BY Aurella Yussuf in Reviews | 16 SEP 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Sonia Boyce Invites Uncomfortable Confrontations

At Birmingham’s Eastside Projects, the artist’s latest curatorial project probes at what might happen when the digital bleeds into the physical

BY Aurella Yussuf in Reviews | 16 SEP 20

The main gallery at Eastside Projects is dominated by what appears to be a colourful rock formation. Sonia Boyce’s sculpture In the Castle of My Skin (2020) is based on the physical form of pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, and covered with the wallpapers that the artist has been creating over the past decade. The installation, which bears the same name as another artwork as well as the exhibition itself, is both artwork and interior architecture, with almost all of the works in ‘In the Castle of my Skin’ mounted directly onto its jagged, uneven structure, forcing viewers to contort themselves into various angles to look at each piece. Boyce does not permit a passive viewing experience. The title refers to a novel by George Lamming, about a colonial revolt in 1930s Barbados, but rather than take a didactic approach to history, the works here seek to ask questions about our experiences with modernity.  

Although perhaps best-known for her early drawings, such as She Aint Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose) (1986), Boyce has an established sound and performance practice as well as a history of collaboration with artists from various disciplines, as evidenced in both her artwork and curatorial endeavours. To that end, the show includes a multi-screen film installation of skateboarders and ukulele musicians performing in the gallery (In the Castle of My Skin, 2020), in which the rolling and clacking of skateboards is offset by the twang of ukuleles. Harold Offeh – one of several artists, including Anna Barham, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Flora Parrott and Alberta Whittle, that were invited to participate in the show – also recreated a performance piece in the space. On display is the original version of Selfie Choreography (2019), which documents Offeh using an iPhone on a selfie stick to record his own movements. The film is not transferred to a large screen; the viewer has to lean in closely to see the work exactly as it was made – on the phone, which is still attached to the stick.

Sonia Boyce
Main Image: Sonia Boyce, In the Castle of My Skin (2020), exhibition view, Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham

Most intriguing was I’m in the Bath on all Fours (2019) – a collaboration between Parrott and Matshikiza. Inside a large cavity on the underside of Boyce’s central sculpture, copper fragments and feathered paper are scattered on the ground, alongside a wooden sculpture of a human hand, solitary and severed. Black, shiny, handheld fans hang from the roof of this small cavern, while two voices recite poetry, sometimes both at once, against the soundtrack of a heartbeat. I managed to catch snippets – ‘You are a diver. You are a cave. You are the water. You are sediment.’ – but the rest was rendered inaudible due to the cacophony of noise from an adjacent audio-visual work, the soundtracks inevitably bleeding into one another.

‘In the Castle of my Skin’ presents a somewhat disjointed gathering of artworks and artists overall. Perhaps most ambiguous was the inclusion of a selection of works from the collection at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, who co-produced the exhibition. Handmade jewellery and tiny sculptures in small vitrines, alongside a handful of Bridget Riley prints, seemed purely decorative and did not enhance the more dynamic project that the show’s co-curators, Boyce and Gavin Wade, seemed to have set out to achieve. Revisiting the show post-lockdown, I found the installation’s exploration of notions of proximity had assumed a further layer of meaning in the era of social distancing. ‘In the Castle of My Skin’ probes at what might happen when the digital and the physical create close confrontations – closer, perhaps, than we are comfortable with.

Main Image: Sonia Boyce, In the Castle of My Skin (2020), exhibition view, Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham

Aurella Yussuf is a London-based writer, curator and art historian. She a founding member of the interdisciplinary research collective Thick/er Black Lines.