Friday, 26 July 2013

Love, Language and Contagious Diseases

After a circuit of Heather Phillipson's corporeal Baltic Centre exhibition, Garageland reviewer Iris Priest leaves the art behind for a guided tour of Newcastle's backstreets.

I am sat with three strangers, all of us deeply inclined on pillows. My spot is still warm from the previous occupant and their lingering body heat stirs a simultaneity of comfort and unease in me. 

This is an apt beginning to Heather Phillipson’s exhibition at the Baltic centre Yes, surprising is existence in the post-vegetal cosmorama a show that oscillates between states of bodily and intellectual uncertainty, playfully testing the boundaries of self and other and occasionally obsessing over issues of personal hygiene and love.

On a screen that looks down from the angle of a dentist's poise-lamp Immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds (2013) begins with a frenetic kicking of legs and fast, heavy breathing. The perspective of the film – that of the owner of the legs – immediately implicates us in the struggle to get out and to get up, the difficult birth from dreaming into the real world.

Once the covers are kicked free we are met with a celebratory 'Happy Birthday' jingle coupled with cheesy balloon animations. Phillipson thanks us for coming 'on such a crap day.' Her language is poetic and intimate: 'you must have made your way through tight passages to get here.' Indeed we have, literally entering the gallery space through a narrow, tilting passageway reminiscent of the entrances to a fairground ghost ride.

Once inside we become immersed in a demented post-internet world of excess, tangent and faltering perspective. Phillipson's hand-held film snippets are collaged with found footage of maps, TV weathermen, romantic muzak, lo-fi post-production effects, canned laughter, and pink subtitles that skip across the screen (remarks from ‘Dad’ to ‘Reindeers’ to ‘Carbohydrates’). Meanwhile, her authorial monologue accompanies us all the way through the journey.

The topic segues to finger toothbrushes, introducing the theme of oral hygiene and the mouth as a boundary – a borderline between interiority and exteriority and a site for the propagation of germs and words. But the work is in no way burdened by serious reference; rather it is suffused with humour and playfulness. It feels as though we are sharing in a somatic flux, a plasticity of visual, audio and kinaesthetic sensation.

'Love is the theme and everyone is in it ... You're in it' Phillipson tells us in her characteristically flat tone. The show is laced with the theme of love. In love we inhabit contradictory positions. It solidifies our feeling of being a self enamoured with a separate other, but it also confuses and blurs those boundaries through the interpenetration of bodies and ideas, and so we find ourselves back at the mouth: 'What happens in your mouth might not stay in your mouth ... other people's tongues for example'.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Hon, 1966

Exiting the intimate, womb-like cinema space of Immediately… I realise with a barely suppressed giggle that we've slipped out between two gigantic banana legs, the oval exit/entrance garlanded by gaudy plastic flowers, cleaning accessories and hula hoops. These monstrous, luminescent legs are evocative of Niki de Saint Phalle's Hon (1966) at The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, but in a reversal of audience's interaction with Hon (in which visitors entered the gallery between the giantess's legs) Immediately… excretes the viewer outwards into the gallery and world beyond.

A yellow speedboat rides on a wave of bottled water. The film ha!ah! (2013) is projected on the boat's splash-screen. I sit in the passenger seat as we embark on a virtual slalom through water slides, mouths, doorways and dark passages. Phillipson perforates the accompanying narrative with blanks 'Your mouth provides the perfect environment for ______ to grow,' and listening, I begin to suspect that language itself is the 'infectious disease' passed from person to person and body to body.

In A is to D what E is to H (2011-13) we are invited upon another jarring, decentred journey; a fragmented love story played out through the spaces of language, body and architecture. The inside of the yellow-painted Peugeot (on which the film is projected) smells of car shampoo, transporting me back to my nineteen-eighties childhood and the claustrophobia of long road journeys and family holidays.

'I'm trying to think about my mouth' Phillipson tells us 'It doesn't wear out even if I use it.” In the projection the mouth becomes a portal, transporting us between memories, and real and illusory geographic locations. Phillipson's narration overlays words or phrases until they become interchangeable for one another: “French Cuisine” for “French Kissing”, “overdone” for “half-baked”. Taste sensations and poetic metaphors turn words into matter and bodily inhabitation into language until there seems no distinction between aural and oral, between language and experience.

Phillipson's twelve step audio visual tour Cardiovascular Vernacular (as in 'it's time for my regular cardiovascular vernacular') (2013) takes the viewer on another phantasmagoric journey, this time out of the Baltic and into the city. 'Well' our tour guide/invisible fitness instructor/imaginary friend declares as we survey the view from outside 'here we are in the world. Behind us is some art. Ahead is everything else'. Phillipson guides us on a meandering, layered excursion through Newcastle's backstreets. 'Just relax your grip on the world for a while ... on real and made-up memories, on material things ... on what you know of your own instep and heartbeat'.

The intermittent bells and dings of the smart phone, along with Phillipson's musings on posture, chance encounters and 'how to walk' become like meditational aids, soliciting consideration of what is voluntary and involuntary, whether consciousness has a borderline, where we are and why we are. By the end of Phillipson's 52 minute 'work out' her intimate semi-stream-of-consciousness leaves me feeling thoroughly exercised in the art of becoming and not becoming and I'm left adrift in a strange and exquisite sense of disembodiment.

Iris Priest 

Baltic Centre, Gateshead NE8 3BA
21 June - 22 September 2013

Images: Colin Davison
Yes, surprising is existence in the post- vegetal cosmorama – installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artist and BALTIC.

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