Wysing Arts Centre, Fox Road, Bourn, Cambridge, CB23 2TX

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Relatively Absolute
Wysing Arts Centre
10 February - 24 March 2013
Review by Maggie Gray

A series of three residencies involving twelve artists, a writer, a musician and a collection of expert speakers fed into ‘Relatively Absolute’, so it was always going to be a complicated cocktail of an exhibition. Lumpy white sculptures by Nicolas Deshayes spread out beside tightly controlled photographs by Stuart Whipps; Elizabeth Price’s video work throws thermal images of the sun into one corner, while Edwin Burdis’ table ‘made out of a painting of a fig’ stands solidly in another. Little wonder that the show’s curator decided not to deny but to embrace the confusion, sprinkling still more objects into the mix.

Each artist, in addition to showing a work of their own, was asked to select an item of source material that inspired them. These items, which range from ancient hand tools to the complete works of Gilbert Sorrentino, to a simple glass of wine, are exhibited with all the same gallery trappings as the art itself, so that they almost pass as Duchampian artworks in their own right. An ordinary, utilitarian piece of white plastic netting, shaped into a rounded sculptural volume, looks surprisingly beautiful in this new light, casting shadows that seem more solid than itself onto a low plinth. But the exhibition list tugs back towards the status quo with a deadpan caption; ‘Plastic netting, plastic, 2012’.

Source materials traditionally function as anchors, or at least buoys, tying wayward artworks to their contextual bedrock. But in ‘Relatively Absolute’ all the ropes are cut. No indication is given as to which item informed which piece; so the impetus is on the visitor to cast around and make speculative connections of their own. Philomene Pirecki’s gauzy photographic interior seems to stake a vague claim to the netting; the artist’s carefully layered imagery turns an ordinary room into a shifting, equivocal space, its light sieved and scattered through glass and net curtains.

Nearby, Stuart Whipps’ photographs of Mexican casting moulds draw attention to their subjects’ incongruous physicality: they are secondary structures, valued only for their ability to enclose and shape a space. The casting process turns everything back on itself; space becomes solid, and the wood and nails that Whipps has recorded are dismantled, evaporating around their negative. Whipps prints his own images in negative too: they become photographic counterparts, reminding the viewer that his chosen artistic medium performs a similar trick; casting light to dark and back again.

Perhaps the netting relates to these pictures instead, representing an elegant way of catching air and conjuring volumes out of nothing. Or maybe the next item inspired Whipps (an artificial pear, split lengthways to reveal a fluffy polystyrene filling inside the meticulously-painted crust). It is, after all, a moulded product, padded out into the shape of the original fruit. But it turns out the pear is the unlikely protagonist of the writer in residence Patrick Coyle’s publication - a determinedly convoluted spillage of images, ideas and anecdotes, recounting his experiences over the course of the Wysing programme as well as the complications of writing them down.

Coyle has a tendency to set off with the reader down a particular path of enquiry, introducing a source of inspiration (a book, a theory, a conversation) before stopping short, leaving the viewer to ‘look it up,’ and leaping sideways towards something else. In this way, the publication successfully echoes the character of the exhibition: or perhaps the echo is the other way round; throughout the entire project, cause and effect are deliberately muddled. The title of ‘Relatively Absolute’ refers to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s argument that one can reach the heights of absolute knowledge only through intuition, whereas step-by-step reasoning offers a poorer, relative view. The implication is that neat categorical statements (‘x influenced y’) risk carving out a single channel of influence where there is actually a whole delta of ebb-and-flow ideas.

Wysing goes to great lengths to avoid this entrenchment of meaning; perhaps a little too far. The exhibition, with its minimal signposting and choreographed confusion, is an invitation to let your mind wander through different possible interpretations, picking them up and dropping them at will. But to pursue a tangent any further often requires the viewer to take their interest outside: ‘look it up’. Admittedly, that is precisely what the residency programme’s varied series of events, talks and performances allowed, but the casual visitor arrives as a stranger to all that. A few lines of introduction to the premise of each piece might open the doors to new discussions, bringing everyone more immediately into the mix.

This question of how to display contemporary art, and all its knotty concepts, is a persistent and difficult one: too much explanatory information can be bewildering or overly-didactic; too little can alienate. ‘Relatively Absolute’s ambivalent use of source material is a genuinely innovative response. It complicates the display, drawing attention to the raft of research, experience and discussion that lies under any work of art, while also acknowledging itself as just the tip of the iceberg.

At the back of the room, a triptych of texts and symbols by Nilsson Pflugelder (date ‘n/a’) describes the site of an enigmatic ruin, a mysterious place ‘simultaneously closed for engagement and, as a result, open for speculation and interpretation. A paradox. A myth.’ Snatches of its atmospheric imagery filter out across the display, and resonate; a written reminder that the conversation between these exhibits is never really over.

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