Opera North

Art Review: Anna K.E's Leaving The Rock Stage at Primary

14 October 16 words: Wayne Burrows
"It's an open question as to whether these explicit but neutral images... are designed to invite or deflect the act of looking"
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Anna K.E - Leaving the Rock Stage (2016)

A week after first seeing Georgian born, New York-based artist Anna K.E.'s Leaving The Rock Stage at Primary, I find myself in Birmingham, in a conversation where I'm trying to summarise what exactly the installation was about to someone who hasn't seen it, in the presence of someone else, the artist Emily Warner, who has:

“It's a kind of stage set that you enter through a screen of photographs of female genitals...”, I begin. “When you've passed through those, there are some sculptural sound elements that force you into adopting various postures to hear them...”

“Genitals and eyeballs”, says Emily, cheerfully cutting to the heart of it.

Of course, she's right. The two things that will strike any visitor to Leaving The Rock Stage first, and stick in their mind longest after leaving, are precisely those two visual elements.

The genitals figure on a pair of industrial-style aluminium screens, very much in the idiom of a trade fair stand. These hold grids of photographs of female genitals – stills from an earlier video piece by the artist – under glass, and the multiple images confront us head-on as we enter the airy, chapel-like interior of Primary's upstairs project space. They do this not with a fleshy, pornographic gloss but a documentary feel. The photographs' low-key, greenish-brown colouring and bluntly functional repetitions seem roughly equivalent to a medical textbook's instructions. It's an open question as to whether these explicit but neutral images, encountered immediately on entering the exhibition space, are designed to invite or deflect the act of looking.

Perhaps there's a clue in the fact that, beyond them, a pair of large-scale graphic images of eyeballs, digitally positioned on decoratively hard-edged pastel-toned graphics, are pasted to the walls enclosing the installation. The combination of what Emily had described as “genitals and eyeballs” seems to strongly imply that Leaving The Rock Stage is intended to be about voyeurism, or maybe more broadly the nature of looking and being observed. Though as Anna K.E. puts it herself, it's also a way of making a performance that doesn't require her actual presence.

The stage for this is set up between those immediately striking pictorial and graphic elements. Behind the screens, surrounded by those eyeballs, are four sculptural structures. Three consist of transparent half-spheres, visually suggestive of enlarged contraceptive diaphragms or contact lenses, or the Perspex hoods used to create telephone privacy at airports, hung at varying heights. Each contains a speaker that plays back the artist's voice as it repeats looped phrases in registers that shift from distressed to seductive, angry to explanatory. The phrases are difficult to decipher. The fourth sculpture resembles a low-set, greatly enlarged yellow basketball hoop on a black pole.

Moving among these sculptures, with the eyeballs on the walls positioned to seem to follow us around the space, we notice that their gaze is grounded by reflections of Primary's windows digitally inserted at precise angles in their irises. A sense of being watched, even in an otherwise deserted gallery, is hard to escape. Each of the sound sculptures also requires the listener to adopt a specific posture to hear the voice: one demands that we stand on tip-toe, another that we stoop, another that we squat low to access the sound. That yellow hoop, too, seems to invite an action, though what the action might be is unclear. Viewers mostly circle it, without touching, as gallery etiquette invariably demands, though it's not clear that is the intended response.

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Anna K.E - Leaving the Rock Stage (2016)

In one sense, then, Leaving The Rock Stage is fairly plain and relatively straightforward in its intentions. It is a platform, a “rock stage” of sorts, on which the work observes and shapes our own performances. Even without the artist's own oblique explanation, the sense of the work as a static installation designed to create a feeling that we're made into performers as we move around it is clear enough. Perhaps it can be seen as a kind of choreographic mechanism. Equally, the performance documentation of manipulated genitalia on show, acting as a screen between those graphic eyeballs and our own point of entry to the space, suggests an interest in voyeurism, in ways of making the act of looking and being seen more complicated than usual.

Then again, I couldn't help thinking of those eyeballs as a direct reference to the masks worn through most of the seventies and eighties by the notoriously anonymous underground rock band, The Residents. But when I took the opportunity to ask Anna K.E. herself if this was a deliberate reference, especially given the title's allusion to rock music, she claimed never to have heard of The Residents. She wondered if she'd seen pictures of them somewhere and referenced them subconsciously. Either way, she seemed pleased to know the connection was there, even if it was entirely unintentional.

But what Leaving The Rock Stage really adds up to or means beyond its own elegant but arguably functional staging is difficult to say. Anna K.E. insists that she has no real intention of explaining it or sharing her own interpretation. “When I was studying, my tutors had this approach where they'd demand that we keep stripping back and editing down the work we made until it could only have one very clear and precise meaning, the ideal being that every viewer would get the same reading from it,” she says. “But I'm far more interested in setting up a situation where there are layers, and where different viewers find different meanings. It's a more poetic approach, maybe?”

Leaving The Rock Stage, Primary, Seely Road, Fridays and Saturdays, 12 - 6pm, runs until 12 November 2016. 

Primary website
Wayne Burrows' website

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