BY Colin Perry in News | 11 APR 10

Art Sheffield 2010

Life: A User’s Manual

BY Colin Perry in News | 11 APR 10

Under the curatorial guidance of Frédérique Bergholtz and Annie Fletcher, the fifth edition of Art Sheffield borrows its title from Georges Perec’s 1978 novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Bergholtz and Fletcher urge us to interpret their edition as a sort of guidebook that might ‘chart a path through current circumstances’ through the theoretical concept of ‘affect’. Biennial-goers will be familiar with grand curatorial statements of intent – but what does this one amount to?

Well, not quite what the press blurb sets out to explain. At the first exhibition space I visited, the Millennium Gallery, the theme was voices and vocalization – and to me, this was what the biennial highlighted best. Most impressively, Imogen Stidworthy’s video Barrabackslarrabang (2009) explores the peculiar (and now dying) Liverpudlian dialect of ‘backslang’, which seems to have emerged as a way of disguising conversations – from the police, perhaps – by rhyming and reversing words. Katarina Zdjelar’s video work Shoum (2009 shows a Serbian man (who speaks no English) phonetically transcribing the lyrics to the 1985 hit ‘Shout’, by the English pop group Tears for Fears. Zdjelar’s and Stidworthy’s works complement each other brilliantly, and made me think about the misshapen beast that is spoken language.


Haroon Mirza

The theme of vocalization is picked up in Phil Collins’ Hero (2002), a video in which a New York lifestyle journalist is forced to swig whisky as he reflects on the events of 9/11. There are also works by Susan Hiller, the late Jo Spence, Haroon Mirza and Wendelien van Oldenborgh – each of which one might read through an analysis of vocalisation, of the individual or collective finding a voice.


Katerina Šedá, Spirit of Uhyst (2009)

Less successful was Katerina Šedá’s Spirit of Uhyst (2009) – a set of naïve drawings made by villagers in a community in Northern Germany – felt deracinated here. The artist will, however, be creating a work along similar lines in Sheffield’s over the duration of the biennial (there was no evidence of this yet when I visited, so I’m going on trust here).

At S1 Artspace, Haegue Yang’s installation Intro Motion Ditch (2010) is a sort of chill-out zone with candles and smoke machines, as well as a couple of clothes drying racks (Lifting Up, 2010), into which a network of cables and light bulbs has become embroiled. Yang works from texts that she writes herself – here, a rambling, Richard Brautigan-like thing of murky cuteness called ‘The Story of a Bear-Lady in a Sand Cave’ (2009) that references two pre-existing narratives: Dangun, Korea’s foundation myth (in which a cave-dwelling bear is transformed into a woman who gives birth to Dangun, the forefather of Koreans), and Kōbō Abe’s surrealist/existential 1962 novel Woman in the Dunes. Writing in the first-person, Yang is both the woman in the sands and the bear-lady. Her text ends:

Relax your body through imagination?!
I stop shoveling the sand and try splashing it on my body.
It is cold, like my body temperature.
I have tamed the sand, somewhere along the way.
The Tiger’s body temperature is probably the same too.
Perhaps the two of us became one through body temperature in this cave.
This is a story that people outside, who rub their bodies when it’s cold, do not know.


Ruth Buchanan, Several Attentions (2009)

At Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery, the works are patchier and the voices muddied. Ruth Buchanan’s Several Attentions (2009) – like Yang’s project at S1 Artspace – takes its starting point from literature. This time, it’s Virginia Woolf’s 1928 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, but Buchanan’s work seems diaphanous next to the hard-edge shadow of Woolf’s surgical prose. Maud Haya-Baviera’s Happy (2008) seemed like a pastiche of 1970s video art: shot in black and white, the artist has a pedantic conversation with a duplicated image of herself. It’s supposedly inspired by Nabokov, but to me looked just too similar to Richard Serra’s Boomerang (1974) and Kevin Atherton’s In Two Minds (1978). At Yorkshire Artspace, Rachel Koolen’s pop at institutional critique, Admin Goes Pomo (2010), was supposed to be a comment on the dry nature of institutional language (according to the press release), but just seemed, well… dry and institutional.


Nina Canell

At Bloc, Nina Canell’s installation featured a plastic bag pinned to the wall by an electric fan, which looked nice – but I think I’ve seen this work in one form or another at least a dozen times before.


Ruth Ewan, Moderately Wrathful (2010)

If some of the works here failed to find a voice, this vocalization was picked up again at Site Gallery, which featured works by Hito Steyerl, Emily Wardill, Charlotte Morgan, Yael Davids and Van Oldenborgh. Davids’ video The Hand is Quicker than the Eye (2009) follows inmates at Mechelen City Prison, Belgium, practicing and learning magic tricks. Ruth Ewan’s specially commissioned project Moderately Wrathful (2010) explores the importance of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trouser Philanthropist (1914) within the industrial history of Sheffield (Tressell’s novel, a classic of British working-class literature, was apparently given to apprentices at the beginning of their employment). At each venue, postcards were available to take away bearing images from Tressell’s archive – a mysterious paper trail that led back to Site Gallery where you could gaze into a vitrine of various editions of Tressell’s publication.

Unlike other regional UK biennials – notably Liverpool and Glasgow – Art Sheffield feels like something more than a scrabbling attempt at urban regeneration. Fletcher and Bergholtz’s edition has a complex set of voices: local and international artists, as well as an interesting set of theoretical concerns poached from the curator’s previous explorations of feminist legacies (Bergholtz is director of the rolling multi-venue curatorial project ‘If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution’, 2005–10). For me, Art Sheffield 2010 only really made sense when I ignored the curators’ woolly terminology – ‘affect’, ‘present circumstances’ – and viewed the works in terms of its disparate voices.