Unease seems to be the mood of the moment. We are in a state of political flux, paranoia and polarised views. If it feels familiar to the human race it’s because we’ve lived this before. AS the blurb accompanying the latest exhibition at Maureen Paley tells us, each generation experiences its own rise of unease.
The exhibition title “…HOUNDED BY EXTERNAL EVENTS…” is taken from a section in ‘World Within World’ the autobiography of poet and critic Stephen Spender. Spender was referring to the anxiety surrounding the early 1930s: “From 1931 onwards, in common with many other people, I felt hounded by external events. There was ever-increasing unemployment in America, Great Britain and on the Continent. The old world seemed incapable of solving its problems, and out of the disorder Fascist regimes were rising.” This exhibition, curated by Michael Bracewell, looks at the world of modernism and the nineteenth century through the last shimmer of postmodernism. Through this prism, Bracewell has drawn parallels between the mood of the 1930s and today.
To describe it as a thought-provoking show seems too dismissive. It provides the viewer with a moment of quiet reflection which keeps gnawing away at the back of your brain long after you’ve left the gallery. It is both a comforting and disconcerting show. “…HOUNDED BY EXTERNAL EVENTS…” is a reminder that the world is going through change and it won’t be harmonious, but it also puts these anxieties into visual form which makes for an extremely cathartic experience to witness.
The exhibition displays a number of different media, from paintings, a cabinet full of meteorite fragments and quotes on the wall. Some of the most powerful works were a series of drawings by Lucy McKenzie. These are portraits of Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, also known as the Cambridge Spies. They passed information to the Soviet Union from the heart of the British establishment. It’s a reminder that information, and who holds and gathers it, is always found at the root of widespread paranoia. Who would be the contemporary equivalents of Philby and co? Edward Snowden? Not so much a traitor, no secret passing of information but a leak to raise awareness of information gathering. A juxtaposition of the two would surely demonstrate how the information game has changed.
Standing in the centre of this show is an unassuming object by Gareth Jones. ‘David Bowie Memorial Carport’, made in 1994, now takes on a new sad meaning. Bowie stands there, a cut out from a magazine or photo only a few centimetres tall but he still exudes larger than life Bowieness. There he stands, still statuesque, still beautiful. He is the prism of postmodernism through which we reflect on the 1930s here. Perhaps now, with the death of Bowie, academics might finally agree that postmodernism has ended. In this period of unease and angst, it’s time to not only look to the past as “…HOUNDED BY EXTERNAL EVENTS…” does most successfully, but it’s also time to bring something new to the table.