Friday, October 25, 2013

'Unperforming {Finissage}' at 55 Gracechurch Street, 24th October 2013

There comes a time when galleries begin to feel all a bit samey.  Hard wood floors, plate glass window, blindingly white walls are getting kind of dull.  Working within something designated as an 'art' space can have a mild numbing effect on both artists and audience.  So when I walked into 55 Gracechurch Street, an office building plumb in the centre of the City of London, I felt a rare tingling of novelty.  This was something new!

The art I like tends to hang out to somewhat grimy post-industrial areas, something that's as much to do with the monoculture as it is with the generally precarious financial situation of young artists. It's striking then, to stride into an office space in the beating heart of the City of London and find it invaded by the bright young avant garde.  This is the belly of the beast, and we are an arty little tapeworm setting up home in the gut of a gigantic, rapacious financial monster.  The attendants and participants stand in stark contrast to the besuited and neatly coiffed City traders that wandered past, gawping on with a condescending bemusement like a faint echo of the reaction to the Occupy camps.

Clench 2 - Neela Basu
First impressions are that this is a profoundly, intentionally, colossally dull space.  The walls are off-white, the floor and ceiling a dull grey and everything is bathed in flat fluorescent light. Presumably, when this is an office the decor instils a cold professionalism; a corporate environment with nothing to feed the eye or distract from the pursuit of profit.  There's a powerful oppressiveness to this enormous expanse of monochrome monotony. The art and performances battle valiantly against the gloom, but there's only so much you can do against a  formless grey void.  Still, it's a fun fight to watch, the simple novelty of being here gives at least the illusion that this is in the eye for the corporate world.

A golden thread of cheeky playfulness runs through almost all the work on display.  There's the cheeky Clench 2 by Neela Basu, a pile of pink whoopee cushions primed and ready to emit an operatic 'bronx cheer'.  Louise Ashcroft's Avatar mocks health and safety practice, precariously perched on a stepladder balanced upon a shopping trolley,  the legs disappearing into a ceiling cavity.  Steve Hines' Pole repurposes a supporting pillar into an makeshift maypole, the ribbons replaced by stripy hazard tape.  Modern art has an often well-deserved reputation for disappearing up its own arse, but the work here avoids the trap by being consciously absurd and self-deprecating.  And so, as the art plays the clown the corporate environment finds itself forced into the role of unwilling straight man.

Avatar - Louise Ashcroft
The performances extend this lighthearted, comedic atmosphere.  The first I saw was Marcus Orlandi's Two Reeler.  With a television in front of him and two speakers on a table, he mimes various actions with the speakers providing the appropriate sound effects.  So for example, he picks up a speaker and shakes it a spraycan rattle plays, when he saws a table with the flat edge of the speaker, it makes sawing noises followed by a wooden bonk as the invisible piece hits the floor. Throughout these actions he wears a constant Buster Keatonish deadpan expression. Orlandi's stated inspiration is old black and white comedies, here he perfectly captures the low-tech creativity you see in Georges Méliès experimental shorts from the 1900s, or perhaps the modern work of Michel Gondry.

Two Reeler - Marcus Orlandi
Straight afterwards is Hannah Catherine Jones' Punperforming and Sex Cymbals.  Dressed like a refugee from Chicago, Hannah sits on a red chair, two cymbals clamped to her knees and her legs spread.  She begins to clatter them together, snapping her thighs open and closed like a Venus Fly Try.  After a few minutes of this, she simply says "sex cymbal".  Ah, the joy of puns.  After this she picks up the Collins Dictionary of Puns and begins to read a ridiculously comprehensive list of pun-based puns.  After 7 minutes of puns I got a bit bored, but perhaps the monotony was the point.  

Sex Cymbal - Hannah Catherine Jones
Scattered over the floor in the centre of the room were a load of potatoes and black and white pictures.  This was the setting for Geraldine Gallavardin's L'origine du monde.  Placing an electric guitar on the floor, she threw a load of butter knives down and invited us to carve up a spud and participate in a chaotic soundscape.  Never one to be left out I grabbed a knife and began hacking at a potato.  Soon my hands were covered in starchy viscera, quickly drying in cool white clumps on my palms.  I'd carved the potato into a ridged, spiky thing and began wailing on the fret board of the guitar with it.  It's good fun making a racket at the best of times.  At the end of the piece the artist gave me a rolled up cornetto of potatoes which I later cooked and ate with some baked beans. 

L'origine du monde - Geraldine Gallavardin

Though Gallavardin's performance was participatory most people seemed content to watch. The next, Sadie Edginton's I want you to, dragged people in whether they wanted to participate or not.  Taking a huge roll of paper she walked around the gallery, looping it in a long line around the crowd.  This was a sizeable roll of paper, so even though we were in a big room she corralled just about everyone.  The art community is notoriously incestuous, everyone here connected to each by two degrees of separation or less, and Sadie's paper trail literalises this connection.  Once the whole thing is stretched out, she asks us to twirl on the spot, winding the paper around us like the reels in an old school projector.  It's a neat way of emphasising community, people being drawn into conversation with each other as the paper wound them closer together.

I want you to - Sadie Edginton
One of the more visually striking performances was Cradeaux Alexander's Untitled. With a rubber pig mask on, the artist moved around some apparently random props; a stuffed rabbit; a high-heeled shoe; a pink flamingo; and a banana, solemnly intoning the name of each through a distorted voicebox.  The whole thing was rather sinister, reaching a peak when he opened a pet carrier to reveal a very much alive rabbit.  A chorus of "aahhhs" echoed through the crowd, tinged with a faint fear that this rabbit might soon be sacrificed in the name of art.  As Alexander began to intone the word "death" over and over I feared for the future of the bunny.  It's easy in retrospect to see that the rabbit was quite safe, but the leering pig mask gave off an undeniably psychotic serial killer kind of vibe.  

Untitled - Cradeaux Alexander
Unperforming was a very cool night, with much more on show than what I've described. There was an embarrassment of riches here, my other favourites being Charlotte Hailey Watts' frantic drawing and subsequent collapse; the playing of the brilliant short Object v Subject by Samantha Thole and Mette Sterr; the time I spent staring until my eyes burned at an unflinching Gerald Curtis in Broken Neck Blues 2; and especially the very bad karaoke I performed to a David Cameron speech.  It struck me while watching that this is probably the most interesting thing that's ever happened in this space.  I wish the workers who doubtless toiled their souls away piece by piece could get to see the ways in which even this unfriendly, standoffish space can be filled with a loving, dynamic creativity. 

Pole - Steve Hines
I'm not sure how something like this came about, I'd imagine most office owners in the City of London would laugh in your face if you asked to use their space for a bizarro art show. Credit has to go to whoever allowed this to happen, they're responsible not only for a uniquely subversive experience but for a really fun one.

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