‘Back to the Things Themselves’, a group show and inaugural exhibition at south London’s new project space, Assembly Point, is an exploration of materials, textures and forgotten objects. The title takes its lead from the writing of philosopher Edmund Husserl whose work on phenomenology explores how things present themselves to the world and how they are understood in a wider social context. Each of the artists use a variety of materials and frameworks that challenge the viewers’ perception of matter, as well as activating the socio-political implications of the thing itself.
The paint was still drying in the newly opened space, but it had already shed the vestiges of its previous life as a squat to return to the high ceilings and open space of it original function as a Methodist Church. The ambitious group show with several works by eight different artists was aided by the expansive gallery, which gave each work its own breathing space while still enabling the viewer to see the majority of the works simultaneously. While viewing the exhibition from the entrance, the installation by Nicholas Brooks titled ‘Ghost Walk’, is reminiscent of a bridge or a walkway leading the viewer into the space and to follow the path it creates. The installation is a precarious construction of wooden and metal sticks with several left unused in a pile nearby, almost inviting the viewer to continue the work, to choose where the path should go next.
This sense of movement is mirrored by Brooks’ video on the other side of the room, which shows a 3D object moving through a digital and alien-like space. The colours are muted and marbled, with the screen constantly shifting from light to dark, creating an unsettling mood and unstable environment. Both works lead the viewer on a journey through time and space into an unknown or unknowable reality of things. This work, in one, way is a digital manifestation of ideas explored in the text that accompanies the exhibition by philosopher Graham Harman who coined the term Object Oriented Philosophy, one of the many offshoots of Speculative Realism.
References to both Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Philosophy tend to be thrown around with ease in the art world with the definition expanding and contracting with each exhibition. The shift in focus towards matter away from a human or anthropomorphic perspective does provide some relief and an attempt to forge a new perspective in this exhibition. It provides a much needed resistance to the primacy of the individual, but at the same time it seems unclear how this return to matter can really provide solutions to the oppressive structures of neo-liberal capitalism and impending environmental disaster. These ideas are played out through the work of May Hands and Imran Perretta, whose use of culturally charged objects point towards the socio-political issues inherent in their choice of materials.
The other artists in ‘Back to the Things Themselves’ also explore materiality in unusual and unexpected ways. For example, the work of Nicolas Feldmeyer, ‘Light Touch’, on first glance appears to be a large black and grey rectangle painted directly on the wall. However on closer inspection one realises that the grey section is in fact a digital projection overlaying the paint and transforming the colour. Moving closer to the wall the pixels become visible, reminding one that things are never what they seem.
The works of Henna Vainio and Edgar-Walker also challenge one’s perception of objects that are usually forgotten, hidden or immediately disposed of, configured in a way as if seen for the first time. The sculptural piece of Vainio’s, titled ‘Groov’ is placed to the left of the entrance, leaning precariously against the wall. It is a plaster cast of a rolled up and bent sheet of corrugated cardboard. The mustard yellow and pale violet pigment in the plaster transforms a forgotten material into something delicate and intricate. Edgar-Walker the artist duo who set up Assembly Point as well as curating the show, have an installation in the centre of the space. The work is simply titled ‘Things’ and is partially made up of objects that were rescued from the building site of the project space. A large rectangular metal sheet held upright and punctured with small holes was used to secure the front windows of the building from intruders. Under the upright metal sheet is a large square of marbled plastic lino, the exact flooring that can be found at Camberwell College, where the pair studied and began their collaboration. In this way, the objects intertwine the history of the gallery space with the development of their artistic relationship.
The other artist duo in the exhibition is Julia Crabtree and William Evans who have been working collaboratively for nine years. They see their practice as an ongoing experiment in shared subjectivity. Their practice engages with cinematic discourse and the shift in perception that comes with the movement from the virtual to the real. The influence of cartoons is visible in the vibrant colours and exaggerated shapes of their installations. Their work in the show, ‘Marker’, is a complex configuration of materials and objects either suspended or draped, all held together by a thick yellow rope. A piece of printed material hangs from thin turquoise branches, made to look as if it is held up by a large rock and challenging the viewers’ perception of its weight by playing with the logic of physics. As in the work of Nicolas Feldmeyer, where the digital and physical seem indistinguishable, in both works the order of things becomes undone.
The viewer is challenged once again with the work of Imran Perretta, whose practice often stems from a personal narrative. He reflects on questions of identity through objects that evoke different understandings of cultural histories. The white paint that he has applied on the large plastic dustsheet hung from nearly the ceiling is in fact mixed with whitening cream, drawing reference to the complexities involved in being a third generation mixed-heritage immigrant. The poem that completes the work is printed on a simple A4 page and taped to the wall alongside the sheet. On the floor below there is small glass jam jar filled with sticks of half-burnt incense. The piece paints a scene of something familiar yet at the same time foreign, each object pregnant with meaning and social references.
These references to recognisable cultural symbols in the work of May Hands are similarly potent. Her use of packaging from luxury brands are loaded with references to social hierarchies. The packaging is presented on large metal stretchers held in by netting, the colours and textures of Gucci paper alongside cake wrappers, ribbons and cellophane. The beauty and delicacy of the work is undeniable, the pastel pinks and purples of the materials echoing the precious objects they once contained. Hands sees her work as an exploration of the in-betweenness of painting and sculpture, with the objects being the brush marks. The question of value is significant in her work. By taking the disposable part of luxury goods and making it a luxury once again through the framework of contemporary art, the object moves a full cycle in its social and commercial value.
‘Back to the Things Themselves’ is an aesthetically cohesive exhibition that challenges the viewers’ understanding of art objects, while exploring the ways in which the mind populates the senses. The relationships that develop between the works create a network of questions and propositions that zigzag from one artwork to another.