From street signs to unspoken codes of conduct, rules are everywhere. ‘Playing by the Rules’ at The Royal Standard continues curator Tom Emery’s exploration, seen in last year’s ‘An Arbitrary Exhibition’ at TOAST in Manchester, of the factors that determine how decisions get made.
The show opens with Ana Hjort Guttu’s Freedom Requires Free People (2011), a film following eight-year-old Jens, who has a problem with his school rules (‘Nothing that is fun is allowed here’) and the unthinking way they are obeyed by others. He complains that no one listens to his objections; that one of the rules is to follow the rules; and that another is ‘Don’t get mad’ – leaving little recourse to debate or resistance. The film closes with Jens acknowledging that he only feels free when alone, suggesting a conflict between the benefits of independence and those of social interaction that is not confined to childhood.
Andy Holden presents an element of his five-year project, Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape (2011–16), which will conclude with the live-streaming of a final lecture on the subject from Glasgow International in April. Here, a wall text outlines the principles of cartoon physics, appropriated from the 1980 Esquire article ‘O’Donnell’s Laws of Cartoon Motion’: ‘1. Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation.’ Each of the ten laws is illustrated by a compilation of animated clips. (Wiley Coyete runs off the edge of a cliff, treading thin air until he looks down and then ... uh oh!) By categorizing cartoon gestures, Holden illustrates their role in helping children make sense of their surroundings: much of their humour derives from breaking the rules of the real world.
Newly commissioned conceptual works by Manchester-based artists Peter Sweetman and Carly Bainbridge transgress rules of language and ownership respectively. Bainbridge’s i (2016) reconfigures an existing work by Sweetman from ‘An Arbitrary Exhibition’ into a black wall relief, of which she is the sole credited author. i bears no resemblance to Bainbridge’s original piece, despite being made from it, questioning the persistence of an object in an inverse of Plutarch’s Theseus Paradox. Sweetman’s moving-image work Fires, Shipwrecks, Catastrophes (2016) derives from another paradox: Roland Barthes’s description of the photograph as ‘a message without a code’. The video shows Sweetman’s studio covered in CAPTCHA-style text; a performer interacts with the distorted forms, using gesture to suggest images of fires, sun-sets and shipwrecks. Described as a ‘visual essay’, it’s an exercise in free association with ideas communicated then obfuscated.
Also newly commissioned is the first in Simeon Barclay’s ‘Gatefold Series: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now’ (2016). The ‘gatefold’ comprises three blue panels, referring formally to flaps in record sleeves or plush magazines such as Vogue, which Barclay has long been obsessed by. To a young man growing up in Huddersfield, Vogue offered both aspirational glimpses into luxury living and an awareness of his distance from them. The left panel shows a screen shot of Diego Maradona’s hand ball in the 1986 football World Cup; the right, a brass plaque engraved with a hand; and, in the middle, the faintest written word, ‘SLIGHT’. Beyond the infamous rule-breaking incident, that World Cup match, only years after the Falklands War, can be read as a prompt to consider the fall of empire and ideas of national identity and belonging. This conflation of distinct cultural spheres – fashion, football, politics, combined with self-consciously minimalist formal references – results in work that is deliberately difficult to pin down. In truth, as in Hjort Guttu’s film, this show is most interesting when it is not about the rules, but breaking them.