“It’s no island in the sun.” The first part of g39’s latest exhibition, ‘Island I: Insula’, begins chilly with a minimal display of artefacts relating to Bouvetøya, the most remote island in the world. Via headphones, Freddy Dewe Mathews chronicles a turbulent history – including a whaling station that never happened – and observes the social hierarchies of the sub-Antarctic isle’s current inhabitants (penguins, skuas and elephant seals). With the thundering ocean a constant backdrop and a fluorescent orange survival suit in peripheral vision, it’s a window into an incredibly hostile environment – for humans that is. An empty picture frame, likening the island to a tabula rasa, a blank projection screen for our ambitions and fantasies, reinforces this humanist bias.
In the second part of the programme, ‘Island II: WE’, the gallery is invaded by groaning new age psychobabble, a ceaseless soundtrack created by Grumbling Fur for Mark Titchner’s film ‘Rose’. The single channel projection flickers like the wings of a thousand crucified butterflies, with repeated words obliterated by the physicality of the film. “You are polite / and you are calm / and you are gracious / and you are sensitive / and you are helpful / and you are strong / and you are sincere.” The modern mantra is hypnotic and tortuous, and not surprisingly, drawn partly from CIA interrogation scripts.
Continuing in a spiritual thread, Ryan McClelland’s geodesic dome is clad in tie-dyed fabric, all sunbursts and ocean swells and cloudscapes; and decked with cushions patch-worked from blue jeans. It feels like a conventional, recurring nostalgia: society looking for its self-administered solution in yoga, meditation and positive energy. Perhaps the space is saved by its potential – local community groups have been using it for singing and workshops – but I think that the opposite: its emptiness; its failure, proves a more potent symbol.
New symbolisms are probed in Suzanne Treister’s extensive series of tarot cards. Displayed in a glass case, but itching to be handled, they chart the rise of a technologically networked age. Each hand-drawn card is intricately detailed, written and illustrated, with subjects ranging from Summer of Love, LSD, Ethics and Drones to Grass Roots Internet Communities, Ada Lovelace, HP Lovecraft and William Blake. One of the most telling reads simply: WW1 WW2 WWW. Collectively, they recall hopes of revolution, announce failed techno-utopias and warn of uncertain futures.
Alasdair Duncan’s sign for the future is a huge flag, on which two red circles are connected by a slashing white bar against a sea of yellow. It’s decidedly ambiguous but has the familiar stench of corporate branding. Elsewhere Paul Chaney and Kenna Hernly consider future food farming: using a basic computer programme, participants are invited to hypothetically occupy agricultural land and calculate the crops and livestock that would provide adequate subsistence. It’s a tricky task that effectively calls attention to an alienation from the precarious processes of food production that sustains us.
Other works deal with the present: Tim Etchells’ irreverent invented headlines include “The nation’s highest earners urinate from a great height into the mouths of its poorest families.” It’s funny, sad, sardonic; but the words feel impotent here, failing to arouse rage or action, merely assent. Ellie Harrison’s contribution is similarly, though uncharacteristically innocuous: a photograph of a performance which takes height as a presentation of inequality. The overtly diverse group of participants (pregnant, black, asian, queer, older and wheelchair user) and simple metaphor feels somewhat crass, but there’s a serious note lurking around the discourse of social justice in an unequal world. In Huw Greenwood’s paintings a women gazes miserably from under a bright orange poncho. Other faces peer from under hair and out of beard. No man is an island.
From the island where she lives and works, Helen Sharp posts meandering letters to the gallery. Her writing veers from her intended subjects (‘environment vs economy or the ongoing class-war’) to matters of ‘smaller punctuations on the island’ like a complemented item of clothing. The conversation shifts between the macro and the micro, the collective and the personal, a desire to think big destabilised by local concerns. g39’s reverberant warehouse gallery is itself an unstable configuration of wood panels, stalls and walls; with a modular system that is forever reshaping and reforming, demarking and remarking its borders. In its current arrangement, ‘Island’ is ambitious, inviting visitors to retreat to an archipelago of solipsism and unruly escapism. But claustrophobia soon sets in. It feels like everything has come from outside: it has already occurred, or is displaced, happening elsewhere. It’s time to leave, set foot outside, start work, find new strategies – for resistance not acquiescence.