Afternoon Dust

“Now or Lately Known As”: The Whitechapel’s London Open

Structuralist and post-structuralist linguistic theory has it that the relationship between the name (signifier) of a thing and its essence or identity (signified) is an essentially arbitrary one – there’s no reason why a thing should be called by one name and not another, save for habit or convention. In his performance Deed Poll, Martin John Callanan shows in an imaginative and quietly witty way how things aren’t necessarily so straightforward. By changing his name from Martin John Callanan to Martin John Callanan using the eponymous legal procedure, the artist demonstrated to a live audience at London’s Whitechapel Gallery the vectors of legal, political and religious power that underpin the day-to-day performative use of names in Western societies. The various hoops to be jumped through in order to satisfy banks and government bodies, including swearing on the Bible, spoken declarations, testimony from a responsible third party, signatures from witnesses, and the stamp and signature of an official registrar, are a far cry from the free movement of signifiers imagined by the post-structuralists.

Callanan’s performance accompanied the presentation of two of his works, International Directory of Fictitious Telephone Numbers and Letters 2004-2006, in The Whitechapel’s summer exhibition, The London Open. The gallery’s stated intent was “to showcase the most dynamic work being made in London in 2012”, with works being selected through an open submission process. The result is a mix of the poetic, the intelligent, and the tedious. Besides Callanan’s contributions, the intersections of power and language were also explored by Sol Archer, whose video work Palace in the Left spun a dazzling web of references encompassing hummingbirds, particle physics, Mayan rituals, neurobiology, and more. Just at the point when you are ready to believe in the interconnectedness of everything, however, the video concludes with the promise that all this is “coming soon to your future home”: networks of meanings made possible by their subsumption under the category of consumer product.

Correspondences between nature and consumer society are also played on in Greta Alfaro’s In Praise of the Beast, another video work in which two wild boar stumble upon and proceed to demolish a giant cake left out in the middle of a snowy forest scene. The analogy between the wild boar and the ‘capitalist pigs’ of consumer society is crudely clear, but the interesting thing is that the boar themselves refuse to play ball, resisting their own co-option into crass political metaphor through their resolute otherness and strangeness. This effect is perhaps enhanced by the long duration of the video: while a metaphor is immediate and direct, the boar take their time to discover and investigate the cake before finally tucking in, leaving the viewer hanging on in an odd state of suspense and bewilderment. Perhaps blind consumerism was never ‘only natural’ after all.

Elsewhere, Ruth Proctor’s slideshow of photographs of the sky, each taken at the same specific time of day, was perhaps the exhibition’s most openly beautiful and poetic contribution. The London Open covers a diverse and eclectic terrain, and is well worth a visit for anyone curious about the city’s present (and future) contemporary art scene.

The London Open runs from 4th July – 14 September 2012 at Whitechapel Gallery.
Martin John Callanan’s website: