Earlier in 2017 we said goodbye to British Art Show 8 after three months in the city at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton City Art Gallery and Bargate Monument. We teamed up with first year BA Hons English students at University of Southampton to review the exhibition.
Across the two galleries that exhibited the British Art Show 8 in Southampton, the John Hansard Gallery and Southampton City Art Gallery, I got a sense that I was being repeatedly forced to invade someone’s private moment with themselves and to look at specific details about a person in a way I would not usually do in actual life.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s collection of portraits – A Radical Under Beechwood; The Hours And The Verses; The Twice Done; Lapwing Over Lark; Come Hither Through Heather; Wrought Iron; A Head For Botany and The Work (all 2015) – were political works highly relevant to the time we live in today. The invasive close portraits focus on the faces of black people and their expressions, which invites the spectator to consider the reasoning behind their unhappy expressions and to, think about them as individuals with life-stories. The centre of each painting is an ordinary black person, and this negates the possibility of simply giving them a dismissive momentary glance, as is too often the case in the current political climate, since each portrait is a work of art that is meant to be considered and looked at. The relevance to the #blacklivesmatter movement is enforced because three of the paintings of the males appear to look similar to mugshots, evoking the fact that a high percentage of black African-American males are imprison in the United States. Each individual in each painting has a different background, and is wearing different clothes, so the context behind each shot is different; however they all have the same expression on their face, suggesting an overall displeasure with the treatment of black people in Western countries.
Imogen Stidworthy’s installation A Crack in the Light (Bread) (2013) provoked self-reflection in a different way from Yiadom-Boakye who wants the viewer to consider the current political and social treatment of black people. The presence of four separate and seemingly unconnected screens, playing different videos heightened my attention and senses because I needed to actively focus on each one individual story to understand it, whilst being able to hear the other two videos playing. It was unusual to have two videos with two voices playing at the same time as it is not the usual cinematic experience that we have. It was slightly overwhelming because it did ask a lot from me to ignore the other visuals and sounds and just focus on one out of the four stories even though in real life,we constantly hear background noises and others’ conversations whilst we are having our own. In this way, one’s ability to tune out surrounding noises in everyday life is brought to our awareness, making us reflect on who gets tuned out when we do this in real life.
The British Art Show 8 highlighted the current state of art in a world dominated by technology. It focused on the past, present and future, creating a viewpoint that is very relevant to contemporary culture, including work that concentrates on virtual reality, artificial intelligence and electronic ‘beings’. There are also works that focus on looking, the trails of thought and philosophy, which draw on the ideas of beings or objects that do not particularly have a function or purpose.
Benedict Drew’s Sequencer (2015) with its use of video, audio and sculpture in is effective in conveying the idea of the unknown: his installation appears to focus on the difficulties of understanding. The sculptures draw on ideas of evolution, and thus nature. However, the use of image projections highlight how technology has influenced nature, and raises questions of how society and nature have been influenced by technology. The idea behind his anarchic installation is that it is intended as an escape route from and a critical response to what he calls ‘the horrors of the modern world’.’ This is further evidenced by the use of audio that makes the viewer of his art feel uncomfortable, but also seems to drown out their thoughts, due to the volume of the audio.
Laure Prouvost’s installation Hard Drive (2015) also explores technology within society, and more closely technology within the home. The animation of household technology gives the impression of roles being reversed; instead of technology being silent, they have voices that come alive when the spotlight has been placed on them. The pieces of technology also have distinct personalities, showing that they have been given human characteristics. This created some elements of paranoia and discomfort, as the voices given to the inanimate objects indicated that the human viewers are the inanimate objects instead, and are pawns used by the technology, instead of the other way around. This highlights how Prouvost’s work explores ideas of truth and fiction, and showcases how the inanimate objects are drawing attention to their desire to be seen as more than just objects.
Where the aforementioned artists focused mainly on present technology, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings such as A Radical Under Beechwood (2015) The Hours And The Verses (2015) focus more on people, their facial expressions, and their body language. Her use of imagined people draws emphasis on how her hopes to ‘make people intelligible through paint’. Her use of people that are not real also aids the viewer to create stories about each of her pieces, based purely upon the facial cues and body language the artist has put across. She comments that ‘looking, seeing and reading across them is something I really want to encourage’; this focus on facial expressions and body language implies how she is drawing emphasis on how different people interpret these body and facial cues in different ways- showing how people do not always interpret emotions, and art itself, in the same way.
The British art show contained many pieces which questioned just what is real in modern life. Liam Gillick’s Lazzarato on Debt (2015) provides a commentary on the role of debt in modern life and consequently suggests that debt is not real.
The sculpture asks members of the public to donate change, with the change intended to be given to students helping their student debt. By being a sculpture in a gallery, the piece acts as a statement on debt as its function as a piece of art is to engage with the viewer. This referenced a quote on the sculpture, which states that debt is ‘exercised neither through repression nor through ideology’ hence suggesting that debt is a part of our lives, which when considering familial debt is certainly true. Nevertheless, by being a piece of art, money isn’t put back into the sculpture thus suggesting that debt can’t all be paid back. Therefore, it can be said that debt is abstract. Consequently, the idea of debt itself isn’t real, rather it is an illusion which we all believe.
A similar piece was Magali Reus‘s sculptures of locks Leaves (Jet, December), Leaves (Kent Stripes, June); Leaves (Cole Raven, October); Leaves (Aspen Grey, March) and Leaves (Skip, February), (all 2015 ). An accompanying description states that the information embedded in the sculptures is designed to ‘hint at things of emotional importance’, suggesting that our personal information is locked away from our reach. However, these locks are all broken, implying that it is possible to be free from the digitalised and electronic world. This is consolidated by the fact that the locks often appear as circuit boards, and by being broken, the electronic locks fail to close, providing freedom into the natural world. However, this also suggests that the lock itself is fake and that in reality, none of our information is safe.
A final interesting piece was Laure Prouvost‘s piece Hard Drive (2015). The room consists of many electronic devices including fans and computers and contains a voice recording which acts in relation to the devices. The voice recording creates the sense of voyeurism, which is heightened due to the sexual undertones of the recording. Furthermore, the recording imitates breathing and consequently forces us to question what is natural and what isn’t. The fans also act similarly as they clearly are designed to imitate wind. The animation of electricity clearly portrays the power it has in our society.. As the devices in the installation imitate nature, in an overwhelming and aggressive manner, it shows the dangers of viewing electricity as natural and consequently reminds us of our dependence in the modern world on something which is unnatural and therefore not entirely real.
Overall, the pieces work well together to discuss illusions of modern life, those being that we regularly confuse what is fake to be real, and consequently unnatural and natural. This is shown to be damaging as it is hinted that this causes on an over dependence on the unnatural which causes for the natural to lose its meaning.
One of my favourite pieces was Andrea Büttner’s Images in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement (2014). The collages made up of individual of photographs with their own independent meanings and intentions work together to represent Kant’s argument.
What I find even more fascinating is how the work creates ‘a new layer of footnotes’. Like an essay that is formed of references of other people’s work to form an independent argument, the images that make up the piece are footnotes, found on Flickr or in books. In fact, Kant’s own argument is a reference point used to make a brand-new piece. The endless recycling of disconnected materials that form the piece is a little reminiscent of the novels of W. G. Sebald and the references to architecture, literature and nature that form much of his storytelling.
Perhaps the most shocking piece in the gallery was Rachel Maclean’s Feed Me (2015). The piece aims to show the ‘commodification and sexualisation of childhood’. The film is striking in every aspect. The unsettling vibrant colours and costumes of a doll-house which contrast with the sinister and suggestive language of the characters. The apocalyptic world that is intercut with idealistic advertisements. The reoccurring phrase ‘I’m too happy’ highlighting the fakeness of consumerist culture. Maclean shows that childhood is not an object to be used as an advertising campaign; that to make it so is to harm children. Through an almost cinematic narrative the audience is drawn in, much like a child is drawn to toys or the main character is drawn to her yellow ball (which of course hides a surveillance device). Even the seemingly innocent yellow bean bags in the room coincide with the colour scheme of the children’s yellow capes. Maclean’s piece is unsettling from every single aspect, much like in our modern age when we find ourselves confronted with consumerism and infantilization from every angle. Even what you sit on suddenly seems dirty, even the otherwise innocent Scottish accent which throughout the piece is contested with the American accent seems frightening.
Two of the installations that I found the most striking in the British Art Show 8 were Laure Prouvost’s Hard Drive (2015) and Rachel Maclean’s Feed Me (2015). What stood out to me about these two pieces were the way in which they directly addressed me as an observer.
Art requires a level of willingness and participation from the spectator, something that Prouvost’s work somewhat bypasses by having her installation vocally address the spectator rather than waiting for the spectator to address or judge the art. The commentary provided reverses the conventional status quo of what is being used and who is using, by humanising the objects around the room and objectifying the people. The technology acquires a will of its own, escaping from beyond the control of the user. The result is a supernatural, unnerving, destabilising experience. The inability for the user to control their environment removes them from a position of power and security. Although it may seem bizarre, I found the challenge this piece poses to conventional power dynamics fascinating. The idea that an object can escape from beyond the control of its owner and develop its own thoughts, will, and desires poses the question of who is owning who. Furthermore, what strikes me as the deliberately emotional responses of the objects contradicts the idea of technology as cold, pragmatic and unemotional. Whilst this piece could be viewed as an exploration of our relationship with technology it could just as easily be a piece about sexism, feminism, and patriarchy. The emergence of the objects’ voice representing the vocalisation of a traditionally oppressed social group, allowing them to speak, feel and think autonomously.
Although Rachel Maclean’s work was distinctly different to Provost’s piece, I found it similarly shocking. I enjoyed Maclean’s exploration of the commercialisation of sexuality, childhood and happiness. It would perhaps be possible to dismiss her film as drawing on explicitly and shocking visual imagery in order to draw an audience. However, to me, Maclean’s use of vibrant colour contrasts and grotesque visual effects created a profound satire of modern society, media, and visual culture. The increasingly confused, distorted idea of rating happiness poses a criticism of social media and anxiety. The obvious and unnerving superficiality of Maclean’s character’s ‘happiness’ contrasts with a dark reality that centres on victimisation and consumption. The confusion of the victim and villain role also creates an interesting contradiction. There can be no winners in Maclean’s world, the child figure starts out the victim but she evolves into a vicious, cannibalistic, inhuman creature. However this bloodthirsty, violent attitude still lives within a childlike, ‘cute’ form. Similarly the adult figures end up physically destroyed by the children who they have abused or sought to cultivate and control. The aggressively destructive effect of commercialised ideas of childhood and male-female relationships is abhorrently sadistic, something which is only emphasised by Maclean’s use of superficial special effects and a oversaturated, garish colour scheme. Stereotypes of sex, gender, and age prove not only to be inaccurate but also corrupt, abusive and dangerous.
The catalogue to the British Art Show 8 brochure states that ‘A central concern of British Art Show 8 is the changing role and status of the physical object in an increasingly digital age’. The works shown in the exhibition explores this through three themes: the formation and reification of an object, objects in our society and objects in the digital age.
One of the first works of art seen when entering Southampton City Art Gallery was Jessica Warboys’ Sea Paintings (2015). These draw attention to the process of the formation of art, allowing the natural forces of the waves to form the physical object that is the canvas. As in many of the works in the show, in Sea Painting the emphasis is on the process of the production of the object. For instance, Jesse Wine’s The whole vibe of everything (2015) focuses on ‘the process of creating replicas or copies as a chance to learn something new by adapting someone else’s approach’, a process which places emphasis on the creation of the physical piece rather than the piece itself. Meanwhile Alexandre de Cunha’s work reimagines objects such as a wheelbarrow and a mop into new modernist sculptures.
A main focus of the British Art Show 8 exhibition was technology and the way has now become one of the most predominant aspects of our lives. Broomberg & Chanarin’s Spirit is a Bone was my favourite piece of the show, Spirit is a Bone, and a subsequent lecture by Adam Broomsburg only expanded my interest in the piece.
Immediately upon first glance, the use of facial recognition technology use to produce the installation’s images makes you question: to what extent is the ‘art’. What expertise did it require on the artist’s behalf? Is it time to say that the idea is most central key in an age where technology can shape art further than ever before? The classification of something being aesthetically new is only an attempt to shock in an unfamiliar way. So, is audience provocation art really the route that keeps contemporary art standing in a thunderstorm of criticism?
Broomberg & Chanarin’s background can’t help but give the audience a sense of the political views that are imbibed in the piece. There are two views per face, each with enough angles to give you an impression of the character’s personalities. Yet these impressions give the sense of technology being used to both oppress and liberate, through controlling information in order to manipulate the masses. The piece manipulates you into drawing conclusions and stories from the 3-D scans. They are very realistic, and there is no sense of artistic interpretation but rather a demand on your imagination to fill in what is missing, with all the stereotypes that societies has taught us to use about who these people might be. We acknowledge these stereotypes in society, but it’s evolutionary as well – survival of the fittest. Split second conclusions given to us based on the information presented to us, dehumanising the situation until the faces become nothing more than what we tell them they are.
Spirit is a Bone highlights the power of the government to filter what information we receive. Through the internet and CCTV information is being created at rate of never before. The creates a sense of guilt for drawing conclusions about these people, despite the images demanding your interpretation – demanding a political, social, and personal response. The installation surrounds you on both sides, facing each other with the only intermediary for translation being you. A white male is staring straight at you in most his depictions, whereas a Muslim woman’s face is forced away at sharp angles with her eyes closed. How informed are we? How informed are the assumptions we make? Is our version of non-verbal communication (here the position of the faces) telling us more about ourselves than the other people? In his lecture, Adam Broomberg said the angles were chosen randomly and not by him or his partner Oliver Chanarin: doesn’t that just show the innate nature of our preconceptions? The piece wasn’t crafted but born out of the experience of living in a mediated society, a mediation that is naturalised but denaturalises the thought process of the audience. It raises more questions than it answers because of its demand for audience participation. Through questioning yourself, the piece makes you question the society that ultimately shaped you.