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Exhibition Review: Sets and Scenarios at Nottingham Contemporary

9 July 20 words: Alex Stubbs

Alex Stubbs reviews Sets and Scenarios, Nottingham Contemporary's latest online installment curated by the students of the Royal College of Art’s MA Curating Contemporary Art programme 

Over the past month there has been a marked change in how Nottingham Contemporary delivers its arts programme to a clamouring audience thirsty for their share of boundary-shifting and thought-provoking art. Sets and Scenarios - curated by students studying on the Royal College of Art’s MA Curating Contemporary Art programme - is the Contemporary’s latest online instalment, building on the successes of Aftermath 2020 and Becoming Part of the Picture - A Loudspeaker Exhibition. Presented as part of a larger graduate project in partnership with UK-based art organisations, Sets and Scenarios is one of five digital exhibitions championing a new wave of artistic talent through collaborative curation and commissions.

A week-long set of film screenings supplement Sets and Scenarios’ live programming, capturing Nottingham Contemporary’s history of inviting the public into a shared space where art and film coexist. Sets and Scenarios grapples with this detachment from the corporeal and manages to provide an element of community interaction and outreach. Providing the audience with a stimulating, however distanced, arts programme is certainly challenging, but is achieved here in an engaging way. If the exhibition achieves nothing else, it has at least proven that the online space is a legitimate platform for the arts.

Sets and Scenarios explores our “heightened proximity to images” and what an increasing exposure to their influence means for our day-to-day experiences. Delivered through three acts and three interludes, Sets and Scenarios plays on the tropes of cinema and theatre in its content and in its layout. The exhibition’s framework unfolds gradually before the viewer: as we navigate through the exhibition, each web page reveals more of the performance, enticing us deeper and deeper into a world of surveillance, privacy, and surrealism. As we delve into this unsettling world, we must ask ourselves: exactly how much control do we have over our own experience?

Act One introduces Eva Gold’s “For Your Discreet Viewing Pleasure,” an introspective exploration into the psyche of the artist that draws from dreams and the subconscious. Gold intersperses her prose with transcripts from online chat rooms, where the narrative plays out in a chat box, implicating us in an act of voyeurism which forces us to confront our own desires, however latent. Looped videos document a nondescript French street and a seemingly vacant house through which Gold explores a landscape that is simultaneously familiar and alien. The indifference towards privacy shakes up our belief in its sanctity, muddying the waters of safety and security. Gold is shining a light on our willingness to bypass privacies, illuminating our darkest desires in what is, on the surface, a detached experience of surveillance.

We aren’t offered closure; we shouldn’t be looking for it, anyway.

As the curtain on Act One closes we enter into the first of three Interludes. Aaron Ratajczyk’s first piece as part of his “A Hole in Space” series shows Ratajczyk in collaboration with Argentinian choreographer Juan Pablo Cámara in performances that interrogate the form of the human body through movement. Ratajczyk’s video call with Cámara is screened from their respective homes, in which we feel like a passive participant in their rehearsal that is as unsettling as it is engrossing. Indeed, it is that feeling of being unsettled that simmers underneath the surface of Sets and Scenarios, rearing its head in moments that feel like passages ripped straight out of the artists’ personal memoirs. Whether it is Ratajczyk’s rehearsal or Gold’s chat messages, the exhibition pulls no punches in challenging our preconceived notions of privacy and control. This is certainly an impressive curatorial choice, and one that builds as the exhibition develops.

Act Two introduces Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chin and her collection of moving images and written letters in “Image List: Actions to Relate to Oneself and the World.” First impressions of the page certainly are striking: a sensory-overload of images, colour, and text that presents itself both as a piece of visual media and as an academic text. The overlapping images lead the viewer down a quasi-internet rabbit hole, some opening on personal letters sent by Thuy-Han, others on her two videos: Syncrisis, movement II from 2019, and Linger On Your Pale Blue Eyes, an earlier work of Thuy Han’s from 2016. Contemporary world cinema, personal monologue, and visual document all overlap, emphasising the feeling of stumbling across a hidden corner of the internet. Thuy-Han’s flair for storytelling is most evident through her film work, but it is in the letters that an intimate sense of identity is clearest. 

Navigating across another of Ratajczyk’s videos leads us to Act Three, where Adam Christensen’s “Death by Mystery” unravels a narrative through poetry, prose, and painting to tell an intimately chaotic story. As part of the exhibition’s live programming, Christensen screens his performance “The Last Fucking[4]  Rave” that sees Christensen behind and in front of the camera. Contained within a singular space – Christensen’s apartment bedroom – we are once again enveloped in an intimate setting. This is the exhibition’s selling point, after all. We’re offered fleeting glimpses of Christensen’s stage; pieces of the artist’s personality lie around the room for us to interrogate momentarily as we move towards the final performance itself. Storytelling becomes the focus as Christensen carves out a space under a rack of clothing (past costumes, perhaps?) and sits to begin telling his story. 

After following the exhibition from its “opening night” all the way through to the final day of live screenings, Christensen’s performance leaves us feeling that the party continues somewhere else, somewhere we aren’t allowed to venture. It is bittersweet in that way, though it feels fitting. We’re left to explore the exhibition once again, this time with the knowledge that there is nothing more to be revealed. Act Three is conclusive, even if it doesn’t necessarily conclude anything.

We aren’t offered closure; we shouldn’t be looking for it, anyway.

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