Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Soft Bodies

William Garvin visits 'Soft Bodies' at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, an exhibition that takes its title from soft-body dynamics, a field of computer-generated graphics which creates simulations of soft materials such as muscle, fat, hair, vegetation and fabric.

'How is the skin? Is it smooth? Is it warm? Is it soft? Is it dry?' These words, intoned by a disembodied voice in Stine Deja's computer animation The Perfect Human (2015), consider the human body within realms of imaginative possibility, a theme central to Soft Bodies. The exhibition draws inspiration from soft body dynamics; a form of computer-generated graphics with applications in film and video games, endowing surfaces of life simulations with movement, flexibility and elasticity. Though inspired by developments in digital technology, the artists presented here encompass a range of media and perspectives. 

Stine Deja, The Perfect Human (SDej004.15), 2015, video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

Everywhere we look we see bodies framed by dangers as well as utopian potentials. In the Jake Moore and Semi Precious music video Other Life (2019), eight reclining figures are mapped onto a rectangular inner chamber: everything drenched in an emotionally neutralising blue. An atmosphere of erotic langorousness is evoked: a langorousness that has taken hold to the point of inertia. Flowing lines of digital graphics create ever-changing configurations, in a dynamic exploration of contours and surfaces. 

Jake Moore and Semi Precious, Other Life, 2019, film still. Image courtesy Annie Feng.

Elsewhere, Emma Cousin's oil paintings feature vividly dramatised characters engaging in a perpetual reaching, contorting, pushing and pulling with and against one another. Fingers hook into empty eye sockets and other orifices, in a melange of violence, possession and desire. In Xiuching Tsay's paintings, by contrast, organic-looking forms flow and meld within strange, phantasmagorical landscapes. An example of visual art reaching places inaccessible to language. 

Emma Cousin, Hook line and sink her, 2019, oil on linen. Image courtesy of the artist.

Xiuching Tsay, Arthur Rubinstein's listener, 2019. Image courtesy Annie Feng.


The dreaming continues with Sam Rushton's animation Thus Spoke Zarathustra (2019), which takes place in an urban gothic nightmare of book burnings and forbidden knowledge. Here, soft body technology goes into overdrive as the human body becomes the site of bizarre mutations. 

In a podcast conversation with Emma Cousin and fiction writer Raj Parameswaran, Megan Snowe locates the origin of Body Drawings (2019 - ongoing) in the need to escape conceptual thought, and to embrace something more spontaneous and instinctive. The drawings themselves; light graphite shadings of sensuous, imaginary forms correspond to a sensual self projected into non-physical realms. 

The ongoing photo series Tests in Malham (2019) features Sadé Mica striking a series of poses against an incongruous backdrop of hillsides and rushing water. The poses are taken from a textbook intended for male and female life models. In these enactments, conventional notions of male and female naturalness are juxtaposed against the vastness of nature itself. 

Sadé Mica, Tests in Malham No.3, 2019, digital print on photographic paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition also features works by George Gibson, Aliyah Hussain and Anna Bunting-Branch (Potential Wor(l)ds) and Robin Megannity. 

Whilst Soft Bodies was originally intended as an imaginative response to developments in computer graphics, 'soft' could equally call to mind the vulnerability of the human body at a time of global pandemic. Whatever the interpretation, Soft Bodies offers a welcome and timely opportunity to see ourselves afresh.


William Garvin 


Soft Bodies
Castlefield Gallery
16 September - 1 November 2020

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Toyin Ojih Odutola 'A Countervailing Theory'

A sublime chasm has opened in the heart of The City. A fantastical transgression, revealing not more Roman debris but the remnants of another ancient culture. Calling to mind the intricate narratives of Egyptian hieroglyphics, in this church otherwise allegorical stained glass has been replaced by colourless constellations; mapped by a poet-sorcerer.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory, installation view, The Curve, Barbican
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo Max Colson 


The reverberations from A Countervailing Theory, the first UK exhibition of Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work, is as mesmerising as it is metaphorical. Composed of 40 white on black drawings, hung relatively high in the Barbican’s dim The Curve space, and intoxicated by Peter Adjaye’s musical score Ceremonies Within, A Countervailing Theory charts, in monumental fragments, an ancient way of living, a speculative way of living, that challenges prefigurative history and the norms that dictate being today. 


Like a vital pulse that sustains our being, storytelling is the life-stuff of Ojih Odutola’s practice. This exhibition tells the story of a prohibited coming together: Akank, a member of the Eshu female ruling class, meets Aldo, a Koba humanoid manufactured by their Eshu masters to carry out hard manual labour, and together they set in motion the breakdown of imperial imaginaries. The exhibition unfurls as a sequence of articulations, Ojih Odutola's monochromatic drawings whisper a narrative, from life to death and life anew, charting a relationship that pushes against the dictums that establish this imperial social body.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Ruling Class (Eshu) 

© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Moulded and aged by a hand who knows how to make empathy visually palpable, each of Ojih Odutola’s figures is crafted from dark waves in moonlight. Flicks of bright white pastel, smooth smudges of chalk, and deep crevices of charcoal, layer, like tissue, to form our semi-androgynous protagonist-beings. Ojih Odutola’s ruminations on the formal power of mark-making not only create bodies that ripple with singing flesh but conjure loose intelligible landscapes. The interplay between the intricacies of beings and the gestural suggestion of a heavily structured landscape alludes to the way in which social bodies are microverses constituted by the regimes in which they live.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, Establishing the Plot  

 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

An eerie echo of historical coloniality, or a mindful whisper to our shadowy neo-colonial modernity, A Countervailing Theory speaks to us now, at a time when awareness of oppression and violence has been heightened both through physical distancing and the uproar following the murder of black bodies by police in the United States of America. Returning to the dichotomy between hyper(sur)real flesh and trope-like landscape, Ojih Odutola’s scenes, with their cut-off cropping, allow us to project into each image, in turn provoking metaphoric ruminations on the social body’s sensorial regime and its effect on being. 


'The presence of tranquillity in a work of art speaks of a great internal civilisation. Because you can’t have the tranquillity without reflection, you can’t have the tranquillity without having asked the great questions about your place in the universe, and having answered these questions to some degree of satisfaction. And that, for me, is what civilisation is.' Ben Okri (quoted in exhibition catalogue).

Parting ways with A Countervailing Theory, I am left aesthetically moved, left contemplating the possibilities for worlds anew, left wondering, how do our bodies move in waves at midnight?

Toby Upson


Toyin Ojih Odutola, Imitation Lesson; Her Shadowed Influence

 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory  

The Curve 

Barbican, London

11 August 2020 - 24 January 2021 

(free entry - but booking in advance is essential).