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Exhibition Review: Aftermath at Nottingham Contemporary

9 July 20 words: Alex Stubbs

With its usual venue of The Space out-of-bounds due to COVID-19, Alex Stubbs checked out Aftermath - the annual Nottingham Contemporary-hosted exhibition held in collaboration with Trent students - as it moved exclusively online for the first time...

Aftermath responds to a past exhibition: this year, the well-received Still Undead: Popular Culture in Britain Beyond the Bauhaus is under the microscope. Offering new perspectives on an established exhibition, particularly one that received high praise, is indeed a demanding task. 

 It’s all a bit different this time around. Trading The Space – a multi-purpose exhibition hall nestled below the main galleries - with a digital ‘space’ on the Nottingham Contemporary website, Aftermath 2020 finds itself in untrodden territory. It’s a sign that even with our physical institutions closing their doors, artists remain working. The works on view are an eclectic and refreshing mix that, as you turn the pages of the virtual exhibition catalogue, provide a sense that each artist has thought carefully about their responses to Still Undead

As Still Undead captured a moment in British artistic history, Aftermath seeks to portray the present moment with a unique sense of self-awareness. Creating art whilst confined to spaces that are not conventional studios and workshops is a challenge in itself. Ryan Boultbee’s Restrictions/Intuition is born out of experimentation that could only belong to the present moment. The use of candle wax and paper is the result of what the artist has on hand; experimentation with material is itself a recognition of playfulness confined by and to a certain space.

Staying with the theme of space, Jo Wheeler’s video work captures the inside of Nottingham Contemporary in a moment between exhibitions when the galleries are empty and only the venue itself remains. Watching Circular Reference is an intimate experience, particularly if you are familiar with the galleries Wheeler navigates. Wooden floorboards give way to concrete staircases and metal railings: the video passes between light and dark spaces, the camera itself blurring intermittently, the perspective distorted by rotation. Bauhaus architecture is a clear influence here, yet glimpses of the artist in the reflection of the glass windows and doors grounds the piece in the present moment and shakes us out of our hypnotised gaze. 

Given the context of the exhibition – that unavoidable presence of COVID-19 that has defined so much of our daily lives these past three months – the space in which work is created and then displayed is crucial. Paul Liptrot’s Continuance responds to the restrictions of a digital space by transplanting a physical work into the virtual arena, whilst Yara Zein’s sculpture-cum-video Walk deals with similar restrictions. Whilst both are able to rework their original submissions and present something interesting, these pieces are perhaps the most identifiable casualties of the circumstances plaguing the exhibition. Zein’s intentional and methodical use of sculpture, sound, light, and setting seem primed for a physical display, and whilst the work is intriguing in its use of Bauhaus ideas of meaning and form, the video falls short in communicating that to the viewer. 

It’s a sign that even with our physical institutions closing their doors, artists remain working

Alternatively, Manuela Sandoval’s curious exploration of surface and interactivity in Circular Noise welcomes the digital space. For an online exhibition, Sandoval’s piece sits comfortably. By inviting the viewer to physically engage with the work, we become active participants, a difficult feat to achieve in an online exhibition but one that Sandoval has success with. And whilst it isn’t as polished as some of the other works on display, the playfulness and interactivity is still enjoyable. Aftermath isn’t short of surprises, either. Jill Ng’s The Day When Math Is Dead combines the oddities of internet culture with the Bauhaus influence on media to create a video that is part-phantasmagoric, part-satirical. Light-hearted in its approach, Ng’s video is the least recognisable ode to the Bauhaus. That’s okay, though. The Bauhaus invited the sorts of experimentation we get in abundance from Ng, with a little extra humour mixed in for good measure. 

Still, there are more conventional approaches to Bauhaus ideas on display in Aftermath that nod to its more traditional ideas of shape, colour, and form. Kaidi Huang’s The Ocean of Memory captures the spirit of these ideas in a somewhat futuristic looping animation. Witnessing the process behind Huang’s work gives us some idea of the labour of the animation; the fact that the piece would stand ten meters in height is difficult to imagine, but the video gets us part of the way there. Emily Edmond’s Simple but Complex is a spirited, if somewhat modest, exploration of Bauhaus principles of language and design whilst Misra Arabaci’s Springing from Inner Spirit and Jessica Emsley’s In Movement experiment with classic Bauhaus ideas of colour and form that capture delicate and spiritualistic concepts. These works provide the most meditative moments of the exhibition and spending time with them is in its own way rewarding.  

Aftermath succeeds in bringing something new to the table. The revolutionary influence of the Bauhaus is felt throughout, proof of the artists’ getting to grips with Bauhaus tradition and technique as well as showing a clear understanding of what was so excellently portrayed in Still Undead. Just as Still Undead breathed fresh life into the story of the Bauhaus, Aftermath offers a similar moment of revival and inspection. The social circumstances of a global pandemic leave the work feeling a bit displaced at times; whilst some of the work on display thrives in the digital space, others appear incomplete and unfulfilled, a criticism of the times we find ourselves in rather than of the artists themselves. It would have been tempting to fall into the trap of imitating Bauhaus exercises and call it a day. Fortunately, this isn’t the case, as Aftermath proves itself to be thoughtful and, at times, thought-provoking. It is an exhibition that gathers a fine group of artists together to realise there is still room amongst the clutter of the Bauhaus to say something new, honest, and revealing.

Aftermath website

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