BY Holly Walsh in Reviews | 02 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

Sam Basu

One in the Other, London, UK

BY Holly Walsh in Reviews | 02 JAN 03

As far as I am aware, east London is not known for extraterrestrial activity, although Sam Basu's recent exhibition 'Avenge My Death' would suggest otherwise. Like an obsessed victim of an alien encounter, Basu sets about recreating his experiences through an awkward assemblage of drawings, video, photography and resin relief. In his photograph Spirits Haunt the Dead (all works 2002) the bedraggled, fur-wrapped face of the artist stares in paralysed shock at a luminous diamond levitating before him. It is into this confusing condition that Basu masterfully plunges the viewer; through sci-fi tropes and childlike drawings he grapples with themes of redemption, salvation and alienation. Exploiting the possibilities of claustrophobic space, he attempts to express an alien interference, in terms both of the physical setting of the gallery space and of his own imagination.

Basu translates the cast of his bizarre visions into a series of cartoon oil sketches, renouncing narrative and confusing relationships to heighten the viewer's sense of the supernatural. In Punishment a semi-humanoid mosquito hurtles through the air, pointing to an adjacent picture of Joseph, featuring an iconic portrait of Joseph Beuys. In the show, as in the photograph, the figure of Beuys lurks in the shadows, as Basu reworks a modern myth through a similar fascination with naturalism, alchemy and transformation. Like Beuys in his semi-fabricated accounts of his plane crash in the Crimea, Basu works with distant and blurred memories of an epiphanic experience, substituting a meeting with UFOs for Beuys' Tartar encounter. Seven small works hang from clips from the ceiling, presented like vital pieces of visual evidence in an alien abduction case. Pinned to the wall behind are three larger drawings, including Discussing Salvation, in which a semi-mutilated faceless torso fondles another organic creature that curls in delight at the touch of the alien. In Spoon People a massively oversized wooden spoon cradles a skull, while somewhere in the distance a crystalline form metamorphoses into a donkey. Through his disjunctive space and disregard for logic Basu merges science with weird science.

Accompanying these scribbled representations, the artist locates his eerie encounter through his video Object Pixie Tree, totemically erected in the centre of the room. Again this 'tree' combines the organic with the space age, as it doubles as both a trunk and a projected portal. The juddering video footage pictures a forest clearing accompanied by a soundtrack of equally jumbled noises interspersed with snippets of vaguely familiar sci-fi tunes. Basu explores the age-old notion of the forest as a metaphor for the unconscious, while simultaneously stripping it of its romantic vestiges of fairy tale fantasy. The electronic scramble and Dr Who music, combined with a Blair Witch scenario, lends a sense of urgency and terror to what could be an everyday and familiar landscape.

These unnerving disruptions of scale and landscape are continued in two cast resin reliefs that map out a rectangle of terrain in bird's-eye view, as if to identify where Basu's encounters took place. The effect combines the look of a cheap plastic toy and a quasi-military scale model, again confusing fact with fiction. In Evil Inheritance the glistening organic surface creates a rippling panorama that could almost be a sample of skin taken from one of his unidentifiable mutants.

The overall effect of Basu's awkwardly arresting, intensely personal work is of a combination of elements from Dr Who, Hieronymus Bosch and the Outsider art of the Prinzhorn collection. Although he may not be grappling with the post-Holocaust context of Beuys' oeuvre, Basu's work searches for identity and an appropriate artistic vocabulary within his own time and environment. Above all, the artist's eccentric and often humorous approach exposes a pervading sense of alienation, and it is this quality that imbues his work with sincerity and meaning.