Saturday, March 12, 2016

'The Wick in Layers' at arebyte Gallery, 11th March 2016

Hackney Wick is under a death sentence. You might not have heard about it; but the grit, grime and graffiti is on the way out and these beautiful post-industrial warehouses are scheduled to be bulldozed. In their place will rise columns of steel and glass; beehive-sterile luxury living for the well-to-do, the streets dotted with corporate commercial opportunities. 

Perhaps this is just the inevitable next step in the neighbourhood's gentrification, but you only have to look at the drab, depopulated and wind-blasted misery of the neighbouring Olympic Park to feel a deep shudder of dread.

So it's prime time for arebyte Gallery to host The Wick in Layers, a project from Masters students at the RCA studying Information Experience Design and Visual Communication. The starting point for the project is Josephine Berry's Autonomous Art in the Neoliberal City. 
"If one takes the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as a prime example of the neoliberal city's attempts to marry economics, control and happiness, its crisis of political ideology and aesthetic form becomes quickly apparent. In this disarticulated space of planting and place branding, art and athletics, picnicking and policing, entered through the Westfield shopping mall, the triumph of biopolitical economics over civic values and municipal idealism is all too evident." (Preview here)
 The objective of the exercise is to "investigate the systems and networks of arebyte's local area ... creating a space of fluid meaning and connections that reflect the everchanging narratives surrounding the area." What this boils down to is an exhibition that distills the atmosphere and mood of Hackney Wick to an easily identifiable core.

Most immediately eye-catching is Yinan Song's video that juxtaposes graffitied walls, the forbidding green fence that encircles the Olympic Park and the Overground station. The graffiti leaps out as bright bursts of primary colour, overlapping images bristling with communal creativity. It's a neat metaphor for the artist population; all working on their own themes yet all gently overlapping and contributing to a tapestry of sorts. Meanwhile the jagged metal angles of the Olympic stadium squat, spider-like, over the top, squeezing out the energy through sheer mass.

At the centre is Georgia Ward Dyer's table, constructed from found materials around Hackney Wick. Whereas Song explores iconography, Ward Dyer delves into the web of interpersonal connections that comprise the area. This table was used to serve a dinner last night, to which Hackney Wick residents were invited; from her fellow artists to Olympic Park advisors to the landlord that owns the arebyte building.

I've always been a big fan of any installation that combines meaning with a slap-up dinner; so I was a bit gutted I missed it. Still, it works as an easily understandable, friendly and community orientated exercise that cuts through an awful lot of conceptual art bullshit. After all, what's the point in trying to communicate something about a community when you suffocate it underneath strained pretension?

Similarly clear-minded is Wei Lun Chang's exploration of the bylaws that govern behaviour in the Olympic Park. These are a byzantine tangle of small-print that dictate everything from how many dogs you're allowed to walk at once to the circumstances in which you can fire a bow and arrow. The small print density is overwhelming; the overall impression a disquieting authoritarian thicket.

This contrast between self-governing public urban space and strictly controlled private space is a pressing issue (especially with the debate surrounding Boris' pet 'Garden Bridge'. Annelise Keestra and Franziska Hatton explore it further in their audio/video piece, mirroring footage from the two places to a soundtrack of conversations with residents and workers. Unfortunately, due to the fact that this was a bustling and chatty Friday night private view, I couldn't hear the audio.

I could, however, appreciate the care that's gone into presenting the work, projecting the video onto a suspended screen that can be watched from both sides. I'd have loved to have been able to get the full picture with the audio, but the video at least contrasted the two very differing environments well.

Finally, quiet and minimalist, was Jordan Gamble's look into the 'hackney candle'. Wax drips down into a jar filled with brick, silk and the detritus of Hackney Wick's history. Maps on the wall next to it show us the changes this land has seen in just 200 years. Bucolic agriculture gives way to heavy industry gives way to fashionable, forwarding thinking art. The place has been in flux for generations, this piece explaining that any changes will, someday, be changed themselves as the accreted drip drip of history proceeds towards the infinite.

The Wick in Layers is one of the most impressive exhibitions I've seen lately; combining intelligence, artistry and politics to zero in on the psychogeographical state of Hackney Wick. It's a bit of a shame that it's only running for this weekend - but if you're a resident of the area or at all concerned with gentrification and development I'd highly recommend paying arebyte a visit!

The Wick in Layers is on until the 13 March. Details here.

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