by Sue Hubbard
The poster for the British Art Show 7 promises a naked young man poised on a metal bench tending a live flame. The day I went to the Hayward Gallery there was only Roger Hiorns’ empty bench – which was a bit of a disappointment. Young men in the nude are still something of a rarity even in the most outré of contemporary galleries. There wasn't even a flame. Still there was the compensation of work by 38 other very diverse artists, three-quarters of which has not been seen before. Since its inception in 1979 the British Art Show has presented a five yearly snapshot of the UK art scene. Not a thematic exhibition, as such, the curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, have linked a disparate array of art forms created between 2005-2010 under the subtitle, In the Days of the Comet. This is taken from the title H.G. Wells’ 1906 novel in which Wells imagined the rarely seen comet releasing a green gas over Britain instigating a ‘Great Change’. As a result Mankind was deflected from war and exploitation towards rationalism and a heightened appreciation of beauty. The implication of this utopian vision is that the comet’s reoccurrence has the power to draw together past, present and future; thereby suggesting that Britain has always lived ‘in the days of the comet’.
Conceived as a ‘a dynamic shape-shifting exhibition that would renew itself as it travelled’ through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring there is no dominant house style. Boundaries are blurred between fine art and found object, between anarchy and formalism, between irony and a striving towards a more authentic aesthetic grammar. There are a lot of videos; some very long, and that makes it a difficult show to get round unless one has several days to spend. Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s new feature-length film The Empty Plan – made in German – juxtaposes Bertolt Brecht’s writings in exile with preparations for different productions of his play The Mother, staged in a variety of contrasting locations. In another arena this may have proved rewarding, but ,here, it is simply hard work. In contrast Duncan Campbell’s archive footage highlighting the 1970s Irish political campaigner Bernadette Devilin’s rocky relationship with the press, for whom she was at first a saint thena sinner, is highly evocative of those unsettled times.
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This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia. [Bindu Shards, James Turrell, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.]
Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.
Bindu Shards 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?
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