The British Art Show, a national touring exhibition of new art organised by Hayward Touring at London’s South Bank Centre, recently opened its eighth edition at Leeds Art Gallery. Works by 42 UK-based artists were selected or commissioned by curators Anna Conlin and Lydia Yee, and this scale made taking in all that was on offer something of a challenge, especially as many of the works were films of quite some length. As a result, I don’t think I was able to give each and every work the attention it deserved, but here are some of the highlights that stood out.
Mikhail Karikis and Stuart Whipps both presented works inspired by the decline of industry in Europe and the communities most directly affected by this decline. Karikis’ film was made in Larderello, Italy, site of the world’s first geothermal power plant and the villages left deserted when technological advances drastically reduced the number of workers needed to operate the plant in the late 1970s. Karikis teamed up with local children to explore this industrial ghostship through the sounds it makes, recreating the hisses, whooshes, and rumbles with their voices and an infectious exuberance. Whipps is in the process of restoring a 1979 GT Mini at a workshop in Longbridge, with help from local people who previously worked the production lines nearby. The plan is for the finished car to be presented at the show’s final leg in Southampton next year; only a body frame and a group of photos are on display in Leeds. Both Karikis and Whipps seem interested in the “immaterial production” that takes place around the material production undertaken by industry: the material objects or outputs (electricity, cars, or works of art) are accompanied by immaterial products of community, dialogue, and solidarity that have worth and value in themselves.
Patrick Staff’s work is also concerned with communities, but with a twist: the communities he examines are often reconstructed or otherwise taken apart and put back together again, and this process is considered part and parcel of what it means to make community. For his film “The Foundation”, he presents a documentary-style introduction to the Tom of Finland Foundation, an archive of homoerotic art based in a house in Los Angeles. We then see a studio stage set in which the rooms previously seen in the foundation’s ‘house’ are visible in various stages of (re?)construction, replete with fake walls, studio lighting, and lamps with UK plugs. So was the footage purporting to show the (real) foundation ‘faked’? Is Staff arguing that all ‘real’ communities come about through acts of construction, deliberate but not consciously marked as such — in essence, that they are products of labour, that they are made? Is there room to intervene consciously in the production of communities, and what sort of freedoms and responsibilities are implied in such intervention? I guess that these are not necessarily new questions, but Staff poses them in an incisive manner that relates to the “immaterial production” named by Karikis and implicitly referenced by Whipps. In a sense, we never left the factory — the various products just register differently on the balance sheet.
Enough immateriality. Benedict Drew’s “Sequencer” is all about stuff: sticky, splodgy, gooey stuff, material through and through. His film presented across multiple screens is full of rough, ready landscapes of dirt and rock juxtaposed with paint erupting like volcanoes or oil burps. It’s also full of holes: holes that gape like ears, squish and stretch like mouths, or wobble like the cones of the speakers scattered prominently in front of the screens, spewing out squelchy psychedelic goop. Yep, it’s all about stuff, and that stuff is sound: gleefully trashing the painstaking refinement and posed ephemerality of much of contemporary sound art, Drew gives us an earful of messy, splurging sonic substance that injects the silent, airtight contemporary landscape with a gelatinous, technologically-mediated roar. The horror of the Real — the material encounter with a thingy world beyond the control of language — becomes the bass pulse you can feel. Sticking conch shells, those quintessential ear-shaped listening devices, to the screens was a nice touch.
The British Art Show 8 is showing at Leeds Art Gallery until 10 January 2016, after which it will travel to Edinburgh, Norwich, and Southampton.