Smirking Smuggins

Head off to Finchley Road tube station and then trudge up the hill to get to the Camden Arts Centre where the main show here today is Peter Fraser’s Mathematics.  Now, I have to confess that I’ve never heard of the artist before but I like the sound of the exhibition title.  It makes me think that maybe the show’s going be one of those technographical Minimalist extravaganzas involving reams and reams of graph paper filled up with tiny colourful abstractified sequences of pretty geometric shapes; or else walls full of seemingly empty canvases that, on close inspection, are found to be dotted with series of tiny indecipherable pencil marks; or perhaps there’ll be lots of clattering little light displays that pay numerical homage to the fabulous Fibonacci Series.  No such luck.  In fact what’s on offer is a show of photographs that have absolutely nothing to do with any of the kinds of sums and calculating concepts that I happily toyed with at school, university and then various back office accounts departments.  Indeed, although the thirty or forty large colour snaps here are evidently meant to be considered together as one grand compositional whole, it’s not at all clear to me what on earth it is that links them together, algebraically, geometrically, trigonometrically or any other mathematical ally…or enemy, for that matter.

So, for instance, the very first three shots in this unhappy visual volley consist of the rear end of a cow, a bowl containing a bisected tomato and a twisted ribbon of little LED lights.  Usually when I come across these kinds of tiresome teasers that expect me to connect seemingly disparate objects or events – either in the quiz at the back of the Saturday Guardian colour supplement or on one of those mid-afternoon TV egg-head panel games – I come up with the same instant answer that involves either quickly turning over the page or else zapping on to a different free-view channel.  Well, life is simply far too short to bother wasting brain power on such pointlessnesses and it’s hard to see the value in setting oneself up to be outwitted by some sad smirking smuggins who spends his life thinking up trick questions to try to catch out cleverer people.

Similarly, when these kinds of semi-ludic displays are presented as art, my first inclination is just to switch off and look elsewhere.  But today I suppose duty obliges me to clock a few more items amongst Fraser’s random miscellany – a crane, a roll of sellotape, a big green snake, a snow-covered mountain peak, a fish market, a horse, some portrait heads – before I turn away.  Perhaps the text on the introductory wall panel will explain things and clarify what’s going on.  As if.  ‘…Fraser weaves lines of investigation through various images, unpicking fundamental questions of existence, consciousness, time and elemental form:  the fleeting lifespan of a sparrow juxtaposed against the stone ruins it perches on; the outward stillness of a solitary horse, concealing the focused energy of its internal biology; or the complex transformation of energy from the sun’s fiery surface to our recognition of its digital projection.’

At which point I give up on all this silliness and proceed to the other show here at Camden which is entitled Voluta – not, as I initially assumed, one of those frothy savoury servings whipped up in posh restaurants and designed to tittilate the tastebuds of the discerning palate, but rather the name given to a genus of sea slug.  So, when I walk through the gallery doors am I to be confronted with a cornucopia of gastropodia or will the floor be filled with trails of artistic slime?  Thankfully neither, and again the title seems to be something of a ridiculous red herring.

Speaking of which, the first item in Yuko Mohri’s collection of sculptural installations appears to include a small fish swimming around the weeds in a chunky glass container.  Apparently it’s the actual movements of said fish that are being measured by various detectors and then, by dint of some mystical electro-mechanical wizardry, converted into the musical notes that I can hear emanating from an old pedal organ placed nearby.  Who would have thought that a simple aquatic invertebrate would have been able to have been trained to paddle about in such a way as to produce the opening half a dozen bars to Bach’s Prelude in C Major?  Ok, I’m joking and the noise is somewhat less baroque than that composed by the German maestro, but well done Fergus for having a bash at it anyway.  As for the other elaborate contraptions spread around the gallery, these include a wind-powered xylophone; a set of window blinds that clatter open and shut of their own accord; a pair of clockwork musical spoons; and some tiny tinkling bells that beat to the tune of the induced current emanating from the pulsating electrons whirring around a pair of curled up electrical cables.  It’s all jolly whimsical stuff and while the artist makes claims about aleatory art and, ‘…the shifting relationship between material things and conceptual propositions…’, I’m not sure that checking out these needlessly complicated mechanisms really offers up any more deeper and meaningful experience than that which accompanied an examinations of one of those gently comic Heath Robinson machines that tickled the fancy of an earlier generation.  Albeit that these new updated versions are stripped down, re-engineered and then specifically re-spun for the artworld audience of our own new super-cooled digital age.

All in all, a bit of a mixed start to today’s jaunt but things are set to improve as I speedily head back into town in a dash to get to the Photographers’ Gallery before the midday Cinderella hour, after which they start charging their £4 entrance fee.  Fortunately, I make it in time and recover my composure in the lift that takes me to the top floor for the start of the Alex Prager Silver Lake Drive display.  Rather like Peter Fraser, here is another photographer who composes sequence of large, sharply coloured photographic prints, and who also openly acknowledge a debt to the seminal influence of the godfather of glossy photographic imagery, William Eggleston.  But whereas Fraser is apparently concerned with the supposed cosmic interconnectedness of tangible items caught in the web of real world interfaces, Prager is happier weaving into existence her own sequences of modern mythical narratives.  It means that walking round her exhibition is rather like wandering amongst the storyboard highlights from some kind of semi-Surreal David Lynch film, where everything has just the kind of heightened reality and sense of enhanced hyper-normality to make things look far too good to be true.

And, of course, as the audience very well knows, all the tableaux here are utterly false and deliberately staged:  from the singular shot of the redhead lounging on the bed smoking a cigarette as she dreams her romantic reverie; to the bikini-clad quartet scheming up a caper under a clear blue sky, while they in turn are surveilled by a high-flying drone above; right up to the elaborately constructed assemblies of  dozens of extras sunning themselves on the beach, hanging around in the airport lounge or munching popcorn as they wait for a ball game that we know is never going to start.  All the characters and situations look strangely familiar while remaining safely distant and the compelling temptation to slide into a shared complicity, by constructing a sort of false memory soap opera story explanation, is almost irresistible.  It’s also curiously comforting and makes the whole display a very enjoyable, if ultimately somewhat frothy, form of entertainment.

Moving on to the other exhibition here at the Photographer’s Gallery means travelling back to the very different, black and white reality of working class life in Britain towards the close of the last century as witnessed by Tish Murtha.  It’s a bit of a grim world full of grotty terraced houses, saucy scruffy kids, and their salt-of-the-earth parents who find temporary respite from their penurious desperation by heading for the local boozer to have a pint and a chat with their peer group pals.

Of course, the problem with this kind of classic documentary work is that the passage of time has a tendency to sentimentalise the imagery and dilute it into a kind of simplistic poverty porn.  But I think Murtha’s work is just about strong enough to avoid that trap and some of her imagery definitely retains a quirky, gritty quality that acts to confirm the authenticity of its realist credentials.  It’s not just the hard stares and tough demeanour of the characters in some of her portraits; but the bizarre nature of the children’s marching bands she catalogues (and if you’re unfamiliar with this peculiar Northern tradition take another look at Get Carter); and the absurdly poignant contrast between the old men in their raincoats and the glamourous glamour model enticements to be found in her series centered on the seedy nightspots of a long gone Soho.  I suppose, at the end of the day, the Post-Modern argument would be that this form of reportage is just as constructed and contrived as any of Prager’s processed prints but I’m inclined to give Murtha the benefit of the doubt and suggest that while her stories may be old news, they’re definitely not fake news.



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