Matt’s Gallery, London, UK
So this might be a recent, familiar scene to those readers in the UK from the past few weeks of the election: a man turns up at your door, speaking about how bad everything’s been and how it could soon all get better. But then he probably wasn’t purple from head to toe; his promises most likely didn’t include, ‘after he removes sickness, people will live in perfect health and happiness; he will wipe out every tear and death will be no more.’ The antagonist of Jennet Thomas’s film and installation, titled ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’, is a pertinently creepy conflation of characters: the Purple Man was a hack villain in 1960s Marvel comics, who in his battles with Daredevil had the power to convince people to do whatever he wanted. Here, he’s been given the shared gesturing – the hand punctuations and stretched lips at key points – of news presenters and politicians, and the rhetoric of their cousin profession, the evangelical preacher, as he extols the virtues of the ‘Song of Gaa’.
John Gray’s diatribe 2007 Black Mass might read like the script for an exasperating TV documentary, but he makes the interesting point that contemporary politics takes its main drive and ideology from esoteric, millenarian Christian sects. Apocalyptic thinking (here, the ‘apocalypse’ being closer to the original Greek meaning of an unveiling) and the promise of a complete change under a particular regime of thought is par for the course these days, no matter how unrealistic (‘we will create tens of thousands of skilled jobs’, anyone?) In ‘All Suffering…’, Thomas lampoons this rationale by combining the mundane with the ridiculous and the disturbing. In the first ‘Dark Chamber’ of the exhibition, a half-hour film depicts the purple preacher’s three attempts to convert an elderly suburban couple. Rousing them from watching a television test screen, he enters their home. His talk of salvation is not unfamiliar, but his methods of demonstration are: a slide show illustrating the world’s evils presents only simple geometric shapes—a red triangle (which apparently stands for ‘poverty’), a yellow cube (sickness), and a blue cylinder (injustice). To make the point that ‘we are nearing the end of man’s tragic experiment in independence from Him,’ he drives the couple to Bekonscot model village. The English idyll the village represents is corrupted as images of homelessness interject, and one model cricketer merges into Nick Út’s infamous 1972 photo of people fleeing the napalm bombing of the Trang Bang village in Vietnam.
Thomas reiterates the hyperbolic religious rhetoric with correspondingly over-the-top costumes (the purple man is assisted by a stern, green nun) and editing style, but it feels like enlarging the bulls-eye of an already easy target. Where the show insinuates itself is in its progressively expanded visual language, its surreal abstraction mutating in its suburban environment, and we identify and grapple with those changes. The back space of the gallery is a form of chapel; within a pious circle of purple tinsel, the tree logo seen in the film has sprouted and grown larger, while a version of the TV test screen presides over the space. The second time I visited, a rustling announced another visitor to the chapel, though when I turned a living version of the green nun stood still, staring directly at me. Highly unsettling. You leave with puzzles, among them the question how much you’ve been subject to such brazen indoctrination, and at what point you might turn away. In the film, it’s whenever the preacher starts singing the couple seem to come to their sense and clock him with a shovel – only to go back to their TV to watch the bouncing balls of the test screen, and wait for the doorbell to ring again.
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