Monday, November 24, 2014

MIRRORCITY at Hayward Gallery, London

Laure Prouvost, The Artist, 2010 installation view Hayward Gallery

There is a feeling that happens when things just seem to be a certain way and at first you think that it must be the thing/the circumstance, etcetera, that is the problem but then it keeps happening and then you think, ‘oh fuck,’ it must be me. It’s got to be me because how else could all these disparate things ALL be the problem?! I have this feeling all the time, as I’m sure many of you do, and at this moment, I’m having this feeling with how institutional shows are curated in London.

It must be me, but I am at a loss of why so many shows in very good to great institutions in this city are so bizarrely dull in the way they are organized and installed. My first inclination of this was at Tate Modern, which is a disaster of ropes and chronological overkill. Then ICA had some well laid out shows and then others that seemed like some sort of artist logo-ing enterprise. Very odd indeed. Now I have had this same peculiar experience when visiting Hayward Gallery for their MIRRORCITY exhibition. This show should have been and easily could have been superb but it sadly fell flat of this potential.

So how could MIRRORCITY been a good show? Well its focus and its access to this focus is its greatest asset. The show presents London artists who are working with and exploring how the digital is influencing the self and art practices. It cues off from JG Ballard and his idea that, “reality had already exceeded the visions conjured by science fiction by the end of the 20th century.” Hayward Gallery has asked artists to present existing work as well as funding new commissions to explore this idea and also to imagine alternative spaces and realities. Now this is a lot to work with and it has a generous, yet focused concept. In addition there are those new commissions! Amazing when this is possible because those types of works can be so invigorating to the physicality and interplay of the space.

There are a lot of artists in this show; twenty-three of them and some of these are collaborative groups. Where are all these artists going to go? Luckily there is a lot of gallery space in the South Bank Arts Centre, which Hayward is a part of, albeit the concrete brutalism reminds one of a waiting room to hell. The to-the-point functionalism of the space’s architecture works though and it feels less oppressive inside as it has sliding levels and outdoor spaces which makes the building feel discoverable and the work therein as well. So there are a lot of artists and there is ample space, now what to do with it all? Here is where I start getting very confused.

Almost all of the artists have very discreet areas and in this area they present their work. It is so sectionally divided that one is reminded of thesis art shows in which each artist has an island of space and any interaction or connection to surrounding works is secondary. In addition to this island like feel, almost all the works selected and or created create isolated alternate worlds within themselves. This may represent consistency in meeting curatorial directives but the way they exist with each other in this shared space is a bit depressing. For example, Ursula Mayer’s Gonda, 2012, in her area has multiple screen projections with JD Samson walking in a desert, vitrines with glass forms that recall amorphic sex organs and cascading transparent fabrics that slightly swish in the wind. To activate yourself in this space you put on headphones and there is music and narration and you are to walk, wander, and explore Mayer’s area.

This need to wear headphones is in about ninety percent of the works. No exaggeration.

Another example is Laure Prouvost’s installation, The Artist, 2010, which is on the floor above and you walk into a room and navigate through a cluttered space of monitors, sound, collage and sculpture. The piece is actually really interesting but then you come out of it and all around you are more little rooms, more headphones, and more stages in which you have to now travel to. It’s exhausting and mentally daunting.

There are a few works that are not creating these immersive installations such as
Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq’s lacquered works, Michael Dean’s concrete sculptures and John Stezaker’s photo collages but these just felt so odd in this context and their hovering exposure just reinforces both the allotment feeling of the show as well as the isolation between all the works.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe it was the point of MIRRORCITY to create this dissonance of experience, this doubled distance, this feeling of being corralled by entering and surrendering to a world created for you and then doing that over and over again. I can see how this could be argued, I can see how this could maybe be the point of it all but I just felt utterly confused as to why anyone would want to do that to another person.

Alas, there was one piece that made almost all this seem worth it and that was the hefty and very profesh installation by Lindsey Seers, Nowhere Less Now, 2014. It is a two-channel video that is projected onto a concave and a convex circular screen, a la lenses. It tells a story and history of her family, dance, African princesses, Nazi’s, schizophrenia, and the site of memory and its connection with Hayward Gallery’s location. Oh also, it’s in a boat. Well a replica of the front hull of the ship that has connection with the story but still, it’s a boat. There is an over-doneness to some elements of the film and the installation and it has moment of being a bit too self-serious and aware but overall this is a must see visual feat and worth watching the whole way through.

So maybe that gets back to the problem with the show. Seer’s work in addition to a few others is all that may have been needed for this show. Or maybe it should have been in parts, some air and space given to allow for the required attention and time needed for Seer’s works as well as the many others on view. Not having moments of pause and time for gestation leaves the viewer, well at least this one, just drained and uncurious by the end of it.

It’s a very hard thing to do a show like this and it seems saddening that it has so much working on its side. It has a focus, a budget, space and the amazing network of artists to choose from but the lack of restraint and consideration in the face of all these bounties seems to have been a missed opportunity.

As I said at the top, my visceral recoil at this overabundance is probably just me and perhaps my gallery viewing endurance is just not on par to London standards. All I do know is that I would recommend going to see this show, but a word of advice, mentally prepare yourself. It’s a marathon of a show with what goal, I’m not quite sure of yet.