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Issue 231

Joseph Wilson Refuses to Go Gentle Into That Good Night

At New Art Projects, London, the artist evokes visceral experiences of growing up queer in Britain under Section 28

BY Sam Moore in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 17 AUG 22

Joseph Wilson’s ‘Fragments Between Us’ centres on the visceral evocation of a particular moment in modern British history. There are the wooden benches, familiar from so many primary schools, from which to view the film IL-Widna (2020), and a blackboard with the Prayer of Saint Francis scrawled on it, the text from which Margaret Thatcher quoted when she first arrived in Downing Street as the new British Prime Minister in May 1979. A series of newspaper reports on Section 28 – a pernicious amendment to the Local Government Act 1988, introduced under Thatcher, which prohibited local authorities and schools in the UK from promoting homosexuality – surround the display of IL-Widna, which is presented on the kind of monitor that might appear in a classroom.

Joseph Wilson
Joseph Wilson, Isn’t It A Beautiful World, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and New Art Projects, London

Each piece in this exhibition exists in a territory that blurs the boundary between installation and moving image, with elements of the films brought to life in the gallery space around them. For Wilson, the decision to include physical props in the space seems to be an act of re-creation; not just of aspects of the works themselves, but also of history. IL-Widna imagines a group of queers arriving as exiles on an island, with the film’s soundtrack including excerpts from Margaret Thatcher talking about education and moral values. Here, Wilson’s focus on the natural world, his positioning of queer people as warriors somehow pulled out of historical time, and his punky overlaying of scrawled gender-political symbols recall the films of Derek Jarman, such as Jubilee (1978). Like Jarman’s work, Wilson’s films challenge the often-oppressive grip of history, seeking to find alternatives via an imaginary space that oscillates between the utopian and the revolutionary.

The tension between the possibility of escaping the world and the violence that it inflicts on queer people is most explicit in the film Licking Wounds (2022). While ostensibly about the cyclical nature of addiction, when situated in context with the rest of the work in ‘Fragments Between Us’, this film feels like a furious response to a world that doesn’t want you. Wilson has reconstructed the set of the film around the screen on which it is displayed. It looks like ‘The Pink Palace’ – from Russell T Davies’s TV drama on the early impact of AIDS, It’s A Sin (2021) – in a state of disrepair: lights flicker on a dead Christmas tree, and spray-painted graffiti reads ‘YOU CAN’T RUN’. Licking Wounds refuses to go gentle into that good night. The film’s ending comprises its opening played backwards in a moment of erasure captured in real (reversed) time, the expression of something cyclical and also something lost. It asks what happens to certain stories if there’s nobody left to tell them, and if the only option is to be – in response to force or otherwise – silent. Thatcher’s words in IL-Widna remain audible as Licking Wounds plays: the ghost of Section 28 still looming large over contemporary queer life.

Joseph Wilson
Joseph Wilson, IL-Widna, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and New Art Projects, London; photograph: Róisín Murphy

The final piece of Wilson’s historical puzzle is the film Isn’t It A Beautiful World? (2021), which reanimates the past through an archetypal act of queer performance: lip syncing. As performers lip sync to Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Falling’ (1964), something ritualistic begins to occur. More so than with any work that’s come before it, Isn’t It A Beautiful World? has the capacity to take violence and trauma and propose an alternative future. Three screens play in sync, surrounded by ephemera – a tape of ‘Falling’ and a ruined cake (one reminiscent of the lyrics of ‘MacArthur Park’, as sung by Donna Summer: ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’). But the voices remain disembodied, and Wilson’s utopian queerness – characterized here by dancing, rituals and moments of disarming stillness when the lip sync stops or skips – is impermanent, the hand of the real world still resting on its shoulder. 

Joseph Wilson’s ‘Fragments Between Us’ is at New Art Projects, London, until 03 September 2022 

Main image: Joseph Wilson, Licking Wounds, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and New Art Projects, London; photograph: Róisín Murphy

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.