BY Sally O'Reilly in Reviews | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

John Isaacs

VTO, London, UK

BY Sally O'Reilly in Reviews | 09 SEP 02

John Isaacs has a very shifty relationship to subject matter. Folding science into popular culture and mixing the idealized with raw fact, he flirts with phenomena that never quite materialize as distinct references. He grasps the evocativeness of cinematic language and plunders many genres; you can identify devices from sci-fi, romance, kitchen sink, thrillers and Magic Realism. These references are not left intact but bowdlerized, converged and respun into intangible, liminal narratives.

The installation Voices from the Id (all works 2002) at Beaconsfield was a domestic scene that dissolved into a cave interior, or vice versa. Outside, the structure was makeshift and raw, as you imagine the back of fake shop-fronts in a Western would be. Enter the structure, stepping over rocks and around stalactites, or simply look through the large picture windows, and the rock gave way to a slob's paradise of televisions and loafing debris. The room was full of kitsch ornaments - an Eiffel Tower, a skull and a religious snowstorm - next to staple guns, beer cans and overflowing ashtrays. It suggested a student's bedroom or a series of lazy contingency measures. You wondered if this retreat to the caves would be an advanced or retrogressive existence, an environmentally informed choice or a post-Holocaust necessity. There are novels set in this sort of place.

The televisions churned out daytime TV confessional programmes, their stereotypical audiences exaggerated as martyrs or monsters. One caption reads, 'Devin wants to know why her mother jumped out of a burning building and left her behind'. Frequently berated as a perversion of psychotherapy by ratings chasers, these programmes are not a great subject matter for art: we all know that they're exploitative, and so the debate feels like a dead end. This nonchalance about originality is what is slippery about Isaacs' work: his stubborn refusal to avoid clichés. He builds places that create an over-familiar yet untenable effect - an epistemological déjà vu of a déjà vu.

Meanwhile, across London at VTO Gallery, Isaacs' work sank further into fantasy. The installation in the back gallery On Your Knees commanded you to kneel and squint through a tiny peephole. The view of a mannequin's legs, from toes to knees, is a snippet of a diorama that will never be fully revealed. And yet, within this slimmest of narrative clues there are anomalies rich enough to arouse interest. The loose earth implies rural surroundings, while our experience of museum display prompts us towards prehistoric allusions. But the smooth legs and the buffed red toenails indicate that this is a self-conscious urbanite off their turf, a contextual shipwreck or a walking anachronism.

In the main gallery a magical atmosphere was achieved by openly contrived means. In the middle of the room an island, presented at waist height like a model train set, glowed in the low lighting. A pool of smoking water gave out a musical trickle, while beneath the plastic rocks a mechanism from an old fake coal fire brought the volcanic atoll to illuminated life. Sci-fi, fibre-optic plants thrived round the shoreline with a plasma ball guttering in their midst. Projected on the wall in front of the landscape, a video of a murky pond and unkempt foliage slowly revealed the blinking eyes of a half-submerged face. The narratives bifurcate: a soldier in Vietnam or a primitive creature emerging from the swamp? A second video showed an expanse of undulating ocean with a voice-over of a woman recounting in Russian, and in surprising detail, a dream in which she lived in the sea among the fish. A series of pseudo-psychoanalytical links led her to the conclusion that we are all beyond evolution and embody our own cosmos, and that 'people pass through life like dumb planets, inconceivably directed by uncontrollable forces'. The text is full of contradictions, but then that's the nature of dreams and the philosophizing of the layperson. That recounting dreams is a social no-no is generally acknowledged, but once again Isaacs doesn't sidestep such assumptions.

Man-made and electrically powered, this was a Star Trek set of domestic proportions and universal intentions. The title of this installation, Dumb Planets Are Round Too, imposed personal qualities on to a scientific entity. Like Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1975) or The Little Prince (1943) - short novels that are difficult to categorize - it melded Surrealism with magic and morality to build a personal mythology.

Sally O'Reilly is a writer, critic, teacher and editor.