The sound of Campbells work behind the back wall saturated the whole gallery, interfering with the viewing of works by Moffett (on the wall) and Hughes(between the columns)
Curated by Phillip McCrilly and supported by Ben Crothers’s substantial informative essay as a free handout to visitors, the exhibition aims at presenting several manifestations of reflective thought on its subject. “Through the entanglement of artifice and authenticity, the works [ by D Campbell, A. Hughes and R Moffett, my addition] question the often deceptive nature of documentary, whilst reflecting upon contemporary understanding of colonialism, taking us on a journey through Africa, Northern Ireland, outer space and fictionalised landscapes”.
The poster appropriates this image from Campbell’s film by colonizing the indigenous cultural object.
There is a paradox in the culture so described, as extensions like entaglement, question, and reflection are confused with artistic strategies. One of the dominant strategies in all three exhibits is appropriation. It has a history of preference for the ethics of ultimate ends over the ethics of responsibility. I start with an earlier example.
On the left, the two rows of A4 paper with illegible dark parallel lines – a result of writing by Joanna Karolini. She claimed that her writing of all fifteen of Kafka’s love letters to Felice over one another had given her insights into his personality. That cannot be measured or established in any objective way, moreover, artist’s utterance is secondary to the work of art (Well, it was until the outburst of artist’s talk). The visible result of writing over Kafka’s first letter all the subsequent letters line over a line pushes the original experience of reading them beyond accessibility (Convergence, at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, June-August, 2011).
Franz Kafka is well known and valued, the intuitive belief is that Karolini’s appropriation may become well known and valued also. Or not. I have included this note because the three artists in the Wildscapes use appropriation with some regard to the ethics of responsibility.
What are the shared strategies?
1. The artist obtained insights into the source worked with
2. The source is presented to the viewer in appropriation that makes it less accessible to direct viewing/thinking/ aesthetic experience
3. The sources are selected for their previous high cultural value.
4. The curator acts as a cheerleader.
The upshot to the appropriation of other work is the problematic notion of artistic freedom. Having in mind the two more recent vicious controls of ideology over art, the Soviet censorship (Stalin, Zhdanov) and the hypocritical “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) of Hitler’s regime, the neo-liberal society shrinks away from strong critique whenever possible (and that includes me). Moreover, the previous government made instrumental value of art the dominant criterion in relation to grants. Dangerous, but widely practised. The problem with artistic freedom is not that the artists should not be free to follow their intentions, be they exquisite, bad, mediocre or unruly provocative. The problem is how to make visual the power of their art to enhance the freedom of viewers. One of the conditions for this will be accessibility and, what Italo Calvino describes as, exactitude. ( Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the next Millennium. 1992:55ff)
All three artists in WILDSCAPES pass Calvino’s first test: the well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work.
Calvino’s second test, the evocation of clear, memorable and incisive images, while an obvious goal for all three, is effortlessly achieved by cropped photographs taken in the Belfast Zoo by Ryan Moffett.
The Islanders(2013-) present the animals as if in an open landscape, roaming free – in presence of a man making a fiction – an imagined island, an expression of imagination, the third of Calvino’s tests of exactitude. Moffett displaced the notion of a photograph as a result of one decisive moment. His images exhibit documentary character in spite of erasing the real cages and enclosures. Thus Moffett transforms the document of what is into a proposal for freedom to believe what may be.
Duncan Campbell assembled 54 minutes film with a relentless voice over from archive footage and documentary material, richly described in the exhibition essay by Ben Crothers. It for Others therefore is not just about the West colonizing Africa or outer space, it is about colonizing other art. It has specifically embedded a film, Les Statues meurent aussi (1953) by Chriss Marker and Alain Resnais as “both source and artefact” (Ben Crothers p.2 ). The film thus acts as a dominant source/ context. Alas, I do not know the film. It allows me to see Campbell’s work without that source/context. I watched its almost an hour long battle whether the determining value is in the text or images. I felt patronized by the commentary, the voice (Kate Hardy) insisted on meaning, which I considered well known, even clichéd. I cherished each tiny moment when the verbal got replaced by music or severely minimal instruction during the performance of Michael Clark Company. Its visual traces look like this:
There was– oh,bliss! – silence, in between simple one word instructions.
The chapter on African masks was visually beautiful due to the masks.
The relentless commentary diminished a chance to imagine. Baudelaire would have wept! ( remember:” Imagination is the queen of all faculties”)
The visually potent chapter on African masks avoided art historical information, instead charging the speaker with pronouncing generic platitudes about bad Western culture. I listened, conscious of the current situation in Nigeria, and sensed the worry that It for Others (exhibited in Venice 2013, and led to nomination of Campbell for the Turner Prize 2014) fails the expectation of subtleties of thought and imagination.
I watched the video by Allan Hughes in the discomfort of the sound coming from Campbell’s installation . The 12 minutes 43 seconds long The Pyramids of Mars (2014) is a blue-ray video with monophonic audio and “subtitles” harvested from the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (published 1993-1996). It is not about colonizing Mars by those who escaped the over-populated and struck by disaster Earth. It is not just about sci-fi imagination and aesthetics. What makes me to say that? The last sequence: The camera ever so slowly zooms on a photograph of a silo at Greenham Common.
The camera gets nearer and nearer, tunneling into a darker part, letting the crowns of the trees disappear beneath to lower frame, registering the quiver of hot air. The stillness is emphasised by a marginal detail: two birds on the electric wires (the two dots on the left of the image). In a crescendo, the crackling of burning, of industrial furnace, perhaps a nuclear missile, the sound colonizes the image, and the birds are not there any more.
Hughes treats landscape as a witness telling a myth about the ground being devoured by an invisible and, at the end, audible force. One of the “subtitles” states that knowing is destroying. Not only this is a veiled reference to the biblical story of Expulsion from the Paradise. It also refers to how we know what we know, by peeling away the skins of the remembered real. To uncover the one underneath we destroy the skin that protected it. In the image of the silo, the shape of the fence running parallel to the picture plane works as a border between man made silo and trees, between the skin of the work of art and the viewing eye. Hughes started his story with meticulously constructed, beautiful shots of nature, bucolic herd of cattle, mature trees. He ended it with the fragment of a silo, looking like an entry to underworld under a disabled pyramid. The “subtitles” claim that ” they touch a pillar and go to the ground and the dolmen descends on them”. That’s why I think of this work as mythical. Myths are documents of kind after all.
The lens based art exhibition evokes an idea of a principle that the sociologist Duncan Watts calls “cumulative advantage”: once a thing becomes popular, it will tend to become popular still.
Images courtesy Catalyst Arts (Jordan Hutchings) and Golden Thread Gallery.
With thanks to Phillip McCrilly for generous corrections of the yesterday’s version.