Wysing Arts Centre, Fox Rd, Cambridge CB23 2TX

more of an avalanche

Wysing Arts Centre

11th February - 8 April 2018

Review by Helena Haimes

In her forthcoming book ‘Curatorial Activism: Towards An Ethics of Curating’, Maura Reilly describes the steadily growing number of curators who are prioritising the artistic voices of the historically marginalised, silenced or simply completely ignored. The founding curator at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art says that the dominance of the white Western male perspective “... may – and does – prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones.” According to this logic then, curators who reject this traditional, privileged viewpoint in favour of publicising the creativity of Other artists are not only behaving ethically, they’re making far more interesting exhibitions as a result.

‘More of An Avalanche’, the sprawling group show currently at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire, is a prime demonstration of Reilly’s assertion writ large. It takes the most ubiquitously right wing of pejorative terms – “snowflake” – as its conceptual springboard: the works here reclaim this insult from the political right by embracing and unabashedly exploring it. Empathy for your fellow humans and a willingness to speak up against pernicious injustice are embraced as strengths to celebrate, rather than mocked as signs of hypersensitivity and an inability to cope with ‘real life’.

There’s an extraordinary spread of artworks here spread over the centre’s two spaces. They range from more traditionally recognisable pieces by Isaac Julien or Jesse Darling, for example, to far more ephemeral works – including a collection of writing collated into a distributed zine and a set of eclectic mixes by musical activists S1 Portland/Women’s Beat League – produced during Wysing’s residencies, workshop, events and informal discussions over the course of the previous year.

Isaac Julien’s ‘That Rush’ (1995) is a horribly prescient visual essay that frenetically examines the force behind American ‘shock jock’ Rush Limbaugh – an early disparager of liberal sensibilities, barely disguised white supremacist and spearheader of the 90s conservative movement in the US. Watching original footage of Limbaugh, interspersed with race scholar Patricia Williams calmly analysing his calculated efforts at whipping up white American antagonisms, we’re starkly reminded that the alt-right as we know them now certainly hasn’t sprung from nowhere.

Elsewhere in the main space, a new installation by Raju Rage, ‘Under/Valued Energetic Economy’, is a sprawlingly fascinating expression of the plethora of issues facing the contemporary left, drawing incisive connections between them. Its central focus is a sort of mind map printed on a tablecloth, plotting links between such seemingly distinct arenas as white supremacist patriarchy, art space, squatting and inclusion/exclusion. It’s exceptionally effective as both an artwork and a pedagogical tool, posing far more questions than it seeks to answer and, as with all the works here, assuming a pleasing level of intellectual engagement in its viewers.

Concepts of toxic masculinity, so ardently cherished by so many of the right wing Twitterati, are prodded at by Harold Offeh’s photographic restagings of Teddy Prendergast album covers from the 70s and Ilker Cinarel’s portraits of respondents to his advert asking for a father to adopt. Liv Wynter, who recently caused a media stir by pointedly quitting her residency at Tate in protest at what she saw as the retrograde attitudes of its director, presented a dumbfoundingly sharp monologue-performance on opening night. Against a backdrop of screens showing scenes of real house fires, she takes on the role of a woman whose house repeatedly burns down, narrating her increasing panic as she is increasingly doubted by mistrusting neighbours. Recent events at Grenfell and #metoo are clearly and eloquently echoed.

Of the film pieces, Juliet Jacques’ ‘You Will Be Free’ (2017) and Carolyn Lazard’s ‘Get Well Soon’ (2017) are also particularly worth highlighting, respectively offering remarkable, meditative meditations on the legacy of the AIDS crisis, death, illness and the corporeal and one woman’s surreally frustrating efforts to navigate the US’s medical industrial complex.

In an era when those of us working in the arts who sit on the left of the political spectrum (which is, let’s face it, the vast majority), can often wonder whether exhibitions and artworks have any power beyond lip service, shows like this offer a sense of hope and strength. As the gallery blurb describes, snowflakes might be delicate and weak individually, but together they create “... something hard, strong and with their own energy.”

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