Text by Lara Cory
In the bustling back streets of Shoreditch you’ll find the imposing Rivington Place building. Upon entering the sleek, black façade, you’ll find yourself inside Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts), an institute that supports the debate and visual expression of diversity in society. Through exhibition, publications, multimedia, education and research, Iniva hope to destablilise existing hierarchies in visual arts culture and provide support and opportunity to a wide variety of culturally diverse artists, curators and writers.
Entanglement: the Ambivalence of Identity explores cultural identity, belonging and affiliation where despite the heaviness of the topics on display, they are discussed with a mixture of seriousness, humour and irony. This poignant and original selection of sculpture, film, installation and photography shows a fascination with how the artists see themselves and how others see them, reminding us that our identities are continuously shifting as we negotiate society.
The five artists on show are a mix of emerging and established talents representing a variety of age groups and heritage. Chosen for their biographical complexities, Simon Fujiwara, Anthony Key, Dave Lewis, Nina Mangalanayagam and Navin Rawanchaikul were invited to reflect on how their own lives correspond to the complexities of identity in society today.
Dave Lewis’ Contact Sheet welcomes you as you enter the gallery. A row of black and white photographs of men of different cultural heritage accompanies a light box presenting ethnographic data that explores personal, mythic and national identity. Lewis questions the objectivity of photography and data as it relates to science-based ethnographies; inviting the viewer to consider the consequences of misrepresentation of certain demographics in British society. Using a mixture of Polaroids, hand-written annotations, clippings and diagrams, Lewis conveys his frustrations with the homogenous cultural and racial profiling in the name of science, research and the seemingly objective forging of identities.
In the light-filled show room, Simon Fujiwara’s contribution provides a dramatic contrast. Set in the darkness of a blackened room, lit by one halogen bulb and a large screen TV, Fujiwara’s piece Artist’s Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin no Monogatari is an installation that includes a video of Fujiwara playing an exaggerated version of his self being interviewed in a spoof arts programme. Fujiwara juxtaposes authenticity and irony while comparing the ironic stereotyping in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to perceptions of cross-cultural identities in society. His intention is to leave the viewer uncertain as to what the truths are about his identity, and to perhaps question the perceptions of truth of anyone’s identity.
Moving on, you come to Nina Mangalanayagam’s silent video Lacuna, which screens in a grey space with a grey bench. You are faced with Mangalanayagam’s head as it wobbles, expressionless while she practices the ‘Indian Head Nod’. Subtitles relay anecdotes from her childhood about racial differentiation and exclusion. Mangalanayagam’s piece also consists of a series of photographs called Homeland, that show her and her father partaking in various cultural activities that seem in contrast to their own cultural appearance. The absurd, confrontational element of both pieces reflects Mangalanayagam’s feelings about her own identity and confused sense of belonging.
Anthony Key’s sculptures use food as a theme to explore the larger theme of cultural entanglement. Key playfully uses noodles to embody the title of the exhibition in his giant spool of barbed-noodles, Trespassing. Key feels the piece symbolises how we become entangled and even trapped by our outward identities. Key’s largest piece and perhaps the exhibition’s most striking item is the chopstick sculpture that runs the entire length of the glass wall of Iniva’s gallery space. 8,000 chopsticks have been strung together with twine to form a kind of never-ending placemat. Each chopstick features the name and address of a Chinese restaurant in Britain highlighting the simplification of cultures in society and how this contributes to stereotyping and often false perceptions of the individual.
The final part in the exhibition is Navin Rawanchaikul’s contribution that sits alone in the top floor of the gallery. Rawanchaikul’s piece is presented in a darkened, grey space where you can sit and watch the video, Hong Rub Khaek (Khaek Welcome), view the painting Mahakad and read the letter From Pak-kun to Mari. Rawanchaikul focuses on the shifting identity of local cultures as they absorb the influences of immigrating cultures. His exploration through various mediums offers a gentle dissection of life as an outsider and the complications of an identity formed within the benevolent constraints of another culture.
Dr Alice Correia, provides the introduction to this exhibition and the accompanying essay Routing ‘Identity’ in Britain and suggests that ‘identity’ continues to change as we evolve in this globalised society. From something that was once a cause for dissention and alienation, internationalism and hybridity has become ordinary. In our globalised state, perhaps we can form new ways of cultural togetherness that doesn’t require containment but rather celebrates the complicated entanglement of disparity.
Entanglement: the Ambivalence of Identity is a must see show. In a city of mixed cultural influences, we can all relate to this examination of cultural identity and feelings of belonging and exclusion. Rather than focus on the fertile potential of self-pity and helplessness, curator Tessa Jackson’s exhibition invites a welcome combination of humour, irony and serious discussion to an ever-changing, dynamic and relevant debate.
Entanglement: The Ambivalence of Identity continues until 19 November.
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Nina Mangalanayagam from the series Homeland (2008)
© the artist