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Issue 221

Kobby Adi Unearths Multiple Meanings in Salvaged Materials

At Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, the London-based artist’s installation re-appropriates industrial and mass-produced objects, unlocking their numerous connotations

BY Kareem Reid in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 25 JUN 21

On the lower-ground floor of Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London-based artist Kobby Adi presents his site-specific installation ‘pending upending’ as the sixth iteration of ‘Episodes’, the gallery’s ongoing programme of solo presentations by emerging artists. Re-appropriating industrial and mass-produced materials, Adi communicates the histories and meanings of objects through spatial dynamics.

kobby adi
Kobby Adi, for now, 2020, installation view, Goldsmiths CCA, London. Courtesy: the artist and Goldsmiths CCA, London

The exhibition’s centrepiece, for now (all works 2020), is a three-part installation comprising a video and two school benches made from iroko wood. Secured by folding brackets to the gallery’s exposed-brick wall, these timber slabs serve the double function of seating area and readymade artwork. Their surfaces are marked and engraved with initials and abbreviations that evoke the restlessness of adolescent boredom. One of the exhibition’s more humorous, if unsettling, moments is the discovery of detritus on the underbellies of the benches, their surfaces dotted and decorated with hardened bits of chewing gum. A material described in the artist’s accompanying text as ‘sacred hardwood’ in West African mythology, iroko wood is widely imported to the UK as a durable and resilient timber. Yet, cutting the iroko tree down without permission is, Adi points out, ‘said to invoke a curse – an additional presence in the exhibition’.

The Last Cypher takes the form of a construction-site barrier dividing the seating area from an alcove in the exhibition space. The surface of the barrier has been coated in black spray paint and is illuminated by a row of flame-effect light bulbs. The flashing both beckons and cautions. In industrial and commercial settings, this kind of lighting signals emergency escape routes, but here the bulbs’ orange glow is dimmed by a viscous, oily substance smeared inside each bulkhead. ‘Excerpt from Radiation’ – a companion essay by artist and filmmaker Anna R. Japaridze – conjures a place where the poles of time ‘have come askew’ and ‘we lose all ability to project’. She ends the text noting ‘the ceaseless itinerary of construction that lay ahead’ and wonders: ‘When will London be finished?’ Within the alcove, a pair of firefighters’ boots lie on the floor, wrapped in orthopaedic casting tape and stockinette bandages. Nearby, a looped 16mm film shows, in extreme close-up, an infection-damaged toe against a monochrome background, before the footage cuts abruptly to a black screen.

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Kobby Adi, The Last Cypher, 2020, installation view, Goldsmiths CCA, London. Courtesy: the artist and Goldsmiths CCA, London

The subterranean experience of the exhibition is enhanced by its installation in a space that, at certain points, rises to double height by way of apertures that open to the upper galleries. NW9 is a Georgian wired, flame-resistant glass panel installed on an upper balcony that gives onto the space below. Shadows cast by passersby offer fleeting glimpses of what the artist describes as a ‘spectrally diffracted image’.

Originally due to open in January, but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition marks the 40th anniversary of the New Cross Fire – a racially motivated arson attack that claimed the lives of 13 young Black people on 18 January 1981, in a house not far from where the gallery now stands in south London. Adi’s use of flame-resistant glass, flame-effect lighting and medical equipment serves as a material and symbolic gesture against the threat of such racist attacks. In the words of the artist, these works are ‘dense with latent histories’.

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Kobby Adi, The Last Cypher, 2020, installation view, Goldsmiths CCA, London. Courtesy: the artist and Goldsmiths CCA, London

The strength of ‘pending upending’ stems from Adi’s ability to arrange works in ways that gesture towards multiple possible interpretations simultaneously. (It is not always clear which parts are deliberate or coincidental.) In its spare and fragmented signifying, the work’s meaning remains suspended in ambiguity. These reclaimed everyday materials, invested with profound significance, require our patient contemplation to discern the many stories they convey.

'Kobby Adi: pending upending' is on view at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London, until 4 July. 

Main image: Kobby Adi, for now, 2020, installation view, Goldsmiths CCA, London. Courtesy: the artist and Goldsmiths CCA, London

Kareem Reid is a writer and artist. He lives in London, UK.