BY Neil Mulholland in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

All You Need to Know

Laing Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

BY Neil Mulholland in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

The thorny issue of truth in art has long engaged artists and philosophers. Spurning the traditional abstract debates on this subject, the artists drawn together in 'All You Need to Know' approach belief systems from recent social and psychological perspectives. Lucy Orta's Connector/Children's Suits (2002) illustrates ideas of social connectivity, virtual space and the human genome, by connecting rows of people via 'body architecture', detachable umbilical garments worn during community performances. Although intended to present interrelations between people and beliefs in an organic sense, as a system Connector denotes only a vague interactive 'space' and ends up being little more than an abstract cipher. It also harbours a naive faith in technology that innocently views globalization as an opportunity for networking the world's many cultures and belief systems. Such euphoria disguises the fact that the work really represents the world-view of the privileged and the networked. To players such as Orta this is enabling and enlightening; to the unconnected it is a new form of colonialism.

The global knowledge favoured by Orta may turn out to be the new cultural imperialism of the 21st century, vacuum-packed management-speak echoed in the infrastructure of Marko Peljhan's Makrolab (1994-present) , a research pod recently stationed in Gleann a 'Chrombaidh in Scotland, designed to house artists and scientists. Peljhan's Aerial Photographs (2002) of the changing weather systems around the Scottish border (read 'erosion of national identity and nomadic lifestyles') relieve splendid isolation only by enforcing the language of displacement. Dehydrated modular techno cults don't allow anyone to walk off the overcrowded map of jet-set networked art.

Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan's This is What Brings Things into Focus (2002) engages with social function and connectivity in a far more rewarding way. Two enormous sets of stairs painted pink and black frame four large geometric volumes that tower above the visitor like a Richard Serra installation, forming a rudimentary maze. The artists have prohibited use of the stairs to view the structures from above. As a result the maze initially reads as an enigmatic, ritualistic offering. This illusion is quickly shattered by an explicit plan on the wall revealing that the sculpture resembles a smiling face reminiscent of a wooden children's toy. In this sense the sculpture functions rather like a full-scale model of a perfectly prosaic 'user-friendly' work of art deliberately rendered inaccessible.

The mystifying tendencies of art make it peculiarly resistant to overtly literal social inclusion projects, a point taken up by Tatham and O'Sullivan's outreach project designed with the Laing's regular middle-class visitors in mind and based on the artists' reading of Jean Genet's Absurdist play Les Nègres: Pour jouer les Nègres, Clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show, 1958), with its oblique critique of French colonialism in Africa. Genet's vision of life as a ritualistic maze of mirrors is echoed in the main installation, as are les Nègres' central motifs of the play-within-a-play, the binary mask and the difficulty of basing crucial judgements on appearances. The work as a whole seems to suggest that knowledge is subject to intractable layers of theatricality and ritual that cannot simply be peeled away to reveal the 'truth'.

Sarah Tripp's work is also more concerned with belief systems as specific, individual narratives than with vague contemporary networks. While drawn to the rituals of psychics, astrologers, nuns and monks, Tripp is equally concerned with 'belief' as shorthand for the devotional cults and fashions of the culture industry, something that comes across well in her writing. More subjective than her previous documentaries, her short film Horroresque-Retro-Battle-Fest 23-07-02 *VI (2002) is a fantasy based on the autobiographical monologue of a young man named Hooper. His identity appears to be heavily influenced by the mythological language of film; his thoughts float from his body like angels as he soaks in a bath. Like Rod Dickinson's The Air Loom: A Human Influencing Machine (2002), Tripp's film casts doubt on the assumption that our beliefs have a coherent structure and questions the notion that beliefs are somehow physically located in the believer. Dickinson complicates the notion of beliefs as forms of concrete mental activity by building the 'influencing machine', the delusion of London tea-broker turned diplomat James Tilly Matthews. Matthews was committed to Bethlem mental asylum in 1797 for his conviction that French revolutionaries were controlling the minds of British MPs with a hypnotic 'air loom'. Dickinson's spectacular mesmeric machine resembles an enormous wooden dresser topped by an 'electromagnetic' windmill, huge leather pipes connecting the alchemical loom to barrels of effluvia. The machine is an oxymoron, a mechanical understanding of belief based on a hallucination. The fact that Matthews' visions were inspired by the Knights Templar, Freemasonry and the political conspiracies of Jacobins and the fabled Illuminati convolutes this further. The Air Loom leaves us with a vision of 'truth' and 'insanity' as politically motivated categories, forms of coercive control born of numerous conspirators.