Text by Travis Riley
The exhibition’s title puts in mind an idea of declassification and redefinition. It is borrowed from Georges Bataille (1897-1962), whose Critical Dictionary was printed as a regular section of his surrealist journal Documents (published in Paris from 1929 through 1930), and functioned on the basis that “A dictionary would begin from the point at which it no longer rendered the meanings of words but rather their tasks.” This endeavour is embodied in David Evans’ curation of the exhibition. Far from attempting to become the usual invisible curator, he has made his presence very clear, structuring the works in the show dictionary-like, around a series of terms, each of which has one or more artwork to engage with it.
The clearest moment of declassification of a term comes in the threefold definition of ‘R/Rotten Sun’. On the far wall, facing the gallery entrance is the most immediate piece to fall under this header. Penelope Umbrico’s Flickr Sunsets (2010) consists, as the title would suggest, of sunsets appropriated directly from a Flickr search. In each case the image is cropped close to the sun, and printed at 4” x 6”, regardless of quality (or pixellation). The photos are arranged on the wall, as a grid, with no white space between them. The repetition causes the luminescent orbs to lose their individual significance, and although their light has been captured, no true sunlight can emanate from the resulting photos. These are rotten suns, but this is due to their flawed depiction.
In Dominic Shepherd’s Black Sun, (2008) the sun does not wish to be light. It is a circular, black mass, stuck, to a pre-existent (previously sunless) photograph. The appropriated image is Silent Water (1946) by Anthony Peacock. It is essentially a gaudy postcard image, comprising of a nude woman, some still water, and a wooden rowing boat. The image is given a strange weight due to the stark, contrasting addition. The black sphere, hanging precariously above the woman’s head, appears to be in woodland, not the sky, but nonetheless takes the label of sun. Without the context of its definition given by the picture’s title this intervention wouldn’t be a sun at all, and yet the viewer is given no choice. The sun is not only rotten in colour, but also because it is only a sun by a thin denotation.
The final image in this curated triptych is David Hazel’s Untitled (2005). It is a circular print comprising of a pure white circle at the centre that gradually emanates into blackness at its exterior edges. It is the opposite of the solid edged Black Sun that faces it across the room. A de-definition is contained in these three rotten suns. Their separate depictions cannot be reconciled, and if the viewer wished to find meaning in the term, they would be forced to choose between them. This fulfils Bataille’s idea of a critical definition. The contention between these pieces can no longer concern the meaning of the term only its task, those things to which it will be assigned.
Critical art has the potential to be humourless and overwrought, however in this exhibition, it is critical playfulness that takes the fore. Despite the underlying framework, the selected pieces do not lambast or condemn their subjects, merely reflect upon them. Under ‘G/Greenwich Meridian’ comes Simon Faithfull’s 0°00 Navigation (2010). The piece is a series of monochrome photographs arranged in a horizontal sequence, ceiling to floor. A lone male figure is depicted, travelling the route specified by the title, however Faithfull’s chosen photographs of the pursuit add a narrative of their own.
Unable to deviate from his inflexible trajectory, the figure is depicted in farcically avoidable situations. Most striking is a needless immersion, chest-deep in a pool of water. On one hand this implies a reductio ad absurdum criticism of the seemingly arbitrary placement of this significant line. More apparent however, is an inherent self-criticism. The rule-based journey entails an absurdity in its strictures. The Greenwich Meridian’s purpose is not to be walked, and as such the criticism falls on the walker as much as the route.
Throughout the exhibition small pockets of interrelation can be found. The theoretical work of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and Guy Debord (1931-1994) plays an especially formative part in much of the art shown. A particularly strong Debordian psycho-geographical theme can be drawn between Faithfull’s 0°00 Navigation, Paola Di Bello’s La Disparition (1994), a Paris tube map with damage implicit in its printed reproduction, and Office of Experiments’ Overt Research Project (2000-2009), a photographic attempt to map advanced labs and facilities in the UK.
The exhibition follows the dictionary protocol throughout, but this is not an attempt to comprehensively capture all letters or terms. It is a dictionary, but freed from the rules of meaning, it seeks to investigate the detail and find correlative patterns. Here lies the strength of the exhibition. In all of its curatorial intent, it retains a fundamental principle; in a critical dictionary there can be no definite meaning. Evans’ curation forges a categorical framework, embracing definition, but refusing to use it as a constraint.
Critical Dictionary, 27/01/2012 – 25/02/2012, WORK Gallery, 10A Acton Street, London, WC1X 9NG. www.workgallery.co.uk Event: One Plus One: Picture Editing After Bataille, David Evans and Patrizia Di Bello in conversation, Wednesday 15 February 2012 6.30-8pm, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Office of Experiments, Overt Research Project, 2008-2009. All images courtesy the artists