A series of exhibitions in London this winter deals with the collection of objects and the archiving of images as a pathway, through art, to a variety of utopias. In most cases these utopias are inaccessible, whether the artists are willing to admit it or not, or so deeply subjective they appear to be the vision of one person. The artwork as archive or collection is an increasingly popular form of installation art. Because of the repetition, multiplicity, and lack of distance between artist and spectator, there is a loss of much of the auratic quality of the work of art in this type of work. This is due to the increasing interpenetration of, and perhaps confusion between, curatorial and artistic practice. There is historic precedent in the 17th-century cabinet of curiosities, among other things, but these were forms of presentation and not works of art in themselves; it is important to remember that.
Curated by Mark Nash, Things Fall Apart, part of the Red Africa season at Calvert 22 Foundation (February 4 – April 3, 2016) strives to both engage a historical and educational narrative, and investigate several contemporary artistic practices. This results in a confrontation between aesthetic decisions and more academic concepts that never really gel. The Wayland Rudd Archive of Russian conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks catalogues images of race generated by the Soviet propaganda machine over the lifetime of the U.S.S.R. Presented as a slideshow on a flat-screen monitor, it offers a dream world devoid of overt racism yet replete with stereotypes. In contrast to this, photographers Jo Ractliffe, Onejoon Che, Isaac Julien, and Kiluanji Kia Henda collect relics of the palpable influence of communism in Africa—the faded murals of leaders/dictators and the crumbling and grimy obelisks, fountains and monumental sculptures that bespeak failed dreams and genocidal movements. Things Fall Apart manages to capture the enthusiasm that propelled the Non-Aligned Movement and its rejection of colonialism while gently reminding the viewer of the monsters that often grew to fill the power vacuum. Also included were Filipa Cesar; Radovan Cukić and Ivan Manojlović (Museum of Yugoslav History); Angela Ferreira; Stevan Labudović and Milica Tomić; Tonel; and The Travelling Communiqué Group.
Poly, by Park McArthur at Chisenhale Gallery (January 29 – April 3, 2016) is an ode to mass-produced processed plastic materials and their central place in the everything-proofed contemporary world that the human organism inhabits. McArthur displays these products in a site-specific installation; from massive blocks of soundproofing to trays of condoms, creams, breathing tubes, and absorbent gels in a dazzling variety of forms. They lessen the volume, soften the shocks, and dress the wounds of everyday existence. It is a world that the differently-abled artist knows well, and provides respite from the slings and arrows of existence but also to a degree anaesthetizes the individual and smooths over and normalizes their imperfections. These are not necessarily the imperfections of the body itself, but the friction that arises at the juncture between the body and its environment. This collection and presentation of mass produced objects is by its nature sterile and embraces the multiplicity of mechanical reproduction and packaging by inviting the viewer to investigate and even take away pieces from the display. There is a touch of the awe of the new and clean and infinite that is Koonsian as well. The rawness, stickiness, and messiness of the polymer in its unpackaged form only seeps into the exhibition through a series of paper works Polys 1, Polys 3, and Polys 4 (all 2016)—crafted with assistance of Radha Pandey at the Morgan Conservatory. These large-scale pieces are a hybrid of paper pulp and absorbent polyurethane powder, generally used in diapers or sanitary napkins. The rough, bumpy, and crinkled pieces breathe and transform based on the humidity in the air, and offer a bridge between the messy but meticulous care and order of the installation of the products, and the artist’s vulnerable humanity.
Betty Woodman’s installations of ceramic vases, shards and painting, Theatre of the Domestic at ICA (February 3 – April 10), addresses ceramics as a narrative and environmental art form. Woodman takes the basic template of the vessel and utilizes it as a springboard for sculptural form. She puns back and forth between the three-dimensional ceramic container of liquid, and the image of that container in the mind and history of art. Simple glazed-clay cylinders that actually inhabit space are appended with flat glazed-clay appliques depicting pitchers, spouts and handles that are purely decorative, and the artist ventures into human and organic forms as well. Particularly successful is a series of standing women Kimono Ladies # 1-6 (2015), festooned with fabric swatches. Here, Woodman creates still lifes referencing Matisse and company, using glistening glazed shards that conflate the fauvist brush stroke with fragile abstract forms. In the artist’s bestiary of form these basic clay syllables are the missing link between easel painting and ceramics. She follows through on this thought with the installations on the second floor of the ICA. These are two-dimensional assemblages with a ceramic work as the focal point with a painted background highlighted by the shards, such as The Summer House (2015). The piece spans the entire gallery, the aim being to reverse the direction of the diorama—Woodman’s large multimedia works strive to create a hermetic flattened world that draws the volume out of form rendering a beautifully frozen and static pantomime of inanimate objects.
This is Today at Gazelli Art House (January 22 – March 6, 2016), curated by Mila Askarova, celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of This is Tomorrow, a seminal exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that presented a series of artistic collaborations navigating between pop and contemporary art movements and guided by the communications theories of Marshall McLuhan. The exhibition presents vintage works by Magda Cordell McHale, Eduardo Paolozzi and Derek Boshier, among others, but it is the presence of the zany and groundbreaking architecture collective Archigram around which the bold and broad gestures of the painters and sculptors in the exhibition coalesce. The geometric cities of Archigram, depicted in drawings and maquettes, appear to walk and breathe and interact with each other: they transform urban sprawl into unified sentient organisms. Putting a positive spin on the theme of the trends of human habitation, culture and cooperation, Archigram is a cheery Utopian antidote to the grim reality of Things Fall Apart, while Betty Goodman and Park McArthur fall along differing gradients in between.