BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 03 JAN 14
Featured in
Issue 160

Prem Sahib

BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 03 JAN 14

Prem Sahib, Night Flies, 2013, crash mat, spray-painted wood, pint glass, water, 86 × 189 × 130 cm

The ghosts of absent bodies stalked Prem Sahib’s debut solo show at Southard Reid. Rumble (all works 2013) comprises three metallic-hued puffer jackets, pressed between riveted planes of glass. While the title alluded to a fight, the arrangement implied another encounter: the central jacket was encircled by another sleeve on either side, the hood of the garment to the right turned in profile, kissing or whispering to its neighbour. If there was an element of social commentary to the work (in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the language of clothes assumes a new urgency), it was overpowered by the sense of near-erotic intimacy.

On a bead-narrow shelf in the next room, was an adjoined pair of blue Perspex discs, echoing the embrace of the jackets; the form of the piece and its title – Two dots – refer to the positive indication given on a common rapid test for HIV. Adjacent was a wall of ceramic tiles, painted midnight blue and studded with fake diamonds in varying constellations. The curving of the tiles’ surface, gently buckling around the gleaming studs, like flesh under a needle, also evoked the body, as evinced by its suggestive title, Your shine against mine.

This bodily aspect might have been difficult to discern in the tiled columns and tables for which Sahib first came to be known a couple of years ago, though the essay by Victor Buchli in the accompanying catalogue protests that the process of tiling in such works thus ‘interpellates’ the body within the ‘higher regulating regimes’ of physical hygiene. However far one is convinced by the first part of that assertion (is the ‘close engagement’ between maker, object and viewer produced by grouting any closer than that produced by, say, painting?), it’s undeniable that these works evoke certain gendered spaces where the body is alternately exposed, honed and celebrated (the changing room, the gym, the public toilet).

The cult of physical exertion was again addressed on the gallery’s second floor (where the carpet was notably flesh toned). Night flies comprises a black crash mat, propped against a low barrier, on top of which stands a pint of water, as though left bedside ready for the morning after the night before. Punning on one technical and one slangy sense of ‘crashing’, the piece re-stages hedonism as a feat of athletic endurance, an almost solemn discipline. Nightclubbing is a central concern in Sahib’s life as well as his work, running the Anal House Meltdown night in East London with artists George Henry Longly and (sometime collaborator) Eddie Peake. Indeed, for Night flies, the artist installed a bar and cloakroom in the gallery (the former remaining for the exhibition’s duration) and, for one night in August, invited guests to ‘Bump’ – a club-cum-house party that featured a set from Jeffrey Hinton, DJ and projectionist at Leigh Bowery’s seminal Taboo. Possibly in tribute to Hinton’s montages, the video Another Night consists of footage Sahib’s father made of family firework displays. Zooming rapidly in and out, the video is all light and movement. But with its title a possible reference to the 1994 club hit by the Real McCoy, the absence of music in the piece is unmissable, generating a feeling of incipient but thwarted desire. In an interview in the catalogue, Sahib discusses moments of ‘visual initiation’ (a term he attributes to Wolfgang Tillmans), a new kind of looking that brings one into a community – as when reflected in the tiles above a public urinal he glimpsed a view of a park known to be a cruising ground.

Those ghosts again, figures half-seen. Given the various ‘interpellations’ of not-quite-there-human presences (which must also include the artists whose works are unavoidable reference points – not only Tillmans’s records of Berghain, but Seth Price’s bomber jackets, Michael Craig-Martin’s iconic glass of water), and Sahib’s avowed ambition for a room of works to be ‘talking to itself’, the exhibition left an unexpectedly eerie feeling. Indeed, frequently underlying the celebratory in Sahib’s work is something a little desolate – take the extreme, wipe-clean economy of means in Night flies and its title’s melancholy suggestion of transience. That the central gesture of the exhibition – the late-summer moment of Bump – is brief, past and invisible (besides the carpet stains) institutes for the visitor an element of exclusion, even loss. All this is tribute to Sahib’s uncanny ability to release great feeling from a language of sometimes clinical austerity. I can’t help wondering if this admixture of potential joy and familiar blues, familiar to anyone’s night out, is somehow related to that same skilfulness – an expression of the potential precariousness that can haunt precocity. Among the throb of house music, another tune emerges: ‘Get it While You Can’.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.