Friday, September 6, 2013

'When Contents Become Form' an exhibition by Jeannie Driver at Arbeit Gallery

Creation is the natural partner of destruction.  Burn wood and you get charcoal; break rocks and you get gravel; tear clothes and you get dishtowels.  Or, in the case of Jeannie Driver's current exhibition at Arbeit Gallery, shred paper and you get a piece of shimmering beauty.  The centrepiece of When Contents Become Form is White3, a gently pulsating white cube that hovers in the centre of the gallery.  It reacts to the motion of those observing it, perpetually rippling at the slightest breeze.  

White3 is made of 1512 gallery press releases.  These have been fed into a shredder, and glued back together into 1681 paper strips, each 450cm in length, running to to 7.56km long in total.  Though it fits into the gallery space with room to spare, it's deceptively enormous, containing within its compact, swaying strands a wealth of scrambled information.  

I have a love/hate relationship with gallery press releases with a leaning towards the 'hate' side of the equation.  All too often they're written to impress rather than inform, using unnecessarily complicated language that not only cements modern art's reputation as an exclusive insider's club, but obfuscates the message. In the worst cases, language is used a smokescreen to conceal that there isn't much meaning behind the art at all.  An example:
"[Title of work], a safe buoy floating above a prominent dark mauve backdrop, emerges as a real existing presence and uncompromising contradiction on visual. The object enlightens itself to be a display of a deceiving construct, revealing its true form through traces of paint. In view of this, [the artist] carries out a performative exploration of duration and its relationship to ideas of time and space through a profound investigation of painting."
This drivel was defined as 'International Art English' by Alix Rule and David Levine in a brilliant essay for art journal Triple Canopy - describing it as a unique "pornographic" language adrift in a sea of loose adverbs, odd punctuation and sentences that never ever seem to end.  

Admittedly I'm guilty of this myself on occasion.  If you want to fill out a word count then bullshit conceptual waffling is as good a way as any to make up some time. But I always try to write as clearly as possible - anyway, if you go to some incredibly weird events, straightforward descriptive language works as a scalpel cutting through layers of obfuscation. So, staring at White3 I detect a certain sly satire at play.

Before their shredding these press releases were out to instruct us, in a scant few paragraphs, how to experience complex creative endeavours.  Summarising art in language is a bit of a fools errand: a faint shadow of experiencing the work in person (and yes, I recognise the irony in saying this in an article about art).  In White3 the vanity of the press releases has been transformed back into art: shorn of the authority that comes from being under an 'ICA' or 'Tate Modern' letterhead, the crutch of obscure language kicked away and the carefully chosen words dismembered, reduced to a forest of random phonemes.

As you move around the piece you see flickers of light from the other side, the paper strips maintaining the illusion of solidity and showing just how fragile they are.  If you get right up close, with your nose practically within the paper, there's a hallucinatory effect: constantly shifting randomness, like staring into the static of an untuned television.  Your brain kicks into automatic apophenia, desperately trying to find a pattern in the chaos.  With my face so close to the paper strips I couldn't help but blow a quick waft of air in, getting the same kind of pleasure at watching it echo through the strips as I would throwing a rock into a calm pond and watching concentric ripples lapping at the banks.

Fractured Order (Manchester Art Gallery)
In addition to White3 there's five other works by Jeannie that comprise the exhibition. They're partly shredded photos taken within galleries, smaller scale, yet constructed with a similar philosophy to the central piece. Four of them are single photos, the shredding process blurring the line between visitors and art.  This technique also adds three-dimensional texture to the work at the expense of sacrificing detail within the image.  The clean, minimalist cubic spaces become muddied and chaotic; the rational straight lines all screwed up and jagged.  

The best of these is Witness to pondering in free space (Saatchi Gallery), which feels like the perfected example of this process.  It's a circular photograph; a god's eye view of the world of the art gallery.  I had a chat to Jeannie about this piece who explained that it wasn't until it was complete that she realised that it strongly resembled an iris.  What this means is that as we gaze into the work it meets our eye, looking right back at us - a notion both compelling and appropriately completing another circular loop: you're standing in an art gallery, looking at distorted images of people standing in art galleries.  

Witness to pondering in free space (Saatchi Gallery)
All the work here takes destruction - shredding of paper - as a starting point. My first instinct is that shredding represents a forceful erasure of information, putting it on a vaguely similar level to burning books or tossing paint over a controversial artwork. Yet what Jeannie showcases is the potential of destruction: the creation of fresh raw materials with which to convey new messages and new ideas.  

White3 is a great piece of art, pregnant with meaning and extremely beautiful.  Adding another layer of enjoyment is the temporary nature of the installation.  Due to its fragility it can't realistically be transported, so you have but a few short weeks to see it before it's gone forever.  But I'm sure that once its short life ends in destruction, Jeannie will find a worthy purpose for its remains.

When Contents Become Form is at Arbeit Gallery, Unit 4 White Post Lane, Hackney Wick E9 5EN until 26th September 2013.

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