last chance to see artSOUTH as it comes to an end – full text of my review

In case you missed it, below is the full text for an article that is featured on Nom de Strip‘s website, where you can also see supporting images. artSOUTH closes soon, do check their website to see the remainder of the programme.

Witnessing artSOUTH, uncovering the narratives

Before artSOUTH opened, I discussed the exhibition in the context of cultural tourism and discovery, which some disagreed with, partly due to an embedded belief in the contemporary visual arts sector that if work relates to tourism, then it is unlikely to be good art. At the time of writing, artSOUTH is open and available for people to draw their own conclusions, so do see it if you can.

The quality of the artworks certainly qualifies as good art and the concepts behind them runs deep and warm. I make no apology for referring to warmth here – many of the artworks are so engaged with the human condition that they are almost visceral in sensibility.

The act of finally seeing these works has made me a witness, reinforced by the very character of the works, many of them about the artist (and subsequently the viewer) witnessing something. Writing this article has become about how to compile the evidence of that visitor experience, to tell the story by drawing out some of the underlying narratives.

I managed to see several of the works and also attended a couple of talks and events. Holding the concept of discovery in my mind, I visited Southampton City Art Gallery for the first time, to see Jeremy Millar and Bouke de Vries’ works. I saw Mel Brimfield’s film-works installed in the John Hansard Gallery, and her live performance on the SS  Shieldhall. Graham Gussin showed in Winchester; Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva in Mottisfont and Jordan Baseman in Portsmouth. Of all those places, I had only previously been to the John Hansard Gallery, so the journey of discovery was heightened by visiting new cities.

Mel Brimfield’s works provide sweet humour peppered with deep irony, comedy and tragedy, laughter and toe-curling moments. Brimfield’s artworks demand a level of prior knowledge about art and humour from audiences and I am curious as to how audiences younger than myself might relate to it. Particularly the performance, An Audience with Willie Little, which depended upon the viewer recognizing the characters portrayed – well known comedians such as Morecambe and Wise, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Harry Secombe. The video installations at John Hansard also made specific references to artists and theatre, including Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and Brecht. In comedy, humour and deep sadness nestle very close together and Brimfield’s work positions the viewer in an uncomfortable place alternating between laughter and empathy, creating just a slight edge of nervous anxiety. The tiny cinema on the boat where the performance took place was intimate, reminding the audience of how many comedians startup, and possibly end up, working on cruise ships. Leaving the performance at the end and looking back at the makeshift stage, the achievement of Dickie Beaux (aka Willie Little), the performer, was even more evident – his changing area the size of a phone box, just beyond the sight-line of the stage drapes.

Jordan Baseman’s films offer two different viewpoints on the ‘character’ of criminals by drawing on the perspectives of people who commit crimes and people who are victims of crime. The first film, True Crime, is narrated Dr Diana Bretherick, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, offering her perspective as reportage – scientific, factual, unemotional, stating that there is not a stereotype of what a criminal ‘looks like’. But the accompanying images – portraits of criminals – evidence that to be untrue. Whilst the voice affirms that you cannot recognise a criminal by their appearance – that they often appear ‘normal’ – the faces in the mugshots, taken on arrival at the prison, look both haunting and haunted. The second film, Skin Colored Chairs, features the voice of writer and ex-con, Simon Bennett, who tells his own story. The visuals are random and abstracted, giving no further clues to the narrative. Bennett was a lifelong criminal that learnt to write poetry in prison and eventually became a writing tutor in the prison service, helping others to find alternate ways of thinking and living. There is a very poignant moment in the film when Bennett reports that the action of having keys to enter the prison as opposed to being locked in for most of his life, was hard to get his head around. Shown in the Omega Centre in Portsmouth, the context was right for the work. This community centre lies south of Portsmouth, serving residents of a large housing estate with high unemployment and social problems. The centre staff were really helpful and were clearly very pleased to be hosting the film, that may well have resonance with local communities. The contrasting narratives provoke the viewer to consider whose story is closest to the truth. The one that presents scientific evidence, or the one that is derived from personal experience? For me, Skin Coloured Chairs provided a more powerful experience. Bennett’s stroy draws on human empathy and reminds me that research can make general assumptions, but we are all individuals. Human beings are not easy to label and redemption is within reach for anyone who dares to go for it.

In a small darkened room upstairs in the Southampton City Art Gallery, Jeremy Millar’s long, slow-paced meditation is screened on a three-hour loop. It focuses upon an act of slowness, revealing the process of book-binding by hand. Father Nicholas Spencer, the head of the bindery and Oblate Master at Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight is filmed binding a first edition copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1903 novel, L’Oblat. this book was set in the Benedictine Order at Solesmes, from where the monks were exiled to the Isle of Wight in the early twentieth century. The film is entirely about the gaze – the detail, the scrutiny, seeing the previously unseen and unknown, the camera as witness. Millar could have opted to cut the film to make it shorter, but then some of the evidence would be missing. The restored, re-covered book can be seen in the same room as the film on a plinth encased in glass, we know it was finished satisfactorily. The tiny details shown in the film are seen by the naked eye, the indentations created by the punches evident, the labour of love complete.

Graham Gussin’s three-screen film, Night Vision, in Winchester was different again – Gussin collaborated with dance troupe New Movement Collective and Corporal Andy Reddy, British Army Combat Camera Crew to create an intriguing visual document of a staged performance in a military traning centre. Filmed over two nights, from dusk to dawn, the dancers moved with stealth and scrambled over walls and down dark alleyways in the stage-set of the inner city housing estate.  Whilst the night cameras documented the night-time performances, the aesthetic confounded what we think we ‘know’, confusing the visual senses. In the film footage, as dusk fell the sky got brighter, as dawn arrived it became darker. Gussin’s films remind us of undercover activity – subversive behavior, surveillance, encounters in cities – and evoke in the viewer a sense of the ominous, the nocturnal. Might it be that that we associate this visual language with ‘animal’ or ‘criminal’ because we see it, most often, in TV programmes about nature?

Bouke de Vries’ fascinating reconstructions of broken museum artefacts from the Southampton City Art Gallery & Museum collection created a renovation of meaning associated with the value of precious objects. This was achieved by collaborating with a glass blower, who created blown-glass cradles that supported the fragments of the broken ceramics, providing sufficient clues for the viewer to re-imagine the original ceramic forms and how they might look if they were complete. Even though only a small part of each object had been reconstructed, the ghost of overall form of the original was represented by the glass shell.

All in all, the important thing is to see the works – no review can replicate the real experience. Make your own discoveries, because each is unique. I enjoyed the other local findings – the uncanny link between Bouke de Vries’ work and the reconstructed stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral from Cromwellian times; the joys of discussing Mel Brimfield’s performance on the boat with volunteers and hearing their stories about why they love the SS Shieldhall so much.

Of course, going to new places is always enjoyable, but it can be made less comfortable if you can’t find the places. artSOUTH had good signposting and signage, so that was very helpful and much appreciated. The diversity of locations provided a rich mix of contexts – galleries, museums, stately homes, ships and community centres – each appropriate for the works they exhibited. Having now seen many, but not all, of the locations and the works installed, I have more questions to ask. I’d like to cross-examine the collaborators. I’d like to ask Father Nicholas how he feels about having his private practice being exposed to the public gaze. Or speak to the gardener at Mottisfont about how he feels about some of his trees being turned upside down by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and decorated with gold leaf. What was the relationship between Bouke de Vries and the glass blower? In Jordan Baseman’s work, where does the collaboration lie? What impact did the artists have on their collaborators – and vice-versa?

artSOUTH provided several artists’ talks, discussions and walks to inform their audiences – and they were all well-attended. Personally, I found the travel between the locations quite onerous, not to mention expensive. Being open over several months, hopefully some visitors will be able to spread their visits more than I could. Plan your route well and check the opening times too – they do vary. I’d be very interested to see the postcode data to see how audiences navigated between the venues and how many were local compared with from outside the Hampshire region.

I still question the overall viability of geographically spread connected exhibitions from an audience perspective – too far apart to constitute a ‘festival’ sensibility, yet close enough to take in one or two works in a day. Whilst the concept behind the project is ‘collaboration’, there is no other common thread between the commissioned artworks. Last year in Dorset, following the removal of the ExLab works from their installation sites, a selection of pieces were brought together in a review show at Bridport Art Centre. That coming together was a fitting conclusion to the scattered-site show and the connection all of the works had with the Jurassic Coast was very evident. When the artSOUTH catalogue is available we will see all of the works brought together in a publication – I am intrigued to see how that will interpret the show as a body of works. For those that present these complex exhibitions with multiple partners I have nothing but admiration. I know how challenging it is and how much is learnt along the way – resilient practice on the ground is a very different thing to resilient practice in theory. While the arts sector in the region explores questions about Biennials and Festivals, these things are hot potatoes. Go and see the work, get involved, see what happens in action, enjoy.

Carolyn Black

20 October 2013

©  by Carolyn Black  All rights reserved

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