Within the cavernous space of Dundee Contemporary Arts, visitors eagerly clamber over contours of artificial green landmass, through a dense forest of cardboard cut-out animals and plantlife. At first, mistakable for an abandoned theatre set, this stock photography menagerie is artist and poet Heather Phillipson’s most recent “head-sick” into a gallery space, forming an immersive terrain of film, audio and sculptural works.
In the technicolour kitsch befitting of seaside towns, Phillipson’s work is Hieronymus Bosch exceeding his tab limit. sub-fusc love-feast is the sum of its parts. Placards of humans and animals are suspended precariously with a medieval middle finger to scale and realism: a giant strawberry hovers god-like above a flock of flamingos refreshing themselves at an Evian oasis. Yet in this garden it is the wages of digitalised sin we encounter: an ADHD meditation on the nature of modern life. The disjunctions and overlaps of human and animal, artifice and nature, digital and embodied experience.
sub-fusc love-feast is a body of polyphonic hydra heads that endeavour to ask: what constitutes human experience in the blurring of sensuality and technology? In the limbo of the main gallery, the video work flits through sites of tamed nature – agricultural, botanic – questioning the status quo of anthropocentric civilisation. A herd of cows stare out blankly from a screen: cue an unsettling moment of mirroring as the visitors stare blankly back.
In the subtext, Phillipson teases out a potential third age: that of a bovine enslavement to technology. Through the clinical interfaces of digital life, are we losing touch with our own wild-er-ness? The dulcet drone eulogises the allure of “getting back to nature”, but only through the hyper-perfected images thrown up by a search engine. All around is the artist-as-googler; lifting up screenshots of a sanitised 2D universe, the glitches of real life amputated in the quintessential Lake Banff Panoramic or Camel – Isolated. The imagery serves as a kind of digital taxidermy, asking how much meaning and order can be stuffed into the space of pixels.
In the playful unpicking of these seams emerges the artist’s perennial interest in language, as a tool of digesting the visual world. A counterfeit A-B-C is constructed, the algorithmically validated images as teaching apparatus. Yet it is their perfection that renders them unpalatable. As the eyes take a bite out of the crudely daubed Green Apple – Isolated rather it is the viewer – as a conspicuously imperfect sack of flesh – that feels alienated from the perfect garden of shutter stock delights.
The last room is a small black cave, inhabited by a plughole spinning to the pulse of club music. Phillipson flushes the visitor out of the space, back into the world as glitchily-bodied troglodytes, blinking in the sun. Unlike many artists focussing on the denigrating toll of the digital on the physical, Phillipson instead keeps a discerning but buoyant distance. Perhaps our visual desire for a quality-controlled natural world is the reincarnation of that human desire to transcend animal trappings, and grasp at some imaginary perfection. The totems of old have not been torn down; they are restacked horizontally as tabs.
sub-fusc love-feast is a caricature of the oversaturated tide of image and information that constitutes modern life. Within this deluge, Phillipson sets sail tiny vessels of language to navigate the work, through which there is no clear path. Its subtle power lies in this offer of solidarity: to ride the wave of infotainment, with dexterity and playful aplomb.
Heather Phillipson: sub-fusc love-feast, until 9 November, Dundee Contemporary Arts,152 Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4DY.
1. sub-fusc love-feast, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Heather Phillipson, courtesy of the artist.