Friday 11 October 2013

Fragile but Never Tenuous

Recalling the exhibition In This Fragile Place at Vyner Street Gallery, Joe Turnbull asks what it was that wove the works together so well when so many group exhibitions fall flat.

Ineffectively curated multi-artist exhibitions either hang together awkwardly, tenuously strung up by a single common thread, or are crassly bunched together by a homogenising theme. In this Fragile Place at Vyner Street Gallery does both and neither at the same time. The result of a long and collaborative process by the three exhibiting artists, the show benefits from this more organic way of working, making the symbiosis between the pieces feel natural and complimentary rather than forced. And it is this sense of process which shines through, albeit in a haunting milky half-light, in each of the finished works.

Janet Medway's TORN is a perfect case in point. Scrunched up balls of Sellotaped paper sprawls out in a silent frenzy from a yawning paper bin, like garbled verbal diarrhoea spewing from an inchoate set of jaws. On closer inspection the textured, wiry mess is made up of statements, furiously cut up but fastidiously taped back together again, invoking a strained dialogue of muddled speech acts. It is a reminder that in so many human relationships and interactions as much is left unsaid, misinterpreted or drowned out, hinting at the imperfect and incomplete nature of language, which so often fails to communicate how we really feel. And yet, the statements seem to be escaping the dustbin of history they have been consigned to, suggesting the universal power of language to mediate and impart meaning despite all of its limitations.

As if riffing off the textured aesthetic of Medway's piece, the viewer is invited to segue on to Helen Scalway's Dwellings, ghostly architectural spectres that float out from the wall almost impossibly. They are made of wafer-thin tissue paper, as delicate and ethereal as an echo carried on the wind, but paradoxically they jut out imposingly, demanding attention. Stairs protrude at bizarre angles giving them an Escherian quality, whilst haphazard, misshapen little windows cast eerie shadows like bad memories. These dishevelled buildings are simultaneously mournful yet menacing. Their distinctly dream-like quality reaffirms the idea that our sense of place is both imagined and real; wrapped up as much in human emotion as it is in bricks and mortar. Dwellings reminds us that the security offered by places we consider our homes, both materially and spiritually, is ultimately vulnerable, nevertheless, the sanctuary they offer allows us to lead our lives.

The three new works exhibited by Claire Reed are each a response to her earlier dance and visual art project, Letters:Cartas which was a collaboration with contemporary dance artist, Rejane Garcia. The catalyst for the project was the collection of letters written to Garcia by her mother when she moved away from home aged 15. The letters had been untouched since then, and with the death of Garcia's mother she revisited them for the first time, which Reed documented. To whom it may concern consists of snapshots, revealing the range of emotions Garcia went through when she re-read the letters. They are embraced by white envelopes, with the little oblongs of clear plastic each offering a revealing window into Garcia's deepest thoughts and feelings. They encapsulate the mixture of joy and grief which so often accompany reminiscence of loved ones passed.

Footage is another piece where the artistic process is at the fore. It consists of a foot's-eye view video installation of two dancers performing their improvised interpretation of the rehearsal process. Cutting out the bodies completely transforms the footage and makes the feet feel as though they have a life of their own. The projection is at foot-height, which you might take as an invitation to imagine what the bodies these feet are attached to would be doing, yet this never really enters your mind, so free and natural do the feet seem. The relationship between the two sets of feet though, is just as complex and contested as any relationship, flitting from fluid harmony to jerky power-play, and the levels of compromise in between.

So what weaves theses disparate works together so masterfully? To be sure, there's something of a shared aesthetic, engagement with process and the whole experience is steeped in different hues of white, but it's much more than that. Rather than being an arbitrary theme that binds the pieces together, it's a general feeling, a subtle evocation of emotions which is completely intangible; reflecting the reality and fantasy of lived experiences. Indeed, the human condition is inherently fragile, from our relationships to our hopes and desires, yet their endurance allows us to survive and thrive.

Joe Turnbull

The exhibition was held at Vyner Street Gallery from 11 to 15 September.

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