A simile lies at the heart of George Henry Longly’s exhibition, ‘Mass Damper’, between keepers of dangerous pets and consumers of contemporary art: both must be empathetic in their passions, but to save themselves a nasty bite, both should maintain an appropriate distance. The key work, entitled Wharves (2009), is a video appropriated from YouTube of a pet boa munching down a live white mouse. Narrated by a brattish and somewhat boastful teenager, the video presents a troubled relationship that parallels the swaggering egotism that knits together the art world. Both involve captives – snakes, audiences and reputations – that, in the boy’s words, ‘are not easy to keep’. It’s a volatile symbiosis that, to be successful, must be corralled into some kind of equilibrium.
‘Mass Damper’, which derives its title from the system of checks and balances used in structural engineering, is a touring exhibition previously installed at S1 Artspace in Sheffield, International Project Space in Birmingham, and Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. At each venue, Longley has altered, re-arranged and even re-titled works. Wharves is a new addition; earlier permutations included an untitled YouTube video from 2007 of an uroboric loop of a snake eating another of its own species. In Dundee, a graphic poster of three overlapping hands, entitled Ergonomics (2007–9), has been pasted onto a blackboard borrowed from a local venue; the television monitors on which the videos are displayed were borrowed from Dundee Contemporary Arts’ studios. Admittedly, these appropriations did recognize the geographical context, but I wished that Longly had mined richer seams in the local area – this seemed more of a half-arsed snatch-n-grab from the nearest art institution.
More successful were Longly’s elegant transformations of humdrum materials into mini theatrical dramas. High Victorian (2009), a partially mirrored glass partition illuminated by a few strategically positioned disco lights, shone like a tropical sunset in a shuttered beach house, despite the chilly atmosphere of Generator Projects’ unheated galleries. Other mysteries beckoned: an indistinct image, Supporting Columns (2009), resolves itself up-close to depict a bare-breasted woman with her head thrown back. Nearby, a tightly rolled length of vinyl floor covering looked as if it could have been a scroll containing hermetic secrets, its exposed edge curled back like a conch shell.
Longly’s art is full of such bait-like stratagems. A wall that appears at first merely grubby is, in fact, a thin screed of cement entitled Presumably they were learning to use their eyes to replace their sense of balance (2009). Another wall fresco has a title – if I’ve counted correctly – of 158 characters: Closing one’s eyes, of course, makes everything go away. And now one’s body is a planet all to itself, and one really doesn’t know where the outside world is (2009). This garrulousness seems less concerned with denoting or defining the work’s meaning, as enacting a ‘performative’ (a word from the press release) weightiness in which the viewer is left to bridge the gap between the unwieldy sappiness of the title and the mute simplicity of the object. Indeed, the beating heart of this show was the soundtrack for Wharves, which is broadcast with a ten-minute delay over speakers in an adjacent gallery to the video – a trick that keeps the viewer in pursuit of a never-resolved synchronicity between sound and vision. Yet, for all this enjoyable busyness, Longly’s tactics were more conservatively akin to chiaroscuro painting: a little light here offsetting some darkness over there. Like the distribution of a painting’s formal elements, this exhibition’s disparate parts were unified by the logic of its own display. Unfortunately, this had the rather oppressive effect of restricting the viewer’s role to that of a bonding agent gluing together the exhibition’s heterogeneous objects. I was left with the overall impression that ‘Mass Damper’ was largely content with devouring its own tail.