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In mid December 2014 I visited York, U.K. and had the chance to see two contemporary-art exhibitions. Before I continue I have to explain the following: When it comes to me and modern-art you have to know that I have honestly no clue about it, and often do not care too much about it either. Well, the latter is actually not true. Rather, it is complicated. While I actually can connect aesthetically to a lot of modern art (I, for instance, really like Millennium Park in Chicago, IL), I usually do not understand its language, I have no ready access to its ontology. Yes, I could do something about this lack, but until recently it had not been high up on my priority list. However, when I got the chance to visit AND discuss contemporary-art exhibitions in York, U.K., I embraced the opportunity. I liked the idea of letting go, of experiencing something that I most certainly was not able to decipher. In other words I was going to be a barbarian who did not really understand what he was exposed to, and, in spirit of Pirsig, whenever you do not understand you can learn something new. I am all about growing and changing. So, this blog post is about new experiences, new views, about growing, about fumbling around in a realm where you do not have your usual command about semantics and ontology, and it is also about travelling.

Justin McKeown  (thanks!) contacted Charlotte Salt from Salt & Powell for me, and the exhibitions were opened exclusively to me (thanks!). I had thus ample time to stroll around. It was a great opportunity.

The exhibitions on display were Click + Spill and New Glue. Click + Spill featured the work of “established” local but also international artists, while New Glue featured the work of 2nd-year fine-arts students at York St. John University. I’ll discuss the two exhibitions in exactly that order. 

Click + Spill

The exhibition area in Artemis House, York, was divvied up in roughly equally same-sized areas. Upon entering the exhibition area one was first faced with exhibits from Click + Spill. All objects had been submitted in response to a public call featuring a quote from Jean Baudrillard: “The futility of everything that comes to us from the media is the inescapable consequence of the absolute inability of that particular stage to remain silent. Music, commercial breaks, news flashes, adverts, news broadcasts, movies, presenters / there is no alternative but to fill the screen; otherwise there would be an irremediable void. That’s why the slightest technical hitch, the slightest slip on the part of the presenter becomes so exciting, for it reveals the depth of the emptiness squinting out at us through this little window.”

Interesting. This exhibition started with a gentle challenge right up front. To say that I am not a fan of post-modernism is the understatement of the day. I very much connect with analytic philosophy, and post-modernism is just too continental, too vague, too obscure, too non-empirical and non-scientific for my taste. In many respect I simply think it is either unintelligible, or, where that is not the case, it is either empirically wrong or overstates its case. However, I respect the motivations behind post-modernism: the delusions of modern science; the delusions of (hyper) capitalism; the delusion of the one-and-only narrative; the cover up of irrational, selfish goals with a veneer of rational respectability. Also, the little I know about Baudrillard I actually do cherish. No one can watch the spectacle of reality shows (which I avoid like a venereal disease) and its critical portrayal in the Hunger Games, and at the same time throw Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation out of the window. So, in other words, this was a welcome opportunity for me to expose myself to post-modernist thinking and how the perceives the world through its lenses.

The exhibition opened, innocently enough, with Joe Fletcher Orr’s Decoy (see below), which, of course, steered my thoughts to fox hunting and a film about fox hunting, which I had seen too early in my life to fully appreciate its many layers. Unfortunately I cannot recall the name of the film, nor can I find any trace of it on the Internet. Anyway, this “mobile” steered my thoughts to hunting and other so-called sports in particular. As a vegetarian hunting and what part it plays in humanity remains quite alien to me.

It is clear, that theme of hunting connects to our culture and our evolutionary past, but most of us are so far removed from our hunting origins that hunting has mostly turned into play, into a cruel stage act without visitors. This sculpture also reminds me about the strangeness of sports in the media and how captivating sports seems to be. One does not have to know much about Roman history to wonder whether our engorgement with hunting-themed games has become a play that is void of context, void of meaning and that rather pacifies us. I do not know, but that is what came to mind when looking at this mobile.

Next to it was an assembly of monochrome table featuring short titles and a QR code (each pointing to a web page). This work, Hello Friend, was produced by Siobhan Barr, and with its unassuming layout (see blow), it seemed to contradict Baudrillard’s fear of the media spectacle, of the noise we are drowned in.

These panels almost look innocuous. But then there is this strange pull emanating from them. Be it their raunchy language (“Hot Latinas banged by Germans”) or their semantic emptiness: there is an almost menacing vacuum draw to these panels. How quickly are one’s thoughts directed to the next layer, to the QR code and what might lurk behind it! The temptation is strong, and I was relieved from it by not having Internet access during my visit. But I had a good idea what lurked behind these QR codes: titillation paired with disappointment and emptiness. In that sense Barr’s work is almost a hyper commentary on Baudrillard: even without the noise, even if media treats us with something close to serenity, we are hungry for noise, we look for excitement, wherever we can find it. Just the merest hint is enough to get us started.

I am postponing the next exhibition item until the end, since it was my absolute favourite.

What perked my interest next was a video collage by Ryan Curtis: The End had Come (see below).

The reason for why I found this video pastiche so fascinating was an eerie resemblance with the final scene in the 1959 film On the Beach. On the Beach takes place after World War III. All areas of the earth have been destroyed or are poisoned by radioactive fallout, safe Australia, which due to a meteorological quirk has  been spared for the time being. But Australia soon joins the fate of the rest of the world. In the last scenes of the film we see a deserted Melbourne, void of all human life. You might think: “so what, contemporary film gets influenced by contemporary public broadcasts,” but that is not what I found tantalising of the connotation in my head. Rather, it is about the role of so-called civil-defence broadcasts during the 1950s and 1960s. What is so contradictory about them is that while they, on a factual plane, convey the message of catastrophe and doom, the emotional impact they leave us with is anything but. One reason for that is of course that I watch these film clips in a cosy, peaceful York, and that the Cold War is over, kind of. But I think there is a more fundamental cause for this connotation, and that cause ties back into Baudrillard’s quote: it is the mere fact that public was inundated with doomsday messages, the mere media spectacle of doom, that actually dispelled the feeling of doom. Yes, that was probably one of the deeper intends of these public broadcasts, and our knowledge and public stance on nuclear war has changed, but I think the main conundrum remains: can we talk of doom without dispelling it by simply talking about it?

The last exhibit in the Click + Spill exhibition that I want to mention is Knavesmire by Penelope Whithworth (see below).

At first this super-eight film might be mistaken as a sibling of the civil-defence films that Ryan Curtis had used for his video collage: a desolate landscape, lifeless, clad in snow; the grainy footage takes us back in time, the sound track transports an eerie wind over the desolated horse racing track of Knavesmire. No horses, no spectators, all gone. But, interestingly, my feeling while watching this film was different. I was in a meditative mood, I was not bedazzled. This short film reminds me of the meditative voice-over scenes in the film Antarctica Projekt, in which the narrator takes the viewer on a journey into the past so that the motivation for the present becomes clear:  Greenpeace’s expedition to Antarctica to install a permanent base. Maybe Penelope’s short film is an answer to how we can transcendent the double bind I had named before, viz. how to establish narratives by using media without succumbing to the suffocating, dazzling noise of media.

New Glue

New Glue was the second exhibition housed in the new exhibition space in Artemis House in York. It featured exhibits from 2nd Year BA Contemporary-Fine-Arts students from York St John University. The exhibits were notably different. Yes, they were not fully as professional as the ones shown in Click + Spill (surprise, surprise), but that is not what I want to emphasise here. Rather, the associative space of New glue was more open than that of Click + Spill. Although it did not appear like this at first glance, Click + Spill was a very coherent, tightly knit exhibition, while New Glue came across as a spontaneous happening, almost like picnic scenes in a public park. They all are picnics, they all take place in the park, but hey are all different, they do not constitute a flash mob, each of the picnic parties pursues their own agenda (just chatting; just rebounding from a hangover; just reconnecting with family members; just enjoying food & wine …). New Glue was definitely wilder than Click + Spill, and I have to admit that it is also harder to revisit my introspection, the emotions I went through while looking at the exhibits. Two exhibits stand out though in my memory: Amber Corney’s The Aim Of All Life Is Death

Amber Corney - The Aim of All Life is Death - York - New Glueand Hannah Williamson’s Pillow?

Hannah Wiliamson - Pillow? - York - New GlueAmber Corney’s coffin first comes across as a student prank: here is a coffin to remind you that you too will die. But at second sight it becomes something different. The inscription does not state that everyone will die, it transcends it: death is the goal (my emphasis) of life. This almost reads like a teleological variation on atheism. If there needs to be a goal in life and if there is no afterlife, what could this goal actually be? This train of thought looped back into an open question that has accompanied me for years: can we formulate goals for humanity (1 million years from now, 1 billion years from now) in a universe without a foundational conceptual base, in a universe void of a law-giving, meaning-providing entity? Let me know if you want to join me on this journey of thought.

My reaction to Hannah Williamson’s Pillow? was more “worldly”. It reminded me of how both semantics and ontology are binds, both restrict and guide our way of thinking. Take PET bottles, as in this installation. They are made for transporting and storing liquid, right? Not so, argues the artist. Not so, argues an entrepreneur in a shanty town, who transforms them into light sources for windowless, dark shacks. A PET bottle can also be part of a bottle bag, it could be part of a toy catamaran. In other words, what we think of as a bottle is at least somewhat up to us. This also reminds me of a point Ken Robins made so eloquently: our age suffers from a an extermination of creativity. As a grown up we can come up with maybe 15 ways of how to use a paper clip, while preschoolers easily come up with hundreds. Maybe art can help us discovering the limitless landscapes of lateral thinking, the thinking that usually does not survive our transition to adulthood (in today’s western society).

As promised above: my absolute favourite …

… which was Patrick Goddard’s Free Radicals (note that different versions of this video exist, I saw a slightly different in York). My first, totally dissociated thought was: “wow, this is how Odyssey 2001 should have ended.” I think I am not the only one who digged Odyssey 2001, but, please, who sat through the hyper-space ride (or whatever it is) in the end and did not shuffle around in their seat? Great film, torturous ending. Free Radicals is a genial combination of a slide ride (that is reminiscent of a 1970s film version of an LSD trip) with a stream-of-conciousness free association on the word “free”. But it is anything but free. The slide determines the path and gravity only pulls in one direction; the narrator cannot avoid repeating the same phrases; and in the end the narration breaks down (voice over: “this does not even make sense”). But, importantly, the viewer (at least I) is spellbound, not free to go. The film has a hypnotic quality, and while it is not loud in the way Baudrillard had in mind (the noisy, busy quality of TV) it still achieves what he feared: “there is no alternative but to fill the screen”.  It is hard to describe in words why I found this video so tantalising.

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Copyright notice: The copyright for all of the pictures and videos linked in this blog post are with the artists. I also do not own the rights to the quotes in this text.

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