BY Anthony Hawley in Reviews | 23 JUL 20
Featured in
Issue 214

The Five Inescapable Moods of this Moment

‘FIVE’, an online exhibition curated by artist Nina Chanel Abney, assembles moving-image works around ‘anxiety, stillness, isolation, escapism and fear’ 

BY Anthony Hawley in Reviews | 23 JUL 20

In Nick Cave’s video Blot (2012), a furry black form hangs from the upper edge of the frame like a bat. As it starts to heave, its fringed layers produce a soft, steady soundtrack. Falling gracefully to land on solid ground, the form – a dancer in one of Cave’s wearable fabric sculptures or ‘soundsuits’ – continues to reshape itself for the duration of the film. The work’s force lies in the figure’s irresolvable contours: a winged creature, a mop, labia, a ritual costume – it suggests all these and more.

Nick Cave, Blot​ , 2012, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

‘FIVE’, curated by artist Nina Chanel Abney for Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels’s peripatetic gallery, We Buy Gold, brings together more than a dozen moving-image works centred around a quintet of pressing sentiments for this moment: ‘anxiety, stillness, isolation, escapism and fear – with tremendous overlap throughout’, according to the exhibition’s press release. Like Blot, the works in this exhibition explore these emotional states in complex and shifting configurations. In the best possible sense, nothing ever fully settles in ‘FIVE’, and the result is a curated online project as elusive as the gallery itself.

Elliot Reed, Quarantine Ballet​ , 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Take Azikiwe Mohammed’s video Second Round (2020), in which a series of seascapes are subject to chromatic displacements and signal flickers reminiscent of analogue television. Although the landscape has faded into glitched-out digital impressionism, field recordings of waves, nocturnal insects and seagulls situate us at the beach. Watching this mesmerizing work, I had the sensation of being both somewhere and nowhere. Foreboding synth chords and the occasional appearance of green grids, reminiscent of 1980s Atari video games, accentuated the holographic qualities of this simulated environment.

Elliot Reed’s Quarantine Ballet (2020) examines forms of confinement and contact with an acute sensitivity to the weirdness of apartment-bound lockdown. The video is constructed from five smartphone recordings cropped to round-edged cubes. Throughout the work, the five windows scale up and down, showing three male performers improvising in response to one other. Reed’s work perfectly captures how staged yet structureless lockdown can be, transitioning between rehearsed and improvised movements: tongues stick out, feet dangle, upside-down camera angles show empty vistas. Reed’s intergalactic soundscape makes time feel as though it’s expanding while the sequestered men move through their paces.

Thenjiwe Nikki Nkosi, Suspension , 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Stevenson Gallery. 

A feeling of being simultaneously within and external to our bodies, homes and countries runs across the exhibition, but nowhere is it as profoundly felt as in South African artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s video Suspension (2020). The work sutures together archival footage of Black and Brown elite female gymnasts just moments before they perform a routine. Close-up after close-up of the athletes’ eyes and lips disclose a gamut of emotions: confidence, self-doubt, determination, hesitation, as well as an awareness of those watching. While dignifying these talented women, the artist’s choice of imagery and editing also highlights the predatory aspects of the camera’s predominantly white male gaze and the fetishization of women of colour – especially in the sporting arena.

At a time of global protests against racial discrimination – sparked by the unlawful police killing of George Floyd – and as the current pandemic continues to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities, how can moving-image art challenge the ever-present colonial gaze? With screen-based media now the primary means of cultural transmission during lockdown, this sharp, intricate exhibition offers a way forward.

Main Image: Azikiwe Mohammed, Second Round​, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Anthony Hawley is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in New York, USA.