At a certain moment in A Is to D What E Is to H (2011–13), Heather Phillipson’s video installation inside a Peugeot 406, the artist appears to offer us a critical reflection on what it means to be a child of her epoch. This gesture is revoked just as soon as it is offered, however, becoming gnomic at the drop of a full stop: ‘Let me tell you about my childhood in the 20th century’, the artist’s voice announces. ‘I was younger than some people around me. Then everything changed. I was older than some people around me.’ That the narrative of A Is to D subsequently takes a turn into reflections on romance and breakfast is characteristic of Phillipson’s tendency to never stray far from the most intimate concerns – as evidenced by the three major works that made up this touring solo show, which appeared at BALTIC in Gateshead before taking its place in the Grundy Art Gallery’s summer programme.
This is hardly unusual for an artist of any generation, but it seems a significant observation to make in Phillipson’s case, since in many other respects her work is indebted to practices that have attempted to spin internet-derived pile-ups of imagery into critical reflections on issues of geopolitics and economics. Hito Steyerl, for instance, is an inevitable reference point; if not a direct influence on Phillipson then a presence that proves difficult to shake. In immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds (2014), pin-sharp HD footage of atlas pages is spliced with highly compressed digital rips, cheap computer animations of balloons and a chintzy soundtrack. The line ‘please report any suspicious images’, delivered in Phillipson’s pleasingly sibilant voice, could be the title of a Steyerl essay, as could ‘too much of everything except the things that matter’. As for many of her contemporaries, the psychic and political effects of online audio-visual culture are an important background to Phillipson’s work. What might mark the artist out, however, is the manner in which the three films on show here seemed to beg less for critical reflection than for a more oneiric or empathic kind of reception. Phillipson is a poet as well as a maker of films and environments, and her videos’ linguistically soupy, scattergun stream-of-conscious narrations are their most bewitching feature. This is particularly the case in ha!ah! (2013), viewed in this exhibition from the front seat of a motor boat perched on a platform made from bulk quantities of bottled water. A series of spoken tongue twisters – ‘imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie’, ‘unique New York’ – is overlaid with images of open mouths and splashing water, evoking the fleshy, viscid materiality of language. The overdubbing of the phrase ‘French kissing’ on top of its near-rhyme ‘French cuisine’ in the voiceover to A Is to D has a similar effect, the approximate homophony suggesting the two oral practices are not unrelated.
Phillipson’s installations are comparatively blunt – the motor boat assemblage from which ha!ah! was seen, for instance, seemed extraneous to the viewing experience. It was difficult to know how best to read this intervention in the context of the rest of the show, opening up as it does into a fairly trite one-liner about capitalism and alienation from nature. The decision to have gallery visitors exit the show through a disused rear courtyard is definitely disorienting, but similarly difficult to reconcile with the more compelling aspects of Phillipson’s work. The passageway which viewers were forced to navigate on their way to immediately and for a short time seemed to be an attempt to create an enveloping and womblike space à la Niki de Saint-Phalle; in this respect, it runs second to the videos themselves, whose intense evocations of interiority produce their own kind of ‘cinesonic womb’ (to borrow a term from Philip Brophy). The Peugeot used in A Is to D is more successful, framing the film more emphatically and lending the experience a theatrical dimension. The beanbags on which I reclined to watch immediately and for a short time are Phillipson’s most coherent foray into three-dimensional interventions, emphasizing the atmosphere of nannyish control and therapeutic comfort around which the film is hinged. The feeling remains, however, that Phillipson is far more incisive as a manipulator of word, sound and image than she is as an artist working in three dimensions, and that her explorations of embodiment might work just as well screened on a laptop with a good pair of headphones.