Friday, November 8, 2013

'Ram Samocha: Drawing Surface' at arebyte gallery, 8th November 2013

I immediately thought "They look like arseholes" the moment I walked into the gallery. It's a thought so strong that that once it lodged in your mind I couldn't shake it.  As I pondered the puckered, organic crenellations, Ram came over and said someone had told him earlier that these images "look like arseholes".  I decided to be diplomatic, saying that perhaps they were a bit nipple-y.  But deep down I knew that they weren't.  That I saw arseholes and the artist didn't is the crux of an exhibition that prods us to not just to engage with it but to define it.

Ram Samocha is both a performance and visual artist, and he's exhibiting this series of metal on rock paper works and, tonight only, a live performance piece.  From featureless white paper the artist carves out three-dimensional protrusion; rippling valley and mountains, and obscenely bulging anatomies and rock formations, or indeed, whatever dwells within the confines of your head.

So perhaps it says more about me than the artist that so many of the works in Metallic Field look like anuses.  Scattered amongst these are various other bodily protrusions.  Some of them might be warts or pimples, others resemble nipples with delicate hairs sprouting around them.  They're practically medical in their composition, resembling the art you'd encounter in the Hunterian or St Barts pathology collections. The twist here is that though these images are apparently created with clinical precision and attention to detail - they weren't.  

Ceci n'est pas une anus
The whole exhibition forces the audience to engage in pareidolia - the observer transforming visual white noise into something we can understand.  When shown a row of obscene bulges my mind contorts into a medical frame of mind.  In other pieces on display I see the fossilised tracks of ancient arthropods that trundled their way across a primeval ocean floor.  Though it's a bit facile to say you get more enjoyment the more you put in, the work sinks or swims depending on how willing the viewer is to suture their own meaning on top of it.  

Throughout the colour palette is restrained and austere. The base colour a classy Dulex white soft white, the details highlighted in light grey or faint champagne gold.  This has the potential to be visual weak tea, especially as arebyte itself is decked out in classic art gallery white. Fortunately one of the walls is bright crimson, the colour blaring out over the natural hushed gallery atmosphere.  It's this contrast between the nearly monochromatic art and the loud colour - the opposing forces of pure white and satanic red a neat graphic contrast, breathing some vibrancy into the space.

Fossilised trilobite tracks?
Later in the evening Ram repeated a performance piece Cover Up, first performed in 2009. A video of Ram at work was projected onto a wall bisected into red and white blocks.  The ghostly image of the artist walked back and forth, scratching long marks into the wall, creating a scratching forest drawing.  Meanwhile Ram was pacing back and forth in front of his video doppelganger.  He picked up two sponges and dipped them in buckets either side of him.  In one red paint, in the other white.  With a moist slap he banged them against the wall, a dollop of red on white, white on red.  Steadily and methodically  he inverted the colours, jumping up to reach the highest points and kneeling to smudge the bottom.

After he'd finished with the wall he started on himself, mixing the red and white together and rubbing it over his body, becoming literally tickled pink.  Stretching and posing he worked himself through tai-chi moves, his silhouette looming large on the wall behind him.  Two people were enlisted from the crowd to paint his back, and soon from his neck down to his ankles he was dripping in gooey pink paint.  Raising his arms he posed as if undergoing crucifixion, then took his trousers and top off, standing against the wall in his pants.  To a smattering of applause he finished and sneaked off to clean himself as best he could.

Here we see the artist transforming not only the walls of the gallery but his own body into a canvas.  He's even working in tandem with a past version of himself projected onto the wall, making it difficult to say whether the projected artist is complementing the real one or vice versa.  Again it feels as if the weight of meaning lies squarely on us, he does after all invite members of the audience into the performance space to smear him with paint, a symbol (at least for me) of the importance of our presence.

Much as I enjoy being given free rein to pluck an interpretation from my mind, this art feels a touch too vague.  It's not that I want to have a domineering artist thrust meaning upon me, but it's nice to walk away with an insight into another state of mind rather than our own, which let's face it, we're each pretty familiar with.  I was impressed with the detailing and technique, but it came hand in hand with numb sterility.  

Ultimately I think that buttoned-down austere art ilke this isn't really my thing.  I prefer chaos, tangles of contradictions, ideas spilling over each other and competing for attention. This was more like being stuck inside a sensory deprivation chamber with walls covered in giant model anuses.  And that's just not my kinda bag, baby.

Dates: 8th Nov – 7th Dec.  Tue – Sat, 12 – 6pm at arebyte, Unit 4, 49 White Post Lane, Queen's Yard, Hackney Wick E9 5EN.

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