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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Art Review: Performing Gender at Backlit Gallery

19 June 17 words: Paul Stewart

We got down to the latest exhibition at Samuel Morley's old gaff...

image: Matthew Barney / Backlit

The most initially memorable yet subsequently disappointing experience I’ve recently encountered was in the form of raspberries.

Locally grown in Canterbury and sold in the very same place by their growers, the town’s position in Kent – or the garden of England, no less – made a punt on a couple of punnets seem a fair gamble, and their overwhelming scent added security to my decision.

Their fragrance drew my nose to my bag of bounty with a regularity and lack of decency that would put to shame a thirsty horse as it wearily approached a water-laden trough, and I felt sure I had done the right thing. As is so often the case though, in fruit as in life, art or even sex, the end result was something of a mixed bag. Some of the miniature wonders delivered the insistent sharpness that summer berries are uniquely capable, while the majority whimpered into nothingness, an absence of flavour at their bright red centre.

This dashing of optimism was on my mind as I made my way to Backlit, and I consoled myself with a binge on a different substance altogether. Tired of cherry-picking Cocteau Twins songs randomly, I decided to tackle their albums in chronological order, and Garlands, their debut, ended in perfect harmony with my arrival. Orderly sequencing and a striving for comprehensive neatness are my coping mechanisms to modern life, a state of being which implores me to find structure and coherency amongst all the noise,and it turned out this very theme was addressed in the exhibition.

It got me thinking about curating a show, how it might ebb and flow with a logical rhythm similar to the sequencing of an album or whole discography. This audiovisual group show opens with Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 1 (1995). No longer Bjork’s squeeze, the American artist continues an avant-garde existence with his cinematic practice, this piece being one of five which constitute The Cremaster Cycle. Pride of place in this show was his then, but at forty-minutes long and with no option other than to stand for the duration, its situating was puzzling, as surely its length makes some nod to viewer comfort compulsory.

This unusual decision was compounded in the next room, as Ana Mendieta’s Sweating Blood (1973), no ordeal at just three minutes long, contained a bench that Barney’s work sorely needed. Here the Cuban American artist explores the notion of impermanence, feminism and rituals. Shot on Super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, she faces us for the duration with her eyes closed, just her head in frame, as blood slowly makes its way down her face towards the end. Perhaps Marc Quinn has been paying attention, as his Self (1991) takes Mendieta’s approach several stages further and into formal sculpture.

More successful is Jake Moore’s Beyond the Water’s Edge (2017). Based at Backlit, the local artist has produced a computer animation depicting the cult of masculinity in gay male communities, posed within the parameters of a two and a half minute simulation that stands up to repeated viewing. The sole digital figure is explored in detail, as it too seems to consider its own sexuality and bodily contours, so coming to comprehend the construction of its own formal properties and materiality, and how these will be received or rejected in the community it will inevitably participate in.

What Performing Gender has presented so far is but a warm-up to the main act however, or the peak of a well-programmed album blossoming.

This moment is Ryan Trecartin’s Roamie View: History Enhancement (Re’Search Wait’S) (2010). A quite bewildering and singularly peculiar HD video onslaught of 28 minutes length, chairs and headphones are on offer to those willing to surrender to the strangeness awaiting. Entering its space with some minutes having already elapsed, I am greeted with an image of a woman, one of several characters into this fantastical critique of consumer culture, who despite her minimal make-up resembles the central grotesque figure in Dario Argento’s gore-fest Demons 2. What follows references the deliberate misspelling and grammatical liberties taken with the title, as one of Trecartin’s tropes is to pummel a viewer with a saturation of interwoven and overlapping texts strewn with intentional mistakes.

It is perfectly possible then to be completely floored while sitting down. Trecartin’s maniacal journey into the satire underpinning our infatuation with the new languages and codes implicit in our online communicative activity brings into relief the lack of due care and consideration we routinely employ in our internet personas, and the search for meaning and agency we face in a real world no less static or amplified. As unsettling as it is riveting, this piece nullifies everything which follows it, which is no fault of the remaining artists. Trecartin’s piece is likely installed deliberately midway by Backlit, aware that if it opened proceedings, the show would exhaust itself immediately. Think of this exhibition as an inversion of the raspberry episode: although it gets off to an ordinary start, delight awaits as we persevere. A well conceived exhibition, crying out only for the most basic furniture.

Performing Gender is running at Backlit Gallery until Sunday 25 June 2017

Backlit website

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