Garageland reviewer Joe Turnbull stumbles across an exhibition at BREESE Little that he finds thoroughly unattractive, and that's a good thing.
I've lost count of the number of exhibitions I've been to at commercial galleries where the artwork is aesthetically pleasing: bold and bright colours, clean lines, easy on both the eye and the grey matter behind it. They're like a showroom, offering up their most beautiful wares for prospective buyers.
This of course makes intrinsic business sense, but as an art critic I want to be challenged by work. I want to engage my brain. I am not interested in how good it would look on my wall. And that's what makes BREESE Little's latest exhibition, POSSESSIA by Jan Manski so refreshing. And by refreshing, I mean bleak, grotesque and deeply unsettling.
POSSESSIA, free of any lofty price tags or labels, transports you from the commercial gallery setting into another world; a twisted nightmare of conflated fact and fiction, an historical yet anachronistic mythology steeped in austere sepia tones and brutal black and white hues.
It's hard not to be immediately enthralled by Horseman VII, an imposing caged abomination. A suited human torso has two fused horses skulls for a head, and its midriff is melted to a Victorian wheelchair where its legs should be. Evidently this mythos has its monsters, but perhaps none greater nor more hideous than the dark side of human behaviour. Is this blighted creature a victim of war or just the subject of some cruel experiment? It is, perhaps, a manifestation of the ugliest human traits, its two heads representing fear and prejudice.
The exhibition is strewn with historical memorabilia and photographs of an indeterminate era. Some appear burnt, others have calipers overlaid upon them as if they are test subjects to be measured. Pre-20th-century medical ephemera feature prominently, mistakes of the past that haunt the exhibition.
Just when you think you've been transported to an entirely fictional universe, little historical clues crop up, like Hierarchy, a postcard of Kaiser Wilhelm II, his face burnt out, overseeing a battalion of troops and tanks, whilst a church roof provides him with a bizarre gothic halo. All of a sudden, the medical instruments for measurement that are everywhere evoke experiments in eugenics, (Nazi and otherwise) a stark reminder, if one were needed, that the horrors of reality are just as bad, if not more grotesque than the worst aberrations of fiction.
Two images stand out from the macabre greyscale palette: a brilliant white torso, and a bust, reminiscent of Greco-Roman sculptures. Amidst this insane menagerie of warped figures and defiled photographs they present a picture of perfection, a bizarre counterpoint. Whilst their pure whiteness could just as well reference the perverse ideal of an Aryan super race, they also highlight the process of othering; of seeing that which is different as dangerous, something to be feared and derided. They may be perfectly shaped but they are the odd ones out here; in a perverted and insane world a sane person is a freak.
Often when the horrors of totalitarianism and human cruelty are invoked it is done so in a way that celebrates the superiority of liberal democracy; it is supposed to make us feel grateful for our current political context and it belittles any minor gripes we might have with our political masters, which pale in comparison to such totalitarianism. But this doesn't feel like the case in POSSESSIA, with pieces like Implement IV, a human-machine hybrid of a hand that would seem to infinitely turn a wheel, coming across as a critique of a very liberal notion of progress.
Instead of valorising our current consumer-capitalist era, POSSESSIA reminds us that the brutal, dark side of human behaviour still exists, and can still be found when the mask of airbrushed logos and slick packaging slips. Indeed, there's a still a genocide going on today, more than 30,000 people die every day from preventable diseases and hunger in silence, as a result of the inequality needed to keep our current system in place.
In our relatively privileged subject positions we are, after all, the indirect benefactors of others' misery: from the slavery that built empires to the modern-day slavery of sweatshops which furnish us with our cheap consumer goods. POSSESSIA is so unsettling because it shows us a side of human behaviour we don't like to acknowledge, it brings the dark and dirty secrets that lurk beneath the surface of our society to light and unleashes them with fury. I certainly wouldn't want it on my wall, but it's powerful stuff.
Jan Manski: POSSESIA at BREESE Little (London, EC1) runs from 27th Feb until 12th April 2014.