The British Art Show is a quinquennial exhibition with an impressive track record for spotting mainstays and stayers in British art. This 8th edition has the same aspirations and plenty of everything to do it with. Valerie Zwart explores the sumptuous and the aggressive within Leeds Art Gallery‘s display
The British Art Show’s mandate is to bring together major themes and talents of the past five years’ of British art. A daunting task in itself, but BAS8’s curators also voiced an intention to animate recent thinking around New Aesthetic. The exhibition is only partially coherent in this, and the suspicion is that this has more to do with the British Art Show as a cultural institution, than Colin and Yee’s ability to realise a show examining ‘the meaning and manifestation of objects in the seemingly dematerialised reality that marks our times.’
It has plenty of work: 42 artists and a record 27 commissions in a wide variety of media. While the offering is heavy on video, it is light on photography and drawing… and opera, and ballet.
It has plenty of space: it fills the entirety of Leeds Art Gallery, whose own collection is on long loan to other institutions ahead of its coming, year-long refurbishment.
And it has plenty of time. The exhibition impresses as being in flux – some pieces will be completed during the run of the exhibition, and there are integrated performances and programming. The catalogue provides a unique look over the curatorial shoulders of Lydia Yee and Anna Colin through its artists’ production photos, scripts and preparatory sketches. What is on view in Leeds is just the start. We’re told BAS8 will evolve and change as it travels to various venues in Norwich and Southampton before concluding in Edinburgh, in September 2016.
Very few of BAS8’s artists actually use a New Aesthetic approach as conceived by its author, James Bridle. This work reveals the processes, different actions they’ve undergone, and the virtual and physical infrastructures behind them, as well as biases. New Aesthetic art won’t charm with its looks, having almost nothing to do with actual aesthetics, but rather how it is created (and what it could become). At BAS8, the truest example of this phylum is Yuri Pattison’s video installation on the gloved, shirtless human labour and natural resources required to make Bitcoins, which includes a conceptually-aligned cooling system.
In a more illustrative vein, Andrea Büttner’s images for figures of speech in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason are drawn from her own archive and online sources, forming a subjective-illustrator version (ala Roland Barthes). Similarly, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Convention of Tiny Movements presents MIT’s research into the potentials of crisp packets, tissue boxes and other inanimate objects for use as listening devices. Where Büttner lets the images do the heavy lifting, Abu Hamdan includes an A4’s worth of explanatory text for this deliciously unsettling idea. It’s either a tweet in 3D, or too didactic, depending on your expectations as a viewer.
Thankfully, the curators have included work positing objects as initiators of action, networked realities, mutating forms or active agents in a more imaginative way. Particularly engaging is Melanie Gilligan’s video The Common Sense, about the unintended and disastrous consequences of networked emotions. It is both very well made and cleverly presented within a network-like installation and proximity-triggered headsets.
Rachel Maclean’s Feed Me will be on the receiving end of a lot of right-swiping. Maclean plays all parts and employs a slick, candy-floss aesthetic to take on some of the more recognisable aspects of Web 2.0 life and its conceits.
Another thought-provoking video is by Imogen Stidworthy. Using 4-screens, this meta-exploration of prisoner surveillance and the limits of speech is tethered by footage of an intergalactic-looking scan of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s last hunk of gulag bread.
Much of the art of the last five years reflects the fact that the internet and digital technologies have opened up many more opportunities, for living and for making art. Not all art does, though. There are many possible responses to this change in the way we live, including merely backing up your savoir vivre once in a while and continuing on as before. This pluralism is also manifest among artists, and it’s why some of the work on view is not a response to dematerialised reality, but a continuation of making objects with things, sometimes making ur-objects with ur-things, like making paintings with the sea (Jessica Warboys).
The sumptuous brushwork of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye might convince you that a real (or indexical) relationship with objects, people and experiences demands traditional materials and techniques. But James Richards’ video Raking Light also conveys the same pure pleasure of looking, in a way that is almost amniotic. Both artists’ work reminds us of art’s superpower: isolating and preserving the visual poetics of life as observed in the living of it.
Close by, Caroline Achaintre’s hand-tufted textiles look great between the ceramic one-two punch of Jesse Wine’s brash materiality and Aaron Angell’s ‘badly-made trophies’, as one visitor characterised them. This work reflects visual artists’ increased use of media once thought of as belonging to the applied arts, or craft. Between Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings and the somewhat aggressive-looking craft revival across from it, a lone Pablo Bronstein drawing hangs by itself. Despite its size, it seems like it might sublime away into the atmosphere amid all the materiality.
While not overtly political, three projects in the exhibition are pitched against received ideas still swilling around in the dregs of late capitalism, again through objectness.
Ahmet Őğüt’s commissioning of former BAS artists (Liam Gillick, Susan Hiller and Goshka Macuga) to design donation boxes combating student debt is the most dissenting. This project breathes new life into the still-not-quite-dead notion (especially online), that visibility is power- by conceiving visual art that permanently and materially works for social change.
Designer Martino Gamper enlists traditional craftspeople to bind books, repair shoes or re-cane chairs – to transform damage and wear into one-off design and is an inherent provocation about the commercial devaluation of these skills.
Finally, Stuart Whipps’ 1275 GT Mini project, in collaboration with ex-Longbridge workers is described everywhere as a ‘restoration’ completed when the artist drives the Mini to the BAS8 in Edinburgh. ‘Resurrection’ better expresses the victory lap around the personal and political that Whipps has in store however: the car was first built in 1979, the year of the artist’s birth and of Margaret Thatcher’s coming to power – and by extension the start of subsequent years of labour unrest.
Taken as a whole, this selection of art made in the past five years produces a disquieting effect. Underlying many of the works is a contained cyclical or churning process or sensation. Sometimes this is literal, as with Anthea Hamilton’s ant farms, the videos of Benedict Drew’s roiling geothermals intercut with suggestions of repressed desire. Mikhail Karikis and Daniel Sinsel offer a more blood and guts versions. Elsewhere the unease is more subtle. Simon Fujiwara’s video ‘Hello’ is edited by a restless, dismembered hand. Magali Reus’ beautiful and original lock mechanism sculptures draw attention to the cryptological distance between a human life and encrypted data.
You still might not escape a non-urgent sense of dread, especially if you take a break on one of Alan Kane’s tombstone-shaped benches. Instead, and before you’ve seen one too many (of the many) videos, head to Bedwyr William’s Century Egg in the sculpture gallery for his self-portrait as an archaeological find. It’s the only jocular note in the whole show, and it is all the more funny for it.
British Art Show is at Leeds Art Gallery until 10 January 2016. Discover more at britishartshow8.com. Valerie Zwart is a Leeds-based visual artist, writer and curator. Her studio is in Leeds, UK at East Street Arts (Patrick Studios).