image painted over the top of all three leaves both connects and desecrates them, whilst symbolising the Holy Trinity. It appears that the Son has turned the tables, but this time on the entire Christian Church with the power of an earthquake, churning up the archaeology of the land and displacing history into the present, revealing its secrets, riches, jewels, and perhaps Michael Petry’s delicately-blown libation dishes (Petry dishes?), which have landed safely in the next room, retaining their honey and wine. The Holy Spirit, seen departing towards heaven in the top right-hand corner, having seemingly launched itself via the hopscotch, has freed itself from once-thought eternal imprisonment by the Church.
More literally apocalyptic is Christopher Ghussar’s response with another triptych, in which the fight between Good and Evil takes place in mid-heaven to protect purity and divinity, captured in a young girl redolent of Snow White – whose dress appears to be made of silky labial folds – from the threat of Evil, a skull-bearing phallic female. Here Ghussar is successful in attempting to strip mythology of its imagery, dispensing first with colour; these etchings ask questions of the viewer, who is unlikely to have escaped the myths and fairy tales of childhood that help to shape his perception of the world therein.
This view of colour as being ‘too loaded’ is shared with Beverley Bennett, who plays with the drawing line and its language, with gestural marks on paper, by turns gentle and violent, inspired by Foucault’s ‘Madness and Civilisation’. Melancholy, the state Foucault suggested ‘black bile’ to describe, is associated with inertia, whilst the gestural marks indicate violence and dynamism; the two states opposed and in one evoke a split consciousness, or schizophrenia, resulting in a conflict between the piece and its title. The piece in situ, hung with sewing pins, with some components pressed to the wall and some ‘floating’, gains a sculptural aspect, resembling a shattered windscreen, outside which is superimposed the scratchy, fraught state of mind visible in one living with mental illness.
This play on visual language and its different means of speaking is shared with Alexander Tzallas, whose wall-mounted Braille message can be read only by a few. If only the rest of us could see that it is an instruction not to touch the model of a deadly poison-dart frog sat on a pillar before it. One is led to ask, ‘how does contemporary art cater for those with impaired of one or more senses?’
Philip Weiner, who presents several pieces that act in situ as one, deals further with this preoccupation with the human condition, illustrating strongly the common need to look to the self rather than the charismatic politician for guidance and succour. Here, Weiner expands upon a Freudian idea, suggesting the male to be more troubled by his lack of a womb than the female is by her lack of a penis. A dismembered phallic structure is positioned upon two empty hyacinth glasses; a vaginal structure is troubled only by an, albeit thick, finger; a deflated football acts as a fist; an athlete’s hand positioned as if on a starting grid is redolent of a stiletto heel. The image of masculinity is not concerned with the truth of male vulnerability and insecurity; it is all about strength and performance, with the result that men are frequently anxious about the role they are expected to play, as men.
Furthermore, Antonia Pilgrim Ward reduces text and photography to a brutal, beautiful, simple painting, in which, it appears, a demonic male character of somewhat feral, prehistoric origins, frothing at the mouth, attacks and penetrates the female with what could be a dinosaur bone. ‘Non ti nascondere’, says the female – or at least the text is tilted in her favour, armouring her with knowledge, and therefore power; nothing that this fiendish animal can perpetrate against her can hurt her, to her soul. It is interesting that the piece was traced initially from a somewhat more benign photograph of her two young daughters playing.
Children can be cruel, of course, and Nikos Tsiaparas explores identity and personality through childhood play. Each child appears to retain a toy or object that he or she is reluctant to share with the viewer/voyeur, despite teasing with Mona Lisa smiles and beseeching eyes. These are amongst the most unsettling images of the exhibition, for as adults we tend to forget that children can be, whether they are conscious of it or not, sexual. Tsiaparas presents these children as line drawings with only the visible flesh of the faces and hands treated to more than rudimentary colour and detail. The eyes of the five children are so vivid as to stare back at the voyeur such that the latter feels the subject of scrutiny; there are shades of a horror film in the slightly sinister way the children brandish their toys. A boy bears a toy gun pointing outwards from the canvas but such that its length is displayed in all its phallic pride, as he grins nonchalantly. Contemporary themes of control, being controlled, sexualisation of children and even child prostitution can be read in the eyes and smiles of these strangely guilty innocents.
Tsiaparas’ study into childhood nostalgia from an adult perspective is shared by both Tom Geogheon and Michael Petry. Petry’s glass balls on a rope are strongly interactive in that each ‘new owner’ is encouraged to post a momentous memory or details of an important event, such as the birth of a child or a highly optimistic ‘windfall’. The title is proposed to change as each new owner adds a memory to the work, encouraging not only the retention of memories but also the act of regeneration, as the work will not lose its relevance if used as a memory storage device – as it moves from owner to owner, gallery to gallery, it essentially ‘draws’ its way around. Beneath it sit Rachel Cheung’s exquisite porcelain ornaments, tensely juxtaposed with ordinary items of trash such as loo-roll holders and plastic drinks cups, that force us to rethink the way we look at the items that we every day find discarded in the street.
There is an equal sense of regeneration in Geogheon’s sepia-lit light-box bearing old x-ray slides of spinal and pelvic injuries, some of which would have been recovered from, including, hopefully, the twenty-seven year old woman whose personal details are captured in one of the slides. Both the light-box and the slides were saved from an old hospital where the artist had been treated as a child, now primed for demolition – one can hear the wrecking balls in the distance but it is in fact Paula Lucido’s black-belt kick-boxers striking out at one another to a slowed-down Steve Reich soundtrack – and used to create a beautiful piece of machinery that whilst dealing with a sombre subject, testifies to the hope of recovery.
Geogheon has in common with Susannah King the idea of finding and exposing abandoned spaces, whether that be the pelvic cavity of an old lady long since dead, or a dying common landscape in the case of King, whose three pieces, one stand-alone and the other a sort-of diptych, refer to the control and manipulation of a space, such that one could imagine walking into a pitch-dark forest with all its intangible ghouls and Ian Curtis whispering the lines of the first verse of ‘Disorder’ in one’s ear, the unknown whooshes and reverberations haunting one’s immutable progress. Much of the visual energy of these pieces is suppressed; one almost has to feel for the atmosphere they create, and watch one’s hot breath rise up in a small cloud in the still, cold air.
Instead of seeking out abandoned spaces, Jeong Eun Kim creates them. Her photographs of two books on the late nineteenth-century exploration of Southern Africa, bought from a charity shop and shot in a state of being opened or closed, dispense with their own histories – the artist has digitally removed all the text and defaced the books such that the photographed explorers seem to have taken all their hard work and gained knowledge to the grave. Here is a rare political statement – history is written by the victors, and here, the vengeful Korean is removing the evidence of Western victory. Time is in transition, as is evoked in the large-scale presentation of the books in a semi state of closure. All the science fiction of the past 100 years suggests that the future has already been written; the past is obliterated. Very Veronica Bailey.
More original is the return to the aforementioned Lisa Bradley, and her piece ‘Studio’. Here, she attempts, literally, to capture the essence of her studio in a bottle, for the pleasure of the viewer, or voyeur, such that one can even get close enough to smell it. Medicine bottles positioned on a shelf contain distilled scents meant to represent the smells of the studio, whilst each also contains a series of tattoo transfers on which, printed backwards, are a set of mantras from Bradley’s favourite and most inspiring artists – the quotes are only revealed when the tattoo is transferred. It proves to be one of the most popular attractions of what is a mostly successful show, and whereas the bottles appeared perfectly neat and tidy at the beginning of the Private View, by the end, the tattoo plastics were scattered everywhere, tops of medicine bottles having rolled across to the other end of the room, plastic cups formerly of red wine stacked up on the shelf, much more redolent of the average artist’s studio.
ARTISTS: Helin Anahit; Beverley Bennett; Lisa Bradley; Robert Xue Bo Chen; Rachel Cheung; Jeong Eun Kim; Ginette Fiandanca; Laura Fiorio; Charlotte Gallon; Tom Geogheon; Christopher Ghussar; Tina Gverovic; Mark Hancock; Susannah King; Nina Krylova; Paula Lucido; Michael Petry; Zoe Pithers; Rebwar Rashed; Antonia Pilgrim Ward; Nikos Tsiaparas; Alexander Tzallas; Philip Weiner.