Wednesday, April 1, 2015

'Bright Shadow' at the Morgue, Chelsea College of Arts, 30th March 2015

Hosting an exhibition in an old morgue bodes well for what's inside. The windowless room, tucked away in the bowels of the former Royal Army Medical College (now the Chelsea College of Art and Design), still bristles the the memory of the corpses that passed through. Gently crumbling plaster reveals cork insulation which, together with the dirt flecked white walls and a low-level subsonic hum adds up a disconcerting atmosphere that induces mild paranoia. 

This is Bright Shadow, "a video art exhibition that explores how contemporary mass media can manipulate the perception of truth with moving image". So, in place of the rapidly cooling dead we have rows of screens, each displaying the work of artists. It's a wonderful setting, the dim light illuminating room and visitor alike with shifting patterns of cold electronic colour.

The first piece that caught my attention was Thomas Galler's American Soldiers. This is a collage of appropriated YouTube videos of people lip syncing to Toby Keith's sick-making hymn to the US military. There's a Lynchian atmosphere to these participants; some are hunched over in the darkness, jaws resting upon swollen chins as they bleat out the lyrics; some pose with cool-eyed detachment, their shop-new 'rugged' outfits projecting illusions of masculine confidence; most intriguing are the teenage girls, posing in American flag bikinis and crop-tops. Here sexual desire and nationalism are perversely knitted together, and not by a mass media, by individual internet users.

That creepiness is underlined by the surroundings and the medium through which it's presented. Alone amongst the other exhibits, American Soldiers 2012 is played through a chunky old CRT. There's something odd about seeing digital media played on old analogue technology, the work neatly out of step with the firmly 21st century stuff surrounding it.

Similarly impressive is Vasilis Karvounis' I Sell My Portrait. This comprises of a still, looped shot of the artist, with subliminal messages sporadically overlaid on top. It's a frustrating watch the microsecond-long messages slightly too quick to be able to fully read. Instead, fragments of words are briefly comprehensible; "sell", "best", "art" etc. Despite being widely discredited as an effective advertising method, the very idea of the technique still sends a chill up the spine.

We'd all like to think we're immune to advertising, that we're able to intelligently pick our way through the thicket of consumerist desires and wants. Yet subliminals suggest a sinister programming of us, not just making us want things, but making us think we've spontaneously decided to want them. This is what Karvounis plays with, quietly selling himself and his art to audiences, all the while boring holes in us with his powerful stare.

Easily the most eye-catching was Carla Chan Ho-Choi's Snö. Nestled at the back tunnel of the gallery, the piece is a constantly shifting sphere that emits eerie sounds. Confession time: I know Carla pretty well (she was the reason I was at the exhibition in the first place), so I made a point of deciding what I liked most before I read who'd done what, so trust me, it's only a happy coincidence that I liked hers the best.

As a big Tarkovsky fan, I couldn't help but be reminded of Solaris. There, a giant psychedelic planetary intelligence wreaks havoc with the minds of cosmonauts. Snö visually echoes this, the pulsating surface looking organic and supple - it's motion looking like an effort to communicate with the observer. It's aided in this both by its relative scale - occupying far more space than the rest of the exhibits - and it's location. Being at the end of a narrow corridor invites the audience towards it, as if we're caught in its gravitational field.

It all adds up to a sensation of religious awe, the sphere/planet some abstract, alien object of veneration - like some unknowable Lovecraft god. I dug it is what I'm saying.

Bright Shadow is at the Morgue, Chelsea College of Art 10-6pm until 4th April 2015

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