No Whispering Naturalist

There seems to be some kind of engineering works being performed on the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines so, instead of getting the tube straight to Finchley Road, I consult my very useful Citymapper app and follow its advice to take the number 13 bus, disembarking at the stop just past the Finchley-Frognal overground station and then taking the short walk to get to the Camden Arts Centre.  The main gallery spaces here have been blacked out and divided up into a sort of mini-maze consisting of skipfuls of recycled floor boards that have been crudely nailed together.  The result is a trio of small viewing areas that are showing short films by the Danish artist Joachim Koester, an artist of whom I admit I was previously unaware.  So, what is the man all about?  Well, as the gallery guide advises, for the past dozen years the artist’s practice has been, ‘…a persistent enquiry into the boundaries of apparent reality,’ along with a, ‘quest to uncover hidden aspects of perception.’  Which, I’m not sure is all that elucidatory and doesn’t really offer much preparation for the work in the first room I enter, which seems to consist of a sequence of everyday scenes from the life of a praying mantis.


It’s not exactly blockbuster material and, in fact, looks like it could be composed of edited out-takes from one of those David Attenborough TV mini-series.  So, although the shots seem to be from a proper professional documentary, there’s no whispering naturalist telling us what’s going on and, to be perfectly honest, there doesn’t actually seem to be very much going on at all, anyway.  The insect, or insects – as I think it’s a bit of a collaborative ensemble piece here – are largely camouflaged in amongst a mass of twigs and jungle leaves and remain pretty much stationary, just sitting and watching and occasionally twitching and wobbling a bit.  So, there are no close-ups showing the insect building a nest; or slow motion cuts of one of the critters fighting a rival suitor; or any lively orchestrations building up the excitement as a battle ensues against a rival gang of spiders; or anything like that.  And as for the money shot – Mrs Mantis’ appalling post-coital secret habit, of which everyone is aware except poor, lovestruck Mr Mantis, there is neither copulation nor cannibalism.  At least, I didn’t see any and if it was in the film then I missed it having left early after getting a bit bored by all the other non-action sequences.


Now, I know that the one question that you’re absolutely forbidden to ask an artist these days for fear of being revealed as an appalling old reactionary Philistine and then blacklisted and banned from entering every modern gallery throughout the capital, is the old chestnut: ‘What does it mean?’ So I’m not going to pose that one but today I just can’t help faltering a little and asking myself what on earth is the point of me trudging along on a wet Sunday afternoon to get to an art gallery and being presented with 3 minutes and 27 second’s worth of looped video art, wherein some insects try, with varying degrees of success, to hide in the shrubbery and not to be noticed?


Notwithstanding that moment of existential art theory crisis, I move slowly on through the dark and sample Koester’s other two films.  I suppose they could both reasonably be described as sort of Surrealistical shorts and spark just a little bit more curiosity, intrigue and interest than the insectivorous opening gambit.  The Place of Dead Roads involves  a trio of androgynous cowboys posing and playing with their pistols while Maybe this act, this work, this thing shows a couple of actors trying to mime the movements of a movie projector.  Well, that’s what the introductory wall panels advises, though without that bit of help I think I’d have said that I was watching some kind of abstract modern dance performance in which the troupe alternately stamp their feet, shuffle their shoes, grunt and grimace and generally cut a rug in a very deliberately, unstrictly fashion.


Elsewhere, in the small gallery spaces, there are some of Koester’s sound works which, as far as I could tell, just consist of either dull drones or white noise hisses; another film of more uncoordinated dancing; and a set of glass cases containing a bunch of books: modernist fiction; critical theory; science text books.  This last sort of quasi-academic display has been assembled by Yann Chateigne Tytelman and, titled Lepidoptera Lodge, may be meant to represent a sort of generalised bibliographical reading list to complement the creepy-crawly opening to the exhibition.  On the other hand, when it comes to the official taxonomy of insects, my brief researches suggest that mantises are members of the Mantodea sect rather than Lepidoptera gang so maybe that is not the case.  I’m not sure it really matters very much.


As I depart the gallery and head for the next bus, I can’t help thinking that somewhere between BurroughsNaked Lunch and the theoretical ramblings of Walter Benjamin, Tytelman should have found space for copies of Kafka’s Metamorphosis; Golding’s Lord of the Flies and maybe something by Borges.  Anyway, enough of these literary musings and back to the visual stimulation currently on offer at the Zabludowicz Collection courtesy of another one of their mixed shows of very contemporary art that aims to illustrate themes currently under investigation by today’s young hypermodernists.


One and Other, promises ‘an exploration of the everyday duality of the self’, which sounds like a broad enough kind of remit for artists and curators to play around with.  And play around they do, so that the mish mash of small and big screen video displays, bricolage type sculptures, photographs and prints from a dozen or so artists combine into an interesting enough kind of cultural collage for the visitor to metaphorically rootle around.  Apparently the show has been assembled by students from Chelsea College and London Metropolitan University and there are a total of six curators named in the accompanying leaflet which, considering what usually happens when so many cooks get together, means it’s really quite surprising that this arty broth has turned out to be a reasonably soupy smooth production.


That’s not to say that some of the works seem a bit unrelated to the theme.  I’m not sure where Sue Webster & Tim Noble’s plastic flower arrangement fits in nor Ed Atkins’ incredibly irritating disembodied avatar head who rattles off an undending stream of meaningless repetitive non-sequiturs, leavened only by the introduction of an occasional lyric from the Wizard of Oz.  Then again, Ugo Rondinone’s photographs of cross-dressers and David Blandy’s White and Black Minstrel Show vaudeville mime (performed in heavy reversed make-up of white face, black lips and eyes) might be considered a little too obvious and unsubtle.  But then there’s quite a lot of other reasonably interesting diversions to be explored from Leo Gabin’s pair of cool hip hop dudes slow dancing to a some poignant Bach cello music; Amalia Ulman’s docu-saga about (fictional?) attempts to restyle her physique through plastic surgery interventions; and Jon Rafman’s series of distorted portrait busts mounted on mirror plinths that incorporate the viewer into the artwork.  Best of all, however, is Ferhat Ozgur’s Metamorphosis Chat which is nothing to do with Gregor Samsor and the previous exhibition but instead shows a pair of old friends swapping clothes.  As one of the participants gains some lipstick and loses her headscarf and multiple layers of undergarments and long-johns, the other reverses the procedure, and shrieks of good-natured laughter are shared at the sheer absurdity and ridiculousness of the sartorial exchange.


Finally, in the separate Invite space, Helen Knowles presents The Trial of Superdebthunterbot, the video record of a fictional murder trial in which the accused is a dangerous computational algorithm.  So, sitting in the dock at Southwark Crown Court is a box of electronic microchips and wiring representing the logic programme of a debt collecting company whose actions have indirectly resulted in the deaths of some desperate, penurious students.  Meanwhile in the body of the court, men in wigs preen, pontificate and chew over the various legalistic principles involved in the case and endeavour to hold the attention of the dozen jurors who shuffle in their seats and try to figure out whether they should pull the plug on the rogue machine or let it walk free and whirr on uninhibited.  Using all the usual familiar theatrical props and processes of the legal system, Knowles has attempted to make real the current theoretical debates about who or what should bear responsibility for the artificial intelligence decisions made by myriad streams of binary code racing round microchips that are no longer fully under the control of any human hand or mind.  I suppose the discussion on these kinds of matters usually centres on the case of a potential fatal accident caused by the actions of a driverless car but here the artist has constructed a far more, unnecessarily complicated backstory involving loans, debt-collecting companies and students acting as guinea pig dupes in a medical experiment that goes horribly wrong.  Either way, the whole subject is undoubtedly a fascinating intellectual brain teaser of the kind that may well become a very real source of legalistic dispute in the future as developments resulting from machine-based learning technologies impact on the real world the rest of us live in.  But as to whether the fictive investigation into such matters constitutes an artwork any more than does the mere presentation of the film of a praying mantis at rest, I’m not entirely convinced.



2 responses to “No Whispering Naturalist

  1. Did you see the faces in the shadows either side of the flowers by Tim Noble and Sue Webster? Lots of people (including me on first visit) missed them…
    Amalia Ullman has constructed herself, it’s fiction. But good fiction.
    And I loved Ferhat Ozgur’s Metamorphosis Chat. Apparently many Turkish grandmothers are exactly like that!

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