Ideas of breakdown and disturbance
Writing about art never happens in isolation. In his latest column from London, Oliver Basciano drops the facade that does. This time the critic has serious problems with his house. He saw three exhibitions in Peckham but couldn't resist thinking about DIY.
Getting on the train to Peckham, I realised I look like shit. All appearances are relative, and in the mess of my half demolished flat, I hadn’t felt so self-conscious. What’s a bit plaster flecks in the hair or three days of kneeling in rubble dust on the trousers; what are they when compared with my new secret existence of lukewarm baths that take an hour to run, takeaways eaten sitting on the floor and endless, endless trips to the DIY superstore. In this new life – I’ve been living it a fortnight now and the end seems a mirage – the basic amenities of the developed world have dissipated. No oven, washing machine or fridge. The water pressure is out of kilter and the sinks are blocked. Life is in a moment of deconstruction and construction; life is in progress. I’m enjoying it more than anything.
My appointment at The Sunday Painter started off with apologies (me) and assurance (the gallery director). I was worried too that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the work and it would be a case of first world art baying for attention against first world problems. Lucky for me then, that Rob Chavasse has made a group of immersive videos that are something close to bewitching. For a moment I thought I could forget about life outside the gallery and enjoy this elevated state, but, with a couple of packing cases as seats to watch Earth Wire (all works 2015), a ten-minute projected video, and the three limescale-covered widescreen televisions surrounding me, this messy, provisionary space also felt familiar. The screens of the latter, all titled Drip Tray, with differing subtitles in parenthesis, are cracked, the limescale colonising this broken surface. If they are playing a video work per se, then in this state it’s indiscernible. Instead in the darkened room they become small churning pools of digital abstraction. The sound of a raging storm, which soundtracks Drip Tray (tranquil settings), continues ideas of breakdown and disturbance. The sound of running water that Drip Tray (lifeless water snake) relays puts me slightly on edge. If I had hoped for a distraction from my current preoccupation with plumbing, then this was not helping.
Discombobulation pervades Earth Wire too. Chavasse’s individual, collaged, snippets of footage, most barely a minute long, initially seem to have little connecting them bar the handheld, on-the-fly, nature of their shooting and the synthy, atmospheric, tracks that play in the background. Yet a vague taxonomy begins to emerge concerning travel and transitory life. The viewer sees a passenger jet taxiing into its gate, the footage shot from inside the plane and concentrating on a member of ground crew walking alongside this aeronautical beast; bumber cars, a fairground worker dancing from car to car hitching a lift and checking on the screeching, grinning, riders; the artist filming from a car driving through a city.
There’s no centre to the work, no clear subject, no sense of conclusion – and this is what makes it compelling – it irritates and sends one away not quite sure what one has seen.
It mirrored the precarity of a life in flux. If Chavasse’s work is about uncertainty, then Chloe Dewe Mathews gives a glimpse of a community brought together by confidence and conviction. The London-based artist is showing her first video work, nine-minutes long, projected over three screens, together with a series of photographs (still photography is her normal medium) at Bosse & Baum, a cavernous newish gallery situated in an industrial estate, also in Peckham, and this exhibition offers a portrait of the evangelical churches that worship in many of the buildings nearby. In fact, prior to the gallery taking the lease in 2014, one such congregation, the Oke-Anu (Aladura) Holy Pentecostal Church, used to meet in the same building – I know this because there is a c-print showing the front door with its old sign, dated to 2013, included in the show amongst the other photographic portraits of churches in similarly dishevelled former warehouses and shops.
The video, Congregation (2015) depicts the trance-like worship of evangelical parishioners, all from African countries or of African descent, in a nondescript church (which the press release tells me is in neighbouring Camberwell). The women are in colourful dresses and headscarves, the men in suits; all shimmy and shake in religious fervour. Every hallelujah brings one a step closer to God. The camera lingers for a moment on a woman being held up by a group of her fellow believers, a preacher with his hand on her forehead praying with such frightening energy. Later we see her lying prostate on the patterned floor. Dewe Mathews’s treatment of the subject is detached: thankfully she is at pains not to sneer at these people who find some sort of comfort in this orgy of invocation. With no judgment attached however there is a danger of aestheticising this community (Dewe Mathews has a keen eye for colour and form and proves an adept editor of moving image) and while the artist’s use of abstract electronic music – the original environmental chanting and singing occasionally waved in – provides some sort of interruption of the straight documentary footage; ultimately, while enjoyable, we learn little from the work.
The last stop of the day is the roof of the Peckham multi-storey car park where for every summer since 2007 the Bold Tendencies non-profit has been staging a sculpture show on the top three floors (full disclosure, I was on the commissioning committee for a couple of years). Occasionally the results are excellent, though they rarely fail to be eclipsed by the view of London from this elevated position, nor drowned out by the temporary Pimms bar that accompanies the exhibitions. This year the view and the booze were easy winners. Instead of a group show, the organisers have gone for three separate projects. They vary from the obtusely opaque to the downright dull. It’s always a mistake to let designers ‘have a go’ at art, and Metahaven’s contribution is a case in point. The Dutch ‘think tank’ (their words) have laid out a vista of square wood panel with overlaid sheets of glass sheets on the penultimate floor. On some are piles of coloured powder; under the panes of others are lengths of fabric with Photoshoppy, glitchy, repeated, digitally printed patterns; most however are empty. An ambient soundtrack fills the space.
What’s it about? Not a clue, and nothing about the work makes me want to find out.
With nothing to preoccupy it, my mind begins to return to my mundane personal preoccupations. Airbnb Pavilion collective’s installation, Aspects of Change (2015) in which ceiling hung light boxes, with fashionable retro wallpaper on the reserve, show photographs of design mag-style interior design porn, does nothing to relieve this distraction. (…will the screws I have for the electrical points at home be big enough?...) I climb to the roof where Richard Wentworth has made a single largescale, open air floor painting; a long, winding strip of sliver path meandering across the entire vast concrete space. (…what time did the heating engineer say he was coming tomorrow?...) It looks like the kind of uninventive trite, thing a cash-strapped local council might commission to jolly up kid’s playground. (…if it’s the immersion pump that has gone, I don’t know how I will afford it…) I take to the view and in hard sunlight, just in the distance, I think – and possibly, sleep deprived and unwashed, I am imagining it – I can see my home, and a slew of stuff to be done, calling out to me.