Geographies of Contamination
With Olga Balema, Neil Beloufa, Nicolas Deshayes, David Douard, Renaud Jerez, Sam Lewitt, Marlie Mul, Magali Reus, Rachel Rose and Michael E. Smith
David Roberts Art Foundation, London
Curated by Vincent Honoré, Alex Scrimgeour and Laura McLean Ferris
31 January - 29 March 2014
Venture too far to the left on entering David Roberts Art Foundation’s latest exhibition, ‘Geographies of Contamination’, and a gallery assistant leaps to your side to save you from stepping into an oily puddle. The puddle is in fact a piece of resin trompe l’oeil by Dutch artist Marlie Mul, part of a series that became notorious when exhibited by Fluxia, Milan, at last year’s Frieze. Thrown off-guard, the visitor is subsumed into the show’s essential ambiguity between the polluted and the pollutant, the carrier and the activator.
This is a show that situates itself in a ‘Post-Utopian’ phase of technology, sited somewhere beyond the promised lands of Star Trek inspired clamshell phones and before the unmappable terrain of post-humanism. Navigating the hinterland between the worlds of Ray Kurzweil and Captain Kirk, we encounter a host of structural problems rooted in materiality - that sticky substance of life which measures out our hours and invites infiltration. This exhibition explores the contemporary possibilities of contamination, both as a disruptive and a creative force. We see it burst to the surface in the wall-tumours of Michael E. Smith, the information wiping properties of Sam Lewitt’s magnetic spinal cords, the animised acne of David Douard.
Meanwhile, Rachel Rose’s film ‘Sitting Feeding Sleeping’ (2013) serves as a type of manifesto for the exhibition, its beautifully spliced footage of zoo animals, crushed fruit and cryonics echoing the aesthetic possibilities both feared and fetishised by the digital age. In the next room, Nicolas Deshayes’ ‘Cramps’ (2014) series features visceral, vacuum-packed swellings of yellowing foam, expanding malevolently between wipe-clean synthetic surfaces. Displayed as wall-mounted friezes, they act like corresponding stills to Rachel Rose’s film, embodying technology’s enduring affinity with material degeneration: the capacity not only to store and to hoard, but also to leak and to sap.
Such works have prompted the latest in the hyphenated chain of art-historical ‘posts’: ‘Post-Materiality’. However, curators Vincent Honoré, Laura McLean-Ferris and Alex Scrimgeour are hesitant to apply such terminology to works which claim no binding agenda. Instead, the exhibition was proposed as a type of host body in which these artists would thrive, prompting new ways of thinking about their work. Certain pieces were even created in response to the show itself - Renaud Jerez built his ‘Pain Corp®’ (2014) in the gallery, applying glow-in-the-dark paint and stale baguettes in a last minute flourish. Although the works in the exhibition provoke important questions about environmental, political and biological contamination, they are far from confrontational - nor are they trying to forge any particular path into art history. They are, in the words of Honoré, simply ‘about this world’, rooted in the practical business of living.
As such, several of the artworks express an earnest concern with their own ‘usefulness’ - of how things might ‘work’ or ‘fail’ in the dangerously fertile climate of contamination. As though in anxious response to what Scrimgeour describes as art’s ‘constant risk of sinking into irrelevance’, Neil Beloufa’s walls of sockets have offered art fair attendees the chance to charge their phones, and his ‘Souvenir’ (2014) partitions have helpfully in-built wheels. Similarly, Magali Reus’ folding chairs seem poised to prop up the fatigued visitor. However, their snap-shut seats are barred by hostile objects, twisted crutches or plastic sheeting, while Beloufa’s walls serve as much to obstruct and obscure as to protect or recollect.
Mul’s ‘Puddle’ (2013) series provides further reflection upon the breakdown of artistic and curatorial systems. From the moment the puddles are exhibited as knowingly disruptive forces from the outer world, spatters in a slick interior, they are purified into works of art - decontaminated. The only way the spell could be broken would be for some truly contaminating, ignorant force - the gallery-goer - to go and ‘put their foot in it’. To tread, to stamp, to shatter would be to lift the work out of its stagnant or preserved state as art by eliminating the potential of the medium - its ability to deny itself, to deceive the viewer. In the activation of its true materiality, the artwork would ‘stop working’. Like the burnt, bandaged arms of Renaud Jerez’s hydra-like jacuzzi tubes, it would be stumped.
However, while many of the installations discuss the constructive possibilities of failure, not one is about negation. These are works which grow, evolving in the manner of mutation or cross-breeding, adding diversity, interest, even a form of protection.
As so often with shows at DRAF, ‘Geographies of Contamination’ is an exhibition with a strongly literary sensibility. Each of the works proposes the multiple narrative possibilities that occur the moment art stops striving for visual and conceptual purity, choosing instead to embrace its own corruptibility. Honoré references Georges Bataille, while McLean-Ferris has written a short story in place of an introductory essay, describing a force of contamination which is both oppressive and eerily beautiful. In sum, an idea of the exhibition might be best expressed in the words of Paul Muldoon, whose poem ‘Something Else’ depicts the dead weight of dislocation, self-multiplying into infinite beginnings:
he hanged himself from a lamp-post
with a length of chain, which made me think
of something else, then something else again.