Sunday, 1 May 2022

Lads on tour: four encounterings (plus one) from the Venice Biennale 2022

The Netherlands, Brazil, The USA and Uruguay, Toby Upson finds a romantic self alive amongst four Pavilions in the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (the Venice Biennale) 

 

‘When I Sonia you say Boyce’

 

“Sonia!”

“BOYCE!”

“Sonia!”

“BOYCE!”

“Sonia!”

“BOYCE!”

“Sonia!”

“BOYCE!”

 

Electric flash, blue; crash and crash and thud. The base kicks, drops, and rises, pushing bodies into a flow. And together, we shuffle with cackling smiles. 




 

I always say the Venice Biennale is lads on tour. Case in point, my hazy memory-come-epigraph of the British Pavilion’s party this year. Situated in an open-air courtyard, in the centre of historic Venice, few details separate this celebration from those that unfold in the clubs of other European islands (in my mind anyway). In Venice, the floors are filled with a strange mix of people: jet-set writhe with jet proletariat. It's glorious. And for an overly enthusiastic (and I must say privileged) someone, like myself, it is an opportunity to enjoy some level of other-humanly reality. To be all neo-romantic about it, I find a self alive in the flash, blue; crash and crash and thud of the Biennale; on this city-island where rot and marble rock in a melee; where art and life truly merge for those able to access this megamix of fine finger food, fizz, and of course art!

 

This neo-romantic re-envisioning of humanly possibilities lies at the core of this year’s Biennale. Titled, The Milk of Dreams - a short line corralled from Leonora Carrington - many of the works in and around the Biennale seem to take a Surrealist sojourn through understandings of humanity, and indeed, understandings of being. Rather than deploying otherworldly stylistics to re-envision a dissociated world “through the prism of imagination” - to quote the Biennale’s curator Cecilia Alemani - the works that took me outside of myself each looked over, above and beyond the realities of being, helping me to grasp “new modes of coexisting” and the “infinite new possibilities of transformation” allowed for when one dreams in milk instead of pure fantasy. And so, as I await my ooh six twenty flight, it seems fitting that this tactile “re-enchantment of the world” happens when bodies take flight, arrive, move together - shuffle with cackling smiles

 

With 213 artists, 80 National Pavilions, and numerous events throughout the city, the Biennale, as always, is BIG. I am not going to map this scene, nor round up what unfolded in my Venetian scuttling. Instead, by way of a constellation, here are four Pavilion encounters, of varying lengths, that pushed my alive self into joyful free flow. 

 

 

melanie bonajo, When the body says Yes (Dutch Pavilion) 

 

“Embrace your inner sloth,” melaine bonajo. I recline, falling into a soft landscape of neoprene hills and velvet foliage. Just beyond my toes, a sequined meadow and fur valley. Gazing up, I drink in the night sky rendered on the ceiling of the 10th-century Chiesetta della Misericordia Cannaregio and as my eyes drift down, they come to rest on an expansive screen suspended on the horizon. Here, slathered in olive oil, a group of naked bodies slip and slide on and over each other, jiggling with pleasure. Cut to a spring-time forest, they play wild, hanging off trees, jumping in pools. Layard over these humorous caresses, voices speak in turn about intimate moments of genital encounter and wider sexual becoming; often problematic for queer bodies in societies that have rigid notions of sexual being. 


 


Exhibition view of When the body says Yes, melanie bonajo, 2022. Dutch entry Venice Biennale as commissioned by the Mondriaan Fund. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.



 

Building from bonajo’s ongoing research into the possibilities for intimacy in an increasingly alienating world, the film installation is centred around one central claim: “touch can be a powerful remedy for the modern epidemic of loneliness.” With their wiggling together, the group of bare protagonists seem to be anything but isolated. That is a crass statement. Taking a holistic view of sexual bodies, bonajo’s film, and the viewing space designed by Théo Demans, hold experiential reality and somatic promise in restive tension. Not dwelling in the numbed mind-body connections that result from a commodity-driven becoming, the visual and sculptural play space of the Pavilion proposes that consensual touch can allow a body a more capacious existence. That is, in this abundant space “we discover our bodies beyond the norm,” to quote the film. And indeed, we are encouraged to register ways of holding ourselves outside of the hard pillars of western self-hood. 

 

 

Jonathas de Andrede, With the heart coming out of the mouth (Pavilion of Brazil) 

 

Through the left ear, I step inside the architectural head of this year’s Pavilion of Brazil, and a furnace of ambient noise situates me within something structural. Not so much a body in space, but a space from the body, here I hear, listening with my eyes, phrases corralled from day to day Brazilian life. These fragments - where the body acts as a metaphorical vessel for communication - are so much more than poppy figures of speech; they pertain to tongues in ears, that is to the divisive spectacle of rhetoric. 


 


Exhibition view of With the heart coming out of the mouth at the 2022 Brazilian Pavilion. Courtesy Ding Musa / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.




 

For Jonathas de Andrede the idiosyncrasies of the Brazilian people are a point of interest. In particular, how quotidian peculiarities can express something of the social, political and economic obfuscation many Brazilians face. For his work in this year's Biennale, the artist gives common phrases a mass-culture visuality: “faca nos dentes” (“knife in the teeth”) here rendered sassy; large red lips surround bare teeth and holding a blade at a rakish angle. With their journalistic grain, the pixelated pores of these cardboard wall-works recall the way in which narratives can infect our minds. It is fitting therefore that these spores fill the two lobes of the Pavilion of Brazil’s head. 


 


Exhibition view of With the heart coming out of the mouth at the 2022 Brazilian Pavilion. Courtesy Ding Musa / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.





Exhibition view of With the heart coming out of the mouth at the 2022 Brazilian Pavilion. Courtesy Ding Musa / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.




 

Moving from the left to the right side of the Pavilion, the abounding sound that gripped me upon my entry becomes one of the points of focus. Like the isolated snippets of visual metaphor, the video Nó na garganta [Knot in the Throat] brings together scenes of human and non-human comportment; hands curl, feet twitch, snakes become one with bodies, monkeys, leaves appear, and fires burn. Pairing the seemingly mundane with the horrific, or thrilling, the 38-minute filmatic collage is displayed on a large, pixelated screen - the kind you might expect to see at a political rally - and is accompanied by a soundtrack that pumps a vital energy into the Pavilion space. Not a clack, pulse, nor symmetrical rhythm, this aural is a fizzle; it is its own kind of syncopated jitter, messing up the logic of the oppressive narrative. 

 

As I witness the video unfurl, a gentle pushing on my back forces me to a wall and mares my abilities to move, see, and be an active body in this rhetorical space. The large kinetic sculpture com o coração saindo pela boca [with the heart coming out of the mouth], comprises of a pair of lavish lips and a huge red tongue that inflates filling the right side of the Pavilion. Perhaps an overt reference to the ways in which speech can and does divide bodies, this work, as with the others in the Pavilion, makes clear how the body can transcend its corporeality, becoming a communicative device, one that has the ability to bridge as well as to barricade. 


 


Exhibition view of With the heart coming out of the mouth at the 2022 Brazilian Pavilion. Courtesy Ding Musa / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.




 

Simone Leigh, Sovereignty (U.S. Pavilion)

 

Ooohsh! It was the first sound I made upon entering the Arsenale. A day later; awwwwe! a similar reaction upon walking into the U.S. Pavilion and witnessing the beautiful monuments cast by Simone Leigh. As an incessant follower - lover - of Tina M. Campt’s writing and precise mode of giving form to theory, I have read many gorgeous descriptions of Leigh’s work. Experiencing her anthropomorphic female figures in person, I am left, suspended, left breathless. 


 


Simone Leigh, Last Garment, 2022. Bronze, 54 × 58 × 27 inches (137.2 × 147.3 × 68.6 cm). Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh.




A blackened pool hollows the first room of the U.S. Pavilion. Its utter tranquillity does not so much holds but push me to a perimeter, where I teeter, on harrow edge, one step away from feeling weighty sublimity. Last Garment, is a seemingly simple bronze figure of a Jamaican woman washing her clothes. No patina, no fuss, just a woman doing her thing to care, to survive. I am transfixed. Caught up in the bouquet of knots that form the figure's hair; taken aback by the majesty of the way in which her form curls, as a crane, exhaling, and in turn exuding nothing but powerful atmospherics. Stillness. Quiet. In a word, Leigh's figure epitomises her own sovereignty; described in the Pavilion’s guide as “not [being] subject to another’s authority, another’s desires, or another's gaze, but rather to be the author of one’s own history.” 

 

Originally pictured on a colonial-era postcard, the figure Leigh has based Last Garment on was meant in its own time (the 1870s) to establish the idea of Jamaica as a “tropical Paradise” and Jamaican people as “loyal, disciplined, and clean” - to re-quote Krista Thompson from the guide. These associations aimed to make Jamaica an attractive destination for British colonists who were embracing the burgeoning tourist industry. The original postcard, photographed by C.H. Graves, debased its sitter of all self-determined agency. Looking at a reproduction of this souvenir in the Pavilion’s guide, what jumps out to me is the way in which the figure of the woman washing her clothing seems to be penned in; she is trapped in a gushing stream by a steep bank and wire fence. It is almost as if this woman is a zoo animal, held in a cage for our gaze, desire, and the delight we find in the otherly. 

 

Leigh’s bronze counters this narrative. Recasting the washerwoman figure in fine detail, with an elegance, and a sense of self-determined strength. Despite the colonial atmosphere, in Graves’ original image, the face of the figure seems at peace; eyes cast down, exhaling, with a sense of dignity being excluded in the small details of this woman’s decorum. Accentuating these aspects of the image, Leigh’s figure, a figure trapped in its own pool, refuses to capitulate to a regime where she is a fetishised object, only finding validity as she circulates through the vernacular tourist trade. With her face cast down, her delicate hold, and the stillness of her pool, the figure in Last Garment demands we register and engage her as a sovereign self, whilst also paying feeling in some way culpable to the history this woman is bringing out in the wash. 

 

 

Gerardo Goldwasser, Persona (Uruguay Pavilion) 

 

A white cube and a man-sized mirror; the language of modernity is pretty copy and paste. Delving into and beyond the cuts that form the ‘uniform(is)ation’ of a being in society, Gerardo Goldwasser’s project for the Uruguay Pavilion, Persona, is labelled as an opportunity for critical reflection. The elegant sculptural intervention consists of 18 reels of charcoal black felt, 50 cloth sleeves, a rigid measuring stick and that large mirror. Drawn to both the minimal black and white aesthetic of the exhibition as well as its conceptual becoming, I find Persona one of the most accomplished Pavilions, indeed works, in this year's Biennale. 

 

Using the fashion industry as a cypher for human becomings, Goldwasser’s conceptual critique weaves together numerous historical threads - Venice as a city of fashion (particularly the operatic possibilities of fashion), Uruguay as a colonial stopover-come-refuge for political émigrés, and his own Jewish history - to unravel tensions held innate to modernity and its bio-political proteges.


 


Gerardo Goldwasser, Mesa de corte, 2022. 18 reels of black cloth, 270 × 540 × 330 cm. Photo: Rafael Lejtreger. 



 

Bundled in three pyramids of six, the 18 reels of inch thick black felt that compose Mesa de corte [The Cutting Table] are monolithic. Almost filling Uruguay’s small pavilion space, the softness of the fabric transforms from something holding - of comfort, warmth - into something dominating - restrictive and stark. As with any monument, sitting with these tombs, listening to how the materials whisper to us - to paraphrase Pablo da Silveira in the catalogue - a complex history of discipline and disguise emerges. As I move around the Pavilion’s space, one of the secrets sequestered behind Mesa de corte's initial exterior comes into view: hundreds of tailors' cutting patterns cling to one side of the dark felt rolls. These misty white panels, templates for things to become, accentuate the grain of their woollen base, weeping pale blue-green tears in anticipation of the standardised life they are to enter into. 


 


Gerardo Goldwasser, Mesa de corte, 2022. 18 reels of black cloth, 270 × 540 × 330 cm. Photo: Rafael Lejtreger. 



 

Taken from a book of tailors patterns, inherited from his grandfather, Goldwasser’s use of template pattern pieces alludes to the ways in which industry sets itself up to eliminate difference; to “sustain a rigid pre-established order with the purpose of producing uniformity,” as Laura Malosetti Costa and Pablo Uribe state. Following this logic of industrial re-production, the material forms in Persona draw a line between capitalist standardisation and modes of authoritarian rule. (It is of note that the book of standardised patterns used in Mesa de corte were, perhaps, originally templates for Nazi military uniforms. As a Jewish tailor, Goldwasser’s grandfather survived his imprisonment in the Buchenwald death camp because of his professional skills.) 




Gerardo Goldwasser, El saludo (detail), 2010-2022. 85 black fabric sleeves pinned to the wall. Dimensions variable. Photo: Rafael Lejtreger. 


 

El saludo [The Salute], a line-up of sum 50 left arm suit sleeves pinned to one wall of the Pavilion, parades like a well-groomed regiment before Mesa de corte. The juxtaposition of these two works further the connection between authoritarian modes of governance and the ways in which we present our bodies to conform to some kind of social geometry. In their poetic whispers, however, this delicate line-up of vilified lefts seem to call out together, positioning us as witnesses to the bio-political standardisation of both bodies and minds innate to hegemonic modes of social re-production. 

 

With its title, El saludo references an encounter; a moment of appearance upon which one faces an other making some kind of judgement. Leaving the Uruguay Pavilion, I turn and face the man-sized mirror, a work titled Medidas directas [Direct Measurements], situated at the entrance to the Pavilion. Gazing at my tired suit and unkempt face, my thoughts turn to the various personas I have and do don, especially whilst on the other-humanly floors of Venice. 

 

Despite the elitism of Venice and the wider art world, my encounterings at this year's Biennale have returned to me some of the naive promise I have in art. A hope perhaps best surmised by Cecilia Alemani when she gave shared her thoughts on the role of the Biennale following the covid-19 pandemic; she states, “the simplest, most sincere answer I could find is that the Biennale sums up all the things we have so sorely missed in the last two years: the freedom to meet people from all over the world, the possibility of travel, the joy of spending time together, the practice of difference, translation, incomprehension, and communion.” Personally, I feel joy and possibility, togetherness and difference, incomprehension and communion are key sensorial assets to any notion of being or becoming in this world. If it takes lads on tour to glimmer these innately human characteristics count me in. 


Toby Upson




The 59th Biennale di Venezia runs from 23 April to 27 November 2022 

Saturday, 16 April 2022

A Virtual Reality Cosmos at the Serpentine

 Toby Upson visits the Serpentine to view Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s 'Alienarium 5'

 

I am a dreamy romantic; more drawn to Elio Pearlman (Call Me by Your Name) than Paul Atreides (Dune). That is, I like to be pushed into free flow through sublime affect, not guided to a beyond vis-à-vis spectacular narrative. It goes without saying, therefore, that I approached Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s current exhibition, Alienarium 5 at Serpentine’s south gallery, with a level of aesthetic reticence. Building upon Gonzalez-Foerster’s interest in science-fiction, as well as her previous exhibitions that question the psychological dimensions of one’s being, this exhibitonary environment, a gesamtkunstwerk perhaps, is billed as a site through which to ‘imagine possible encounters with extra-terrestrials.’ To reiterate, as someone not fond of the somewhat paradoxical composite, science-(and)-fiction, I find myself bracing teeth as I venture onto, into, and the beyond of (deep voice) Alienarium 5.




Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Alienarium, 2022. Produced by VIVE Arts and developed by Lucid Realities. Installation view, Alienarium 5 (Serpentine South, 14 April - 4 September 2022). Photo: Hugo Glendinning. © The artist and Serpentine, 2022



Set up as a cosmos of sorts, a solar system formed without a singular divine bang, Alienarium 5 is a constellation of collaborations and alien-corporealities brought into an orbit. Laid out spherically, the Sci-Fi connotation is omnipresent and perhaps a little too contrived. Indeed, focusing on each of the works-come-gestures that form this speculative planetary system, I sense a clash between the more narrative-based and the more mysteriously toned pieces. For example, as I sojourn around the exhibition’s press view, there is a rather long queue for Alienarium, 2022, a multi-user Virtual Reality experience, with no one curiously peeping through the tiny eyeholes of La Planète close (vision), 2021. Perhaps this is a sign of the times. Who needs to work at piecing together what we are seeing, being told, or experiencing, when we can plonk ourselves on a bench, plugin, and be guided towards an expanded understanding of ‘how we might relate to one another when untethered from our physical form.’ Conceptually, I find this notion of untethering uncomfortable. My critique of post-humanist postulations for something otherwise comes from the lack of real multi-sensory encounters I see mediums like VR offering to bodies; and importantly, the affective labour these encounters can provoke in a body. Now that is a far larger conversation, one nuanced by formalities in artistic media as well as by wider socio-cultural factors. It is a conversation, however, perhaps best entered into with Gonzalez-Foerster’s collaborator Paul B. Preciado and others from the fields of Queer and Black Studies (Jack Halberstam and Saidiya Hartman to name two other beautiful theorists). 

 

But let's backtrack; get up off that critical stool and feel what Gonzalez-Foerster’s experimental art universe has to offer. I mean, after all, I am a fan of neon (Alienarium 5 (Neon), 2022)perfume (Alienflowers (holorium), 2022), and pearlescent exhibition guides. 




Alienarium 5
 exhibition guides. 



I stand, sit, and then stroll on a soft crackling amoeba. The gravity holding Alienarium 5’s cosmos together, Planet Carpet (Uranus), 2022, runs throughout the inside of the Serpentine’s exhibition space. As the name suggests, this carpet piece is based upon an image of the planet Uranus; one rendered here in psychedelic shades of electric blue and LSD orange. Perforated with glitchy pops, or spores, these colours and the weave of the carpet, echo the pixelated world of Alienarium, 2022, and indeed the central force around which the exhibition revolves, Metapanorama, 2022.

 

Unlike the computery narrative of her VR works, Metapanorama, a 360-degree collage with a soundscape by Julien Perez, leaves more room for bodily meanderings. Working from the historical panorama - a mode of display that provides ‘an unbroken view of the whole region surrounding an observer’ - this self-referential wave juxtaposes grainy images of human and non-human beings, organic and architectural references. Aesthetically, the collage recalls Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with Perez’s added burps of fragmented Teletubby noise give this staged meta-world a sense of lightness; furthering its lyrical capaciousness. As a narrative tool, the panorama isn't new to Gonzalez-Foerster. In 2019, her panoramic collage, Volcanic Excursion (A Vision), exhibited at Secessions (Vienna), used images of human beings as starting point to lay out a cosmology of the artist’s role models, friends, and influences, establishing a field of meaning for her practice at that moment. Here, the panoramic mode functions in much the same way, and when paired with another work situated in the exhibition’s central chamber, Alienarium 5 (Bibliography), 2022,Metapanorama can be seen as a sun radiating life into different elements of the exhibition. 




Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Martial Galfione and Mike Gaughan, Metapanorama, 2022. Installation view, Alienarium 5 (Serpentine South, 14 April - 4 September 2022). Photo: Hugo Glendinning. © The artist and Serpentine, 2022.



Gonzalez-Foerster's use of the collage as a device through which to create ‘extraordinary apparitions’ not only lies in the realms of the purely visual. Throughout Alienarium 5 an expanded notion of collage is used to bring differing historical references, ideas, forms of life and modes of artmaking in contact with one another; to allow new possible beings to be dreamt. To me, it seems fitting that this idea of a new possible and the display of such dreamings lies in proximity to the historical site of the Albertopolis - the antiquated name for this historical area of South Kensington; the site of the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, where the spectacle of new other worlds was laid out for a hungry Victorian public to consume. 

 

Tracing that sense of voyeuristic wonder through art-history, Gonzalez-Foerster appears to take a stop at Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, 1946-66. In what is my favourite piece/planet in the solar system of Alienarium 5, La Planète close (vision), 2021, riffs off the Duchampian tableau vivant, inviting, nay implicating me as a viewer in a surrealist multisensory quisicality. Peeping through one of the eye holes cut into a mute mint green MDF wall, I spy a bulge of bark sprouting forth from a blaze of auburn hair. At once glistening, luscious and smooth, the scene appears to conceal something writhing just off out of sight; something just or about to happen. The scene reminds me of some of Gonzalez-Foerster’s filmic works, Cinema (QM.15), 2016, or some of the music videos she has produced with Julien Perez, under the title Exotourisme. Without sound nor movement, the sense of liveness I gleam from my peeping arrives through the olfactory. Spritzed with a specially produced, Barnabé Fillion (Apra Studios), fragrance, Alienflowers (holorium), 2022, provides a heady musk of fire and bean, cedar and fern, bracken just crunched. As with most fragrances, there is something beyond comprehension, to this sensorial encounter. For Gonzalez-Foerster, the pairing of the perfume and closeted space are meant to provoke a sense of edge, a seductive invitation to imagine possibilities beyond the chromatic universe rendered throughout Alienarium 5




Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Mélanie Gerbeaux and Barnabé Fillion (Arpa Studios) La planète close (vision), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Installation view, Alienarium 5 (Serpentine South, 14 April - 4 September 2022). Photo: Hugo Glendinning. © The artist and Serpentine, 2022.


Leaving the Serpentine, one more work holds me. In remembrance of the coming alien (Alienor), 2022, a sculptural collaboration with Paul B. Preciado, sprouts forth from the soil of Hyde Park, twisting like a tree root and forming what looks like a butterfly or a scientific diagram of a female sex. As an anthropomorphic sculpture with a pearlescent pink and yellow sheen, we are told the queer stature is more than a marker for something past, but a ‘portal, a site for transmission and an invitation to engage across time and space.’ Caught up in the curves of the work, I notice its surface dotted with ornately speckled ladybirds. Gorgeous: the ambivalence of nature. It's romantic. And I am back in my comfort zone. 



Toby Upson

 

 

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Alienarium 5

Serpentine South, London

until 4 September 2022


 



 In remembrance of the coming alien (Alienor), 
2022


 






Saturday, 26 March 2022

Putting the Fabulous into the Fantastical

 Alex Michon visits Fabulation at All Saints Cambridge 

 

‘So’, I ask, genuinely intrigued, ‘What does Fabulation mean?’ Toby Upson, one of the four exhibiting artists in this show gives me the somewhat enigmatic answer, that it could be ‘Doing whatever you want, whenever you want to do it!’. 

‘It’s such a great word’ I reply, ‘With just a hint of camp about it’

Upson smiles knowingly but our conversation is cut short as he gets distracted by one of the many visitors to the show and I move on with the distinct impression that he has more to tell me. Subsequent online searches define it as, ‘the act of relating false or fantastic tales or in literary criticism; a style of modern fiction, similar to magical realism’ But more of this later.

 

The exhibition’s venue, All Saints’ Church in Cambridge can truly be described as magical. Known as The Painted Church, designed by the architect G F Bodley around 1870 it is a notable example of both Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts styles. This Grade 1 listed building ceased to be a place of worship in 1973 and has been under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust since 1981. 



Decoration in All Saints, Cambridge, photo Adrian Powter


The church is noted for its ornate decorated interior; the painted wall and ceiling decorations, were applied by the Leach Studio (one of the team of artists was David Parr, whose modest but lavishly decorated house is open to the public in Cambridge) and feature Pomegranates bursting with seeds, flowers running riot, and the repeated use of religious symbolism such as the sacred monogram and the fleur-de-lys, and the stained-glass east window was designed by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Ford Madox Brown. The church is now used for both worship and non-religious events, such as concerts and this, its first art exhibition. Thus, on one of the first gloriously spring Saturdays in March, I find myself at Fabulation, interested to see how this mix of secular and sacred, old-school craft and contemporary art could possibly be played out. This two-for -one visual experience proves surprisingly serendipitous and a veritable treat for mind, eye, and dare I say soul.



Fabulation at All Saints, Cambridge (with work by Luke Burton), photo Adrian Powter


Each of the artist’s individual works responds to the venue in strikingly unexpected ways; subtly responding to the Painted Church without obviously calling attention to the mythologies therein, religious, or otherwise. Rather one must navigate the church’s interior coming across each new artist’s narratives in a cornucopic Alice in Wonderlandish fashion.

 

Toby Upson’s work in the exhibition is influenced by Oscar Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man under Socialism from 1891. In it Wilde expounds a libertarian socialist worldview with a critique of charity. I was shocked that I had never heard of this Wildean work. Morris’s socialism is, of course, well known and it is typical of Upson that he took a sidestep from making the more obvious link with Morris, introducing, this viewer at least, with a hitherto unknown side to Wilde.





Toby Upson, cite Oscar Wilde (1891), 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' (in the Painted Church), 2022, varying lengths of nay and gold print 12mm tape cassette ribbon tape, gold-coloured safety pins, and church kneelers, photo Adrian Powter



Upson has taken snippets of text from the essay and printed them in gold on small blue satin ribbons which he has subtly attached to similarly coloured kneelers lined up in a pew at the entrance to the church. Once discovered, as they as so delicately and unobtrusively displayed, they sang to my soul! How wonderful, I thought, to have a remembrance of The Beatitudes with their original socialist intent in a church setting. These agitprop-like sayings such as, ‘The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is’, ‘In consequence of the existence of the private property, a great many people are enabled to develop a certain very limited amount of individualism’ and, ‘In the present state of things[...] the people who do the most harm are the people who try to do the most good’, suggested to me, not only a subtle dig at establishment do-goodery, but the call to arms for individualism echoed Toby’s original brief of ‘doing what you want whenever you wanted to!’ 





Toby Upson, cite Oscar Wilde (1891), 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' (in the Painted Church)2022, varying lengths of nay and gold print 12mm tape cassette ribbon tape, gold-coloured safety pins, and church kneelers



Luke Burton, John Ruskin Surrounded by I Sores, vitreous enamel on copper, photo Adrian Powter 



Luke Burton’s vitreous enamels on copper reminiscent of jewellery, archaeological fragments, miniature paintings and ex-voto offerings are little gem like finds surreptitiously and sometimes cheekily placed throughout various architectural niches within the church interior. The diminutive scale of these fictionally precious pieces, with their suggested critique of overblown grandness served as a respectful counterbalance to all the finery therein. A cigarette in an ashtray found nestling in a pulpit, suggesting the vicar had had a quick drag of a fag, and a group of ne’er-do-well choristers atop the organ, were particular favourites, adding a maverick touch of ‘carry on up the cathedral’ humour to the event.





Luke Burton, Choristersvitreous enamel on copper



Cathy Lomax’s paintings, Five Saints, were made in response to the female saints depicted in the church’s stained-glass window. Lomax is known for her film paintings so her decision to cast her saints as film stars was no coincidence. Cinemas have often been compared to cathedrals with both suffering a similar trajectory of closures in the late 20th century. ‘Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.)’ wrote Susan Sontag in ‘The Decay of Cinema’ in the New York Times. Similarly, Camille Paglia in an article for the Smithsonian writes,

 

 My first moments of enchantment by beauty occurred in a church and a movie theatre. The interior of St Anthony of Padua church in Endicott, New York […] was lined with richly coloured stained-glass windows and niches holding life-size plaster statues of saints in sumptuous robes or silver armour. Paying no attention to the action on the altar, I would stare transfixed at those glorious figures, which seemed alive. At the theatre downtown, I was mesmerized by the colossal Technicolor images of Hollywood stars, who seemed as numinous as living gods.



Cathy Lomax, Saint Catherine, 2022, oil on canvas, 60x45cm

  

Lomax’s paintings highlight this celebratory equivalence of worship. As a cineaste her painter-as-casting-director choices are far from arbitrary. St Catherine (of Alexandria) is ‘played’ by Kiki Layne, the African American actress known for her recent appearance in If Beale Street Could Talk. This is an important re-education, as coming from Alexandria, Catherine would obviously have been dark skinned. In the stained-glass window she is depicted as a floaty Pre-Raphaelite muse with no regard to her cultural heritage. Catherine was reputed to have been martyred around the age of 18 for her conversion to Christianity and yet her historical existence has recently been disputed. In her book The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe, Christine Walsh writes, ‘the cult of St Katherine of Alexandria originated in oral traditions from the 4th century persecutions of Christians in Alexandria. There is no evidence that Katherine herself was a historical figure and she may well have been a composite drawn from memories of women persecuted for their faith.’ This historical mythmaking adds another interesting layer to Lomax’s saintly re-inventions. Accompanying her larger paintings Lomax has added some ex-voto offerings; smaller paintings located around the pews. These give further insights into the often-absurd things that the saints have become known for. For instance, Hats for St Catherine relates to the French tradition in which unwed women of 25, known as Catherinettes, wear richly decorated bonnets on the day of her feast. 


Cathy Lomax, Ex-Votos for Saint Catherine (Eyes, Hats, Spiral Staircase), 2022, oil on card


Ingrid Bergman, (who played a nun in the Bells of St Marys (1994) is the model for virgin and martyr St Dorothy, shown in her painting surrounded by flowers since she is the patron saint of gardeners. Although nothing akin to martyrdom, Bergman suffered a fair bit of persecution herself when she had an affair with the director Roberto Rossellini. The star was denounced on the floor of the US Senate, with senator Johnson saying that she had perpetrated ‘an assault on the institution of marriage’, and even calling her ‘a powerful influence for evil’. Lomax’s other saint translations are Linda Darnell as St Barbara, Kirsten Dunst as St Agnes, and Jennifer Jones (who played the eponymous saint in The Song of Bernadette (1943)) as St Radegund. Although ostensibly playful, these paintings embody a layering of both cultural and psychological signifiers. Without getting bogged down in quasi-religiosity they seem to speak about desire and a deep-seated ‘we are all of us in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’ need to worship something unattainable, glorious, and miraculous. Lomax’s saints also contain a touch of latent proto-feminist appeal, her young women who have been chopped about, burnt and misogynistically murdered are here stripped of the tortuous garb of their horrific histories, portrayed instead as strong and independent women with often dreamy yet steely gazes.


Jennifer Caroline Campbell, (Satellite) Prancing Deity Offering Bowl, Azure Valley, Eastern Region 2680-2715 CE, paper pulp, acrylic paint, plaster, clay, wire mesh, pendant, sand, neoprene, string, silk clay, diamond shaped rock, photo Adrian Powter  



Cambridge native Jennifer Caroline Campbell was one of the prime movers in getting this exhibition to fruition. In briefly describing her Azzurian Worlds works to me at the exhibtion Campbell stated that ‘fictional seemed like a way to go with Utopian thinking which, for me, was better than the political’. For Campbell, making things with her hands is a way of developing and re-shaping ideas. The hand-painted walls at All Saints Church were the starting points for Azzurian Worlds. Campbell describes the painted walls as ‘wearing a multitude of traces, which embody past human gesture, and form an encasing lattice surround’. Thinking about who had made the work, about the perceived differences between high and domestic craft, about Morris’s longing for a Utopian society led Campbell to invent her own utopian society, Azure Valley, which occurs around the 27th century in an undisclosed isolated location. Her decorative brightly coloured sculptural pieces stand in as artefacts from the Valley which have survived to tell their story. Azure Valley is imagined as a matriarchal society, therefore many of her artefacts are displayed within feminised cup like holders. A particular favourite was a tiny silver horse in a bright blue bowl ‘Ah yes’ she says as I mention it, ‘that symbolises the way horses represent something wild and yet also tamed’. I also ask about the significance of what seem like ornate bishop’s croziers which are placed vertically across the pews. These she describes as a counterbalance to the masculine verticality so redolent in churches. Campbell cites Perkins Gillman’s visionary yet flawed and problematic novel Herland (1915) as partly inspiring her work, along with other texts such as The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) and Uses of the Erotic by Audre Lorde (1978). Knowing the highly theoretical backstories to Campbell’s works belies the sheer visual enjoyment of the pieces themselves in all their glorious gloopiness and delicacy. Since the ravages of time have not tainted their exuberant colours, Campbell has gloriously put the fabulous into the fantastical!  




Jennifer Caroline Campbell, Staff with Pomegranate Decoration, Azure Valley, Southern Region 2680-2715 CE, paper pulp, acrylic paint, plaster, clay, bamboo, wire, sand, neoprene, string, plastic ring, sea sponge, jasmine tea  

 

Back to Fabulation, other meanings of the word are informed by the writings of Saidiya Hartman who introduced the idea of critical fabulation’, signifying a writing methodology that combines historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative. It also relates to Robert Scholes 1967 novel The Fabulatorswhich has some relationship to science fiction and has been described as taking flight from accepted ‘realistic’ fictional concepts, dislocating time and space and purposely blurring lines between the actual and the artificial.

 

All the artists in this exhibition have in their own way made thoughtful, often startling responses not only to the magnificent church interior but to the very interesting word chosen to corral the overall concept. Within the world of jazz when a musician is deemed to have played or sung something exceptionally well the phrase ‘they just took it to church’ is used, I cite it here as an epitaph for this show.

 


Alex Michon 

 

 


 

Fabulation

Toby Upson, Cathy Lomax, Jennifer Caroline Campbell, Luke Burton

All Saints Church, Cambridge

17 - 31 March 2022

Open Weds to Sunday 12-4pm (until 6pm on Thurs and Fri)