Zabludowicz Collection, 176 Prince of Wales Rd, London NW5 3PT

Charles Richardson: HEADBONE

Zabludowicz Collection

8 October - 8 November 2015

Review by Marianne Templeton

Charles Richardson’s installation ‘HEADBONE’ centres on a single-channel projection, featuring 3D-rendered portraits of the artist that slowly rotate, directed by occasional clicks of a roving cursor. In one render, plasters, packaging, pens, plastic bags, a gardening glove, a packet of Extra gum and strips of fabric are all strapped to Richardson’s torso and head with tape. He also sports a prosthetic pregnancy belly and holds a mobile phone. This pose—evocative of Christian devotional iconography—is succeeded by that icon of contemporary secular culture, the couch potato. In this second render, a figure also assumed to be the artist is sprawled on a floral sofa, clutching a remote and wearing a printed dress and an opaquely visored motorcycle helmet that has been modified with horn-like protrusions.

The figures rotate until the ‘interior’ of the render—the cavity formed by the incompleteness of the scanned image, which, for example, does not extend to the underside of the sofa—slips into view. The mirage of solid form is dissolved as the skin becomes the structure, the scanned image duplicated in uncanny concave perspective like the interior of a novelty chocolate mould. This replacement of the body’s ‘insides’ with a smooth interior is somehow obscene: the interface turned cannibalistically inwards upon itself. Of course, these depths and surfaces are all illusory—there is no shell, just a ghost.

Ironically, Richardson’s motivation for wrapping himself in junk and prosthetics is visibility: these additions allow his form to be more easily scanned by the software that captures and translates his likeness into a three-dimensional image. Clarity is sought through obfuscation. In an arguably less clownish way, on a daily basis we also aggregate objects that make us more ‘visible’ to software—specifically, the programs and algorithms deployed by the collectors of big data. These objects include our electronic devices and bankcards, but also other consumer products—physical and virtual—that represent a chain of financial transactions. Richardson allegorises this process, using the material residues of his own consumer history.

The projection is accompanied by a soundtrack of scattered conversation and informal choral renditions of the spiritual song ‘Dem Bones’, and set within a built installation comprising partition walls made from sheets of insulation board, the sofa pictured in the video and a duo of uncanny puppet-sculptures. The overall effect of this environment is part-shed, part-sideshow. The puppets reiterate the themes of bricolage, surrogacy and the grotesque present in the video—perhaps to the point of overstatement.

The song ‘Dem Bones’ is the activating element of the installation, conjuring a skeleton to haunt the empty skins of the 3D renders. Composed by African-American writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, ‘Dem Bones’ is a musical adaptation of a popular sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, describing the titular prophet’s vision in which God causes ancient bones strewn through a valley to revive and recombine into living beings. The song has since morphed into a teaching aid for introducing children to human physiology. Richardson ignores the song’s biblical interpretation—the resurrection of Israel—as well as its political relevance in the early part of the twentieth century as a metaphor for the rise of African-American civil liberties. Rather, his affinities seem to lie with the song’s playful and repetitive structure, the processes of adding and subtracting, the incompleteness of the constructed body and the animation of lifeless matter. The human body is everywhere and nowhere in ‘HEADBONE’: an attempt at performance art in absentia.

Richardson’s show is the sidekick to Canadian artist Jon Rafman’s screen-and-slime extravaganza in Zabludowicz Gallery’s main galleries, which features a series of semi-immersive environments constructed around flatscreen monitors. Certain sympathies are clear: a tension between the corporeal and the virtual; a penchant for playing with skins, screens and prosthetics; a process that involves the collection and aggregation of fragments from one’s immediate surroundings, whether physical or digital. Yet Rafman’s immersion in online cultures and digital landscapes is not shared by Richardson, whose current focus is perhaps rather the sculptural potential of one particular outmoded photo scanning software, and video installation’s capacity for exploring states of presence and absence.

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