‘Late Barbarians’ brings together five artists who explore forms of latent memory and the habitual. Each artist negotiates history with a personal and poetic taxonomy, as the work moves between the iconoclastic and the intimate. The exhibition is the second in a year-long programme of events and exhibitions that anchors its curatorial concerns around Norbert Elias’s ‘The Civilizing Process’. Originally published in 1939, the book explores the gestures of the everyday; and for Elias, the habitual is tied to particular social and ideological imperatives.
Chris Marker is represented by his late video ‘Pictures of an Exhibition’ (2008). Presenting a virtual museum in Second Life, Marker locks us into a maze-like structure. An elegiac soundtrack plays overhead as we are presented with heavily modified images of canonised art history. The first person narrative, redolent of computer game imagery, enhances the ghost-like spectatorship. Chronology becomes problematised - looped rather than linear, and history remains pliable.
The coded and disembodied gaze is in marked contrast to Lili Dujourie’s video works. Made in the mid 1970s, the artist enacts slight, repetitious gestures. Divorced from an everyday context, the movements form a kind of psychic release from the regulated and social body. I’m reminded of Andrew Hewitt’s thesis, that the ‘body that we work with is the same body we dance with, and every part of our daily routine is choreographed to some extent.’ Both Marker and Dujourie suggest that corporeal and cultural knowledge is deeply embedded. Each artist is attempting to impose their own rhythm, to untie the social knot, and configure new relations to history.
Juan Downey’s essayistic film ‘The Looking Glass’ (1981) was originally commissioned for TV and explores the iconography of the mirror within art history. The video shifts between a straight documentary and something far more enigmatic. In the work, various art historians analyse interiors and images, from the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, to an in-depth exploration of Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ (1618). The film utilises an array of early computer effects, and cleverly embeds its conceptual concerns within an experimental formalism. It is an immersive and compelling work.
In Matts Leiderstam’s ‘After Image’ (2010’12) the artist photographs open pages from art historical monographs, taken from his own library. The artist brings our attention to particular details via a magnifying glass. The amplification of previously overlooked sexual semaphore represents a queer re-reading of the images. This is a contemporary and embodied gaze, and like Dujourie, is enacting its own psychic dance.
Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s work ‘His Head’ (2013’) compromises a clay sculpture of a highly stylised human head alongside a symposium analysing the ‘male human head as a symbol of patriarchy and power.’ Laid down on the floor, the sculpture is debased, far from the reified treatment of countless marbled heads of states atop plinths. ‘Late Barbarians’ suggests that to claim history the artist must first claim their own body, divorcing gesture from habit, and separating the unconscious and critical.