Head down to Temple tube station and emerge into a grey grizzly gloom that I suspect may be a presaging augury signalling the end of a short sunshiney autumn and the start of a long cold winter. And as I trudge my way up the slightly forlorn backstreets that lead into the bustling thoroughfare of the Strand, the malicious sprites and spirits that control the movements of the rainclouds above evidently spot my progression as they decide to turn on the taps, open the valves, pile on the pressure or whatever it is that they do to increase the precipitative flows of wet stuff spilling down onto the heads of the poor pedestrians below. At which point it would be nice to be able to report that I was able to dive into the warm embrace of a cosy house of museological exposition or the comforting shelter of a centrally heated white cube art gallery. But today my timing is off and as the rain gains traction and speeds ever more heavily downwards, soaking its way into the woolen wefts of my increasingly soggy beanie hat, I turn into the semi-derelict building that houses Store X, a sort of quasi-pop-up exhibition space carved out of the gutted carcase of a large but deserted three-story former office complex. Doubtless the structure and all its current warren of murky display spaces is architecturally safe and secure but it’s extremely distressed and excoriated right back to its endoskeletal core of bare concrete floors and walls, with no décor or ornamentation, not much heating or lighting and only the most rudimentary of fixtures and fittings.*
I suppose this kind of deliberately radical chic, squatter-style styling is designed to conjure up a kind of exciting sense of romantic bohemian adventurism for some but by now I’ve definitely reached the age where I’m happy to forgo any potential additional advantages inherent in the natural authenticity of the unadulterated experience in exchange for an element of ease and comfort. But duty calls and even if I still feel a bit chilly and damp, at least I’ve escaped the main force of the rain. So, what artistic temptations have impelled me to visit this uninviting arena? Well, a couple of weeks ago I had a moan about the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain, primarily because it consisted solely of video and filmic works, categories of artistic endeavor and experimentation of which I’ve never really been much of a fan. And so, in an attempt to overcome my longstanding prejudicial aversion to so-called time-based media, I thought I’d attempt a bit of self-certified, quasi-masochistic immersive therapy, steeling myself to watch as much and as many of the large-scale video artwork displays that are currently dotted throughout the mazey trails of the Store X labyrinth.
Of course, as soon as I enter the first space to take a look at Camille Henrot’s Gross Fatigue which, according to the useful gallery guide booklet, ‘attests to our unending attempts to conceptualize the universe with the constantly expanding cosmos of the digital realm’, I immediately start to remember all the logistical problems associated with trying to write about these kinds of big-screen video art productions. The primary problem being that everywhere – except for the wall-sized screens and their flickering beams of ever-changing imagery – is darkness, which means that I have great difficulty seeing what I’m doing and where I’m going and even if I do successfully manage to navigate my way onto the small wooden bench and squeeze myself a space between the other art enthusiasts, it’s still very hard to make any contemporaneous notes when I can’t see what it is that I’m meant to be writing. It’s also a bit irritating to find that I always seem to enter the films part-way through their running times which inevitably then requires me to watch the second half of the show before getting to see the opening sequences.
Of course, few of the videos here are shackled by formats that follow any kind of traditional linear narrative thread so watching them in topsy-turvy order doesn’t necessarily sabotage plot point revelations or other surprise twists and turns but it’s still hard to believe that their creators can be entirely happy that audiences are liable to see mashed-up versions of their works. Then again, the idea of waiting outside the viewing area and only entering when the films start is just not a practical proposition, especially here where there are a full 21 different simultaneously playing selection of works to try to get to see, with a total cumulative running time of around five hours.
Anyway, leaving all that practical stuff aside, when I do enter Henrot’s film about halfway through I think I manage to pick up the fairly basic storyline quickly enough. And the general artistic idea seems to be pretty much as the guide quote above suggested – a sort of evolutionary history of the natural world manically condensed from several billion years down into 13 minutes of disjointed collagistic imagery hurled out at the audience in time with the pulsating rhythmic beat of an off-screen narrator declaiming lines of blank verse. And while the rapping rant is cheerful enough and the succession of pulsating pictures – starclouds, seahorses, stuffed toucans, Jackson Pollock splatter paintings and so on and on – are all reasonably diverting, I’m not sure I get to learn anything new about this impossibly vast subject or that its presentation is in any way more interesting or entertaining than that which I might have enjoyed by simply speed-viewing my way through a box set of David Attenborough TV documentaries or typing ‘evolution’ into a YouTube search field and following the suggested links. So, a bit of a disappointingly low beat unexceptional start.
Ed Atkins’ Happy Birthday comes next and I suppose it’s about half as long and twice as engaging. Again it relies on a sort of collage technique but less Cubistic overlays than Kinetic cut-ups which sequence a series of computer-generated avatars bleeping out phrases that reference the perception of temporal cognisance. So, against a background soundtrack that includes snippets of Elgar and Elvis, a smooth silvery cartoon head prattles lists of hacked up words and dates…1872…I will…once…1984…every week…I remember…and so forth and fifth and sixth. I suppose it’s a sort of Dance to the Music of Time for those of a digital generation who might find a static analogue Poussin canvas boring or an Anthony Powell novel all too passe.
And so on down a corridor, round a corner and into another room for a series of four Pipilotti Rist videos that last about five minutes each. And the gimmick here is that the films are projected onto ceiling screens, with the audience encouraged to lay on sofas and couches and gaze upward to get the full force of the hippyish experience. Tempting though that may be to some, frankly, I find the thought of sprawling horizontally when decked out in a hat and coat somewhat indecorous and so in the interests of trying to retain my dignity I just squint up and accept a slightly oblique vision of the video films. As far as I can tell, the vista is a sort of underwater view of a colourful swirling pool of flotsam and bubbles, seaweed and sludge. Which, again, is mildly interesting but not exactly mind-blowingly marvellous or earth-shatteringly profound.
Exiting this aqueous environment and finding a bit of light I take pause to write a few notes but then can’t really remember what it was that I was going to write down and so decide to give up on that idea. Instead, I’ll just try to rely on my faltering memory to pick out some of the stuff that sticks in my mind from out of the remaining 18 sets of films which, even though I skip past a couple of the longer ones, still takes me another couple of hours to get through. So, in no particular order, there’s Wong Ping’s tawdry tale of voyeurism and cuckoldry told through a series of crude animations and Oliver Laric’s more slick and sophisticated cartoon presentations that show a sequence of clever transformations where amongst the absurdist chimeric metamorphoses an Eskimo twists into a polar bear and a boy turns in to a donkey. On the semi-traditional documentary side there’s Mounira Al Solh’s slow meditation around the possessions of a Syrian refugee that have been stuffed into the boot of his car; John Akomfrah’s vast three-screen extravaganzic investigation of the whaling industry; Jonathas de Andrade’s record of the rainforest fishermen who seem to like cuddling their fishy catches; and Ryan Trecartin’s gross out TOWIE-style examination of some New York preeners and poseurs. Finally there are the fairly straightforward documentary records of performance spectacles, including Cally Spooner’s modern dance troopers; Daria Martin’s naturist scientists who investigate various motorised machines, droning drones and other mechanical robots; and finally, and endlessly, Ragnar Kjartansson and his rock band who delight in singing a version of The National’s Sorrow dirge over and over again as a bizarre form of cruel and unusual artistic punishment.
Looking at this lot as a whole reminds me of some of those sad evenings when there’s nothing on television and, too tired to bother doing anything else, one desperately channel chases round and round catching short consecutive clips of all sorts of different random genres – taking in a few moments of one before giving up and moving on to the next. Ok, it certainly passes the time but it’s not exactly enlightening. And in the unlikely event that I ever came across any of the stuff seen today appearing in the regular TV schedules, I think I’d echo Goebbels and his gun and reach for my zapper.**
*In fact, at the end of the Store X exhibition’s labyrinthine trail there is a properly functioning trendy hipsterish coffee bar with rolls for the hungry, sofas for the tired and art-related merchandise for the acquisitive.
**The photos spread throughout the blog appear in the same order as they appear in the text.