The sensation of viewing a multichannel audio-visual artwork in a physical space can never be recreated by anything like a digital exhibition on a computer screen. These were the thoughts in the forefront of my mind after seeing ‘LIQUID i’, the first instalment of Rebecca Lennon’s new work of performance, audio-visual installation and experimental text at Primary in Nottingham. The day after my visit, the area entered a new version of lockdown and, like other cultural venues in the town, Primary had to temporarily close for at least a month. Knowing that engaging with art in a gallery won’t be possible in the next few weeks or even months, the opportunity to see the exhibition in person felt like a rarity, the relation between the artwork and its surroundings was perceived stronger than before.
Installed in the generous space of the assembly hall of a former school building, the six-channel sound and three-channel video work lures the viewer into a cacophonic whirl of multiple layers and intertwining currents. The artwork induces a vertiginous split-attention effect—a poetic response to the present condition, which is often characterised by contemporary philosophers as liquid, ever changing and precarious in its instability. Liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape; they neither fix space nor bind time. Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman suggested that the reason why ‘fluidity’ or ‘liquidity’ serve as fitting metaphors when we attempt to grasp the nature of the present is their extraordinary mobility and association with lightness and ephemerality. The characteristics of fluid matter correspond with the accelerating transition of our lives to the weightless cyberspace and its inconstancy. Our time becomes a shapeless mass, tending to a constant and relentless change, and yet what appears disorientating at first turns into a somewhat hypnotising rhythm after a while, as ‘LIQUID i’ suggests.
In Lennon’s video work, water, sap and blood flow in and out of organisms in parasitic and obscure relations, and reveal ruthless vampiric greed and excessive predatory self-assertion—the widespread sentiments of late capitalism. Furry mould growing on a black, oil-like liquid evokes the uncanny feeling of inertia that comes when witnessing the oil industry ticking over steadily against all odds, regardless of the deadly warnings of climate change or even if the market price of oil drops below zero. The installation’s sound element, resembling Inuit vocal games, is a cacophony of rhythmic humming and guttural sounds interwoven with a poetic narration, repetitions, delays, loops and meaningful pauses. Non-linguistic voice expression, yet another manifestation of fluidity in Lennon’s artistic language, invites the viewer to consider poetry as a strategy to avoid the possessive habit of assigning exact meaning and making it instantly available for consumption. In this sense, ‘LIQUID i’ is difficult, disobedient and full of resistance against the compromise of its cognitive load.
Since March 2020, many cultural workers and artists have had to dilute time and space and look for ways in which art can still speak when flattened on a rectangular screen. Time, a crucial element in presenting artworks within physical space, has suddenly become slippery, hard to catch. Our homes have been turned into workspaces, and it’s unclear when and for how long certain forms of art will be able to be experienced again. In the physical space—postponed, interrupted, delayed and rearranged—insecure temporalities have become the new normal. Cyberspace has become an asylum, where time can still be guaranteed, managed and controlled. The experience of ‘LIQUID i’ proves how irreplaceable and precious the physical encounter with a work of art remains and, regardless of the uncertainties, it is clear that artists and cultural workers cannot give it up in exchange of the convenience of online gatherings.