Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Play What’s Not There

Alicia Rodriguez attends Raven Row's exhibition Play What's Not There which, despite claiming influence from the unlikeliest of bedfellows in Søren Kiekegaard and Miles Davis, manages to find coherence in a fusion of existential religiosity and noisy, neon-addled, mania. 

Katharina Wulff Tifaout ntitrit, 2014 

When Miles Davis said ‘don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there’ to his musicians, he succinctly entered a world of existential romanticism. He encapsulated a philosophical paradox where, in order to reach artistic self-knowledge, one must sacrifice aesthetic, stylistic and academic beauty. Did he mean the kind of aesthetic despair that, for example, Robert Motherwell suggests Marcel Duchamp transcends? Michael Bracewell explores this connection and more in his introduction to Raven Row’s current exhibition, which Bracewell himself has curated and named after Davis’ now iconic instruction.

Play What’s Not There is an example of that finely executed group show, one that is not heavy with explanation despite the multitude of difficult ideas with which it concerns itself. Its ability to simply let the works communicate and respond within the space is understated and refreshing. An accompanying publication acts as a sort of appendices, containing excerpts from a few selected W.H. Auden and Søren Kierkegaard texts. It is a light, economical tome that naturally becomes part of the work in the exhibition. It is handed to me immediately upon entering Raven Row.

Robert Whitman Line in the Sand (Negative), 2004

Following a chaotic tangle of musical sounds I enter the first room of the show where video documentation of Linder’s four-hour performance The Working Class Goes to Paradise plays on a television screen. This piece depicts three indie rock bands playing simultaneously while a group of women perform 19th Century Shaker rituals. The ecstatic religiosity and mysticism re-enacted here is difficult to listen to and almost stressful to watch. This isn’t a criticism; it produces an uncanny sense of raw consciousness and emotion. 

The screen is set on the floor opposite Robert Whitman’s silent counterpart Line in the Sand (Negative), which consists of an indecipherable video projected onto a neatly sculpted mound of white sand. The video is projected in a thin linear circle, reduced to lights, shadows and shapes. The relationship between Linder’s work and Whitman’s here is unpredictable and contrasting however, both pieces obscure something in order to reveal something unseen.

Cerith Wyn Evans 
A Community Predicated on the Basic Fact Nothing Really Really Matters, 2013

Katharina Wulff is fascinating. The meticulously crafted Tifaout ntitrit, two mashrabiya (a window enclosed with wood latticework and, often, stained glass) pieces bookend the ground floor of Raven Row, set into the doorframe and window. The works are subtle and precious. Later, I realise that Wulff is in fact primarily known for her strange and mysterious paintings, one of which, Der Ausflug, appears on the second floor. Her work is puzzling and almost has the compulsive qualities of some outsider art. 

In contrast to this, a selection of Cerith Wyn Evans’ neon works feature throughout Play What’s Not There. The pieces seem to allude to notions of infinity and creation: A Community Predicated of the Basic Fact Nothing Really Matters refers to visual representations of the Higgs boson (or god particle), but also the chemical structure of LSD. Unsurprisingly, I can take or leave neon installations, but in this context Wyn Evans’ work appropriately explores the incomprehensible and the existential.

Bruce Naumam Clown Torture (I’m Sorry and No, No, No. No), 1987

Almost mirroring Linder’s cacophonic film, the exhibition ends with Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture (I’m Sorry and No, No, No, No) comprised of two monitors each playing a looped piece of clown footage. One clown chatters hysterically while the other is deliberate and performative. Both clowns repeat the same dialogue. The effect is grotesque and frightening; the constant repetition of the words ‘I’m sorry’ is simply desperate. The layering of sounds, similar to The Working Class… creates a barrier, forcing the viewer to search for meaning through what is not shown on the screen.

The academic backdrop behind Play What’s Not There is not easy to grasp at first, and can sometimes feel inaccessible. It is an ambitious show, however, and manages to maintain a simple, minimal approach. The silent, thoughtful spaces are constantly upset by abject images, highlighting a tension between aesthetic style and brutal “emotion”. The Auden-Kierkegaard influence manifests itself in a choice of artworks that reflect existential, almost religious, mania. Michael Bracewell has found a basis for this in Miles Davis, and created a show that is as perplexing as it is mesmerising.

Alicia Rodriguez

Play What's Not There
17 April - 22 June
Raven Row, London E1

Katharina Wulff Der Ausflung, 2014

Full Image Captions

Katharina Wulff Tifaout ntitrit, 2014

Robert Whitman Line in the Sand (Negative), 2004 Pace Gallery

Foreground: Cerith Wyn Evans A Community Predicated on the Basic Fact Nothing Really Really Matters, 2013 Commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna BackgroundKatharina Wulff Tifaout ntitrit, 2014 

Bruce Naumam Clown Torture (I’m Sorry and No, No, No. No), 1987 Pinault Collection 

Katharina Wulff Der Ausflung [The Excursion], 2014 Collection of Craig Robins, Miami

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