BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 10 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176

British Art Show 8

Leeds, UK

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 10 DEC 15

Anthea Hamilton, Ant Farms, 2015, perspex, digital print on PVC wallpaper, live ants, PVC tubing, MDF, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Graham Fotherby

9 October 2015 – 10 January 2016 The 36 years between the first British Art Show and the eighth are bookended by Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of neoliberalism to the UK and London’s current status as a rich person's playground, one increasingly unaffordable for young artists. Notably, the current edition of this five-yearly survey, which tours to three further venues across the country and runs until January 2017, features contributors based in Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, Birmingham and Canaerfon, making the ‘British’ part of its title uncommonly appropriate. It also includes several UK-born artists who’ve moved abroad. These, in turn, are offset by 17 of the 42 artists hailing from outside the UK, and one, Ahmet Öğüt, being Turkish-born and living between Istanbul, Amsterdam and Berlin.

‘We extended our invitation to artists who are neither British not UK-based, but are meaningfully associated with the UK art scene and have contributed to its vitality,’ writes co-curator (with Lydia Yee) Anna Colin in the catalogue. This might read as curatorial novelty a la the Turner Prize’s recent welcoming of architects (as might the inclusion here of artworld-embraced designers like Åbäke and Martino Gamper), a celebration of British art’s internationalist outlook, or both. Then again, as UK art education angles into the mire, a future BAS might necessarily look abroad, and outside of visual art, to make up the numbers. Colin is a co-founder of the London-based free art school Open School East and, pointedly, Öğüt’s work here – a collaboration with Liam Gillick, Susan Hiller and Goshka Macuga – is Day After Debt (2015), a UK-centric version of an ongoing project, a series of moneyboxes collecting for student debt. ​Öğüt, a Delfina Foundation residency-holder in London a few years ago, is, one might also note, among a half-dozen artists here who’ve been shown at Chisenhale Gallery in recent years: on occasion, as with Patrick Staff’s film The Foundation (2015), Colin and Yee even show the same work. But this show, whose 16-month tour excludes London, isn’t aimed at churlish tabulators or glimpsers of invisible webs of influence. It’s an accessible, ideally cream-skimming recap and round-up of tendencies, and if the previous edition’s themes of historical recurrence and fictional narratives felt on point in 2010, so does this one’s attention to the shifting status of objects. One might have wished for Colin and Yee to strike a more idiosyncratic note than that sounded widely in biennales and institutions since 2012, but ignoring this subject would, in 2015, have left an elephant in the room; plus it does feel like their choice of artists determined the theme, not vice versa. So prepare for many things outwardly concerned with thingness – and, of course, many people viewing them through screens while they photograph them. Where the incontrovertible counter-context of the online empire appears here, it’s in terms of obscured physicality, as in The Ideal (2015), Yuri Pattison’s fitful outsourced video footage of an energy-sucking Bitcoin data centre in Kangding, China. In tune with renewed interest in manual production, we also get sociable waves of retooled craft aesthetics and revivals of the handmade, from Aaron Angell’s quirky ceramic motleys of quotation to Jesse Wine’s similarly piecemeal ‘paintings’ in gridded ceramic tiles – Morandi-like collections of bottles invaded by Sports Direct mugs. We find sporadically chattering objects courtesy of Laure Prouvost; listening objects (or ‘visual microphones’) fabricated by Lawrence Abu Hamdan as part of his wider investigation into the politics underlying speech, listening and understanding; and Cally Spooner physicalizing online forum bitching via LED message display boards and intermittent performances. 

Patrick Staff, The Foundation, 2015, Film still. Courtesy the artist

Many of the artists’ films, half a day’s worth in total, locate new ways to address familiar disquiets about accumulating archives and what they can definitively communicate, as in John Akomfrah and Trevor Mathison’s grave, purposefully garbled time-travelling, mixing black and white archival imagery from the 1960s onward with newly shot footage (All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, 2015), or Bedwyr Williams’s Century Egg (2015), convivially housed in a cracked-open sculptural shell. Here scenes of a cockeyed cocktail party – which Williams, who appears as a blackened fossil himself, imagines as the future scene of an archaeological dig – intersect with digitally wrought documentation of holdings in Cambridge University’s museums. The result accretes into a waggish yet sobering genuflection on historical remains and epistemology as they relate, dizzyingly, to the fundamental potential for idiosyncrasy within every human being. 

One takeaway from Williams’s film is that a single social event can offer too much to take in. So does this exhibition. Partly it’s the close-quartered hang, but entering – passing Alan Kane’s incongruously domestic ‘Welcome’ doormat (2015) – delivers the instant impression of a ton of things going on, or about to. The aforementioned Gamper’s intermittently manned looms and shoe-cobbling stands highlight faded artisanal traditions; elsewhere, kids make art in the workshop area next to Mikhail Karikis’s superb film Children of Unquiet (2013–14), where schoolchildren perform onomatopoeic singing and dancing on the site of the world’s first geothermal power station, in Italy, as if to reawaken it. Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s sound work peals out a fragmentary patchwork of chart hits from 1962, the year before copyright restrictions come into effect. Ciara Phillips appears to have set up a short-term printing workshop in the entrance hall, results pasted up. Will Holder is riffling through each exhibiting institution’s collection – the show travels to Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton – and exhibiting the work of a female artist (here, Marlow Moss’s Spatial Collection in Steel, 1956–58). Upstairs, Anthea Hamilton’s standalone sculptures swarm with ants. And every iteration will feature a new development in Stuart Whipps’s mordant reassembly of a 1979 Mini, evoking – dreaming of reversing – the historical decline of the British car industry. Here’s the UK art world as an office team on inspection day, everyone engaged energetically on their own trajectories and research tasks. 

Rachel Maclean, Feed Me, 2015, HD video still. Courtesy the artist and Film and Video Umbrella

One thing we might decide from this check-up – wrongly – is that hardly anyone paints anymore. Only Daniel Sinsel, Hayley Tompkins, Jessica Warboys and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye hold down this particular fort; only the latter does so with much sense of purpose. Much of the sharpest thinking appears diverted into screen-based work. Outside of the virtuoso atmospherics and shifts of Staff’s aforementioned film (which combines documentation of the Tom of Finland’s preserved Los Angeles home and a sexually charged initiation between Staff and an older man) and the apprehensive, transformative poetics of James Richards’s negative and solarized found footage in Raking Light (2014), one standout is Rachel Maclean’s hugely ambitious, lavishly produced (by Film & Video Umbrella), hour-long Feed Me (2015). A creepy dystopian narrative in which the artist plays every role, its glossy mix of costume and CGI involves animalistic figures preying on young girls in a candy-palette fairyland; the result purees sugar-rush toy adverts, The Company of Wolves, The X Factor and The Hunger Games in a compound arraignment of adult infantilizing, the sexualizing of children, surveillance culture and capitalism’s endless deferring of satisfaction. 

Charlotte Prodger’s multi-screen Northern Dancer (2014), meanwhile, flashes up capitalized names of racehorses from a single bloodline – named for both stallion and mare – while an audio component offers a progressively engrossing lit-crit essay concerning why, on Alice B. Toklas’s jealous urging, Gertrude Stein violently struck the word ‘may’ from her manuscripts, apparently for its associations with her previous lover, May Bookstaver. Yes, it matters that Prodger shows the horses’ names on reconditioned video monitors of a type used in betting shops; yes, the work nods to Michael Snow and structural film per se. But what crackles between traces of a sadomasochistic rapport and a roll call of dead horses is something barely embodied: a latent, pulsing, brutal erotics of the text, names as portals, linguistic details as funnelling conduits. In such swaying, attention-focusing moments, the surrounding survey and its vexed questions of nationhood, curatorial corsetry and backstage dealings gratifyingly fade into the background. A self-effacing art show: how very British.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.