Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, City of London SE1 8XT

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Ben Wadler at the Concrete Cafe review by Giulia Smith

Not everyone knows that the displays of the Hayward Gallery stretch into the premises of the adjoining Concrete Cafe, where a collateral programme of site-specific exhibitions finds its home. Marginality and utility are the conditions of this space, which in virtue of its disassociation from the main gallery, if only at the level of function and design, enjoys the unique prerogative to challenge the adaptability of art to a lived environment. It is up to the artist to pick up on the strangeness of this setting and make something organic out of it. Ben Wadler does exactly this, turning the cafe into a fantasy place that goes by the name of ‘Stonhenge Tetris’.

It does not take intrusive additions to create a videogame room, far from it, Wadler has a light touch and his interventions are subtle enough to mimic normality and thus adhere to it. For example, one does not immediately realize that all the original tabletops have been removed and substituted with concrete blocks cast ad hoc to echo the brutalist promenade outside the cafe. The idea here is to avoid institutional critique and play with formal camouflage to a more original ironic effect, where the visionary meets anonymous furniture. Inside this fiction the tables become archaeological ruins from a tropical forest, as each concrete slab is given an aged look with faux-finish techniques to make it appear as if it had been sitting in a damp jungle for years. And it is quite refreshing to see how entropy figures here not as romanticized dystopia but as yet another fiction, more Indiana Jones than Cyprian Galliard, and so, entertaining and unreal in a way that smacks of adolescence. After all, this is ‘Ben’s world’, the artist says.

In this spirit Wadler dresses up the cafe to allude to a natural elsewhere that is obviously made up. As a matter of fact, the element of farce that is part and parcel of his fantasy is deliberately emphasized on a formal level - those tables look just like what they are, fake monoliths. While above us, the lianas of Hanging Amaranthus take artificiality one step further, inviting generic memories of tacky nightclubs festooned with plastic arboreal props. In this way, Wadler manages to maintain a humorous friction between imagination and its simulation for commercial purposes. Championing this brand of cheap exotic are two chubby bamboo frames hung at the opposite ends of the counter and encasing a pair of specular drawings, each with an enigmatic totem at its centre. These twin altars are meant as the anchoring points of the whole installation and yet play a dubious votive function, at once bold and naïve in its anachronism. Perhaps they take the jungle theme a little too far or anyway too seriously, but eventually they too find their place in the show. At the end of the day, for obvious reasons the whole installation is meant to grow on the audience quite gradually and somewhat at the periphery of vision. Thus, ‘Stonehenge Tetris’ envelops the audience in a decisive but time-consuming way, not unlike a videogame. One ends up waiting for a primitive synthesizer soundtrack à la Donkey Kong to start playing at any time’

On my way out, I was left to wonder why, of all places, the jungle. Originally, Ben Wadler’s preferred landscape was the desert, a topography that populated his imagination since childhood. For years, it occupied his drawings with its emptiness. But more recently this scenario became ‘jungalized’ in the artist’s mind, with humidity and green stuff taking over the dryness. As if the desert belonged to a past generation, to the psychedelic dreams of the 1960s-70s, and the messiness of the jungle would resonate with our time. This analogy is all the more convincing when the natural is presented only as decoration, as if its autonomy had completely lost appeal. Wadler’s jungle is not a banal escape exit from civilization then, but a caricature of the very fantasy of flight, which in ‘Stonehenge Tetris’ is inextricably tied to commerce. Ultimately, what is most compelling is the artist’s ability to navigate the waters of consumption and entertainment without feeding us escapism or cursory resistance, but instead replaying their particular mechanisms of mystification so as to leave us alone to decide whether we like it or not.

‘Stonhenge Tetris’ will be on view until 07/08/2011

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