Heather Phillipson: The Age of Love
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
19 October, 2018 – 31 March, 2019
Review by Christopher Little
In ‘The Age of Love’, the human imagination transcends from a pessimistic plane of existence to a cosmic realm of fantasy and wonder. It is a parallel zone where space converges, and time is held still, and where rampant hedgehogs hump to the pulsating beats of nineties dance anthems.
It is safe to say that BALTIC’s vast Level 4 gallery space and the overlooking Level 5 mezzanine have never undergone a transformation quite like this. Eroding, hulking farm machinery, an enormous faux-classical foot and 22-tonnes of black basalt create an eerie landscape; but it is the pumping rave music, rhythmic lights, love letters to dancing grass and scores of copulating animals that transmogrify this expansive space into something quite extraordinary.
Heather Phillipson responds to the ominous currents of postmodernity with wit and exuberance, but for this exhibition the artist has strived to eschew the apocalyptic dread that often permeates her work. ‘The Age of Love’ is a boisterous ode to the frenetic energy of life, set in an alternate world where time is adjourned and the parallels between human and non-human bodies intersect, opening up alternative perceptions.
Blue lights flare overhead, flashing in sync with the thumping music of Phillipson’s remixed version of Jam and Spoon’s iconic nineties dance hit ‘The Age of Love’, from which the exhibition takes its name. The sporadic lights cast an lurid glare over the black basalt, giving the place an otherworldly feel. A huge grain silo sits on the lunarscape, along with a chugging conveyor belt, a 1,000-year-old stone basin, a giant foot that resembles an archaeological relic and a series of television screens that emit a barrage of psychedelic images.
This cosmic trip has been fuelled by the nineties rave scene, which played an influential role in Phillipson’s formative years. Time and the world itself can feel suspended when in the thrall of feverish beats, and ‘The Age of Love’ attempts to simulate this – and the collective transcendence felt through other highs – by channeling the energy of rave-era culture. The exhibition even has a hidden nook, the kind every good rave should have, where philosophical musings reimagine the world, which in this instance gives rise to ‘WOW’ (2018): possibly the greatest ever - possibly only - love anthem to grass.
Phillipson also throws a good measure of animal love into this heady mix, and none are more receiving of this affection than the colony of Kittiwakes that nest on BALTIC’s exterior. Their distinctive squawks are mixed into the electronic trance music, while wall-mounted television screens show ‘live’ feeds of the birds and a downloadable app reveals their ‘augmented reality excrement’. Venture onto the basalt and a giant black cat stands sentinel over more television screens; here, hypnotic colours undulate and throb with increasing intensity as a menagerie of animals, from hermaphrodite snails to ants and hedgehogs, frolic and copulate with equal vigour.
Yet despite all the love, Phillipson’s signature angst has still managed to seep in and pollute the roisterous purity of this world. It can be seen in the fleeting images of genetically modified mice, the surveillance camera nestled in overhanging branches, the defunct farming equipment and the synthetic smells of river banks and manure that hint towards an infertile land. Perhaps this alternate world is just as ambivalent as our own, but ‘The Age of Love’ can still prosper: if you embrace it.