Speaking in Tongues: Sonia Boyce, Pavel Büchler, Susan Hiller
Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow
8 February - 23 March 2014
Review by Cicely Farrer
Two exhibitions are opening this month focusing on artists practicing in 1980s Britain; ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s’ at Tate Liverpool and this exhibition ‘Speaking in Tongues’ with Sonia Boyce, Pavel Büchler and Susan Hiller. This conscious looking back is provoking a review of the present. The current political situation of the country is such that the public and government appear increasingly divided. This exhibition marks a return to a point in time where artists and artist collectives were openly critical of predominant ideologies and social contexts, unlike the more prosperous, sensationalist 1990s. The works in this exhibition unearth unconscious tendencies within society, for both an active and reflective audiences.
‘Speaking in Tongues’ draws specifically on the archive of the Third Eye Centre, the organisation which is now the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. Sonia Boyce, Pavel Büchler and Susan Hiller each exhibited at the Third Eye and played an important role in shaping art practice in 1980s Britain, not least because they dealt with a critique of our place within ideological constructs through a critique of personal and collective memory.
In the first gallery, ‘Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein’ (2011), a curved Art Deco writing desk is placed on a circular plinth in the centre of a grey room. In the space for the writer’s legs, three columns of books are crammed in. Titles ranging from automatic writing readers, psychoanalytical guides to the occult and mind mapping anthologies point to both the artist’s and her subject’s well-versed strands of research. Gertrude Stein is widely known for her novels and poetry which touch upon her interest in psychology and the experiential, but not for her early suppressed studies into the area of the occult and mysticism.
Hanging on the surrounding walls are two series of works; the photographic prints of scrunched-up pages from Stein’s book of the same title, ‘Normal Motor Automatism’ (2014) and the seven glowing frames of ‘From India to the Planet Mars 1’ (1997 - 2004), drawn from the notes of medium Hélène Smith at the end of the 19th century. Both text-based works contemplate the process of automatic writing as a conversely subconscious or supernatural act, however where Stein’s book recounts scientific experiments of the phenomena, Smith’s scrawling of familiar and unknown word formations become a reflection of the unconscious conceptions and tendencies around language and meaning.
The continuous tapping of a typewriter is heard from the next room where Büchler’s ‘I am going to use this projector’ (2013) is installed. Composed of a tape recording of the mechanical process, alongside the transcription of a conversation between Mel Gooding and Terry Atkinson, this work sets up an undercurrent rhythmic experience of the other works by Büchler and Hiller in the room.
The relationship between Büchler’s ‘I am going to use this projector’ with his two ‘Idle Thoughts’ series’ creates a sense of a stream of consciousness; an outpouring of thoughts that has been reconsidered and edited in a systematic way. ‘Idle Thoughts’ consists of pages of the artist’s diary, his insignificant handwritten ponderings that have been crossed out, photographed and crossed out again so many times that the paper is creased with blocks of biro ink. This explicit editing of the artist’s unknown thoughts recalls Stein’s desire to suppress her studies into the supernatural, suggesting an inclination to conform and edit memories accordingly.
The last two galleries are dedicated to works from Sonia Boyce’s ‘Devotional Series’, a project initiated by the artist in 1999 to build a collective map of black British women musicians. ‘The Devotional Collection’ (1999 - present), a compilation of popular music vinyl and magazines collated by the artist, is on display, accompanied by a turntable to play them on. The familiar music playing marks a sonic shift in the experience of the previous two artists’ works. Wallpaper lining the space, filled with the names of iconic black British women points to the sheer scale of this unique archival work. The intricacy of the archive format mimics an obsessive idolisation of these performers, commenting on the way in which young fans devote themselves to these pop idols, and celebrating this space as being a valid site of memory. The series prompts questions of who is constructing shared memory, in an expansion of critiques seen in Büchler’s and Hiller’s works, whereby it does not refer just to the unconscious on a personal level but also in the collective unconscious.
The final moments of this exhibition are Sonia Boyce’s 2010 film ‘Oh Adelaide’ for which the artist has sampled footage of a performance by the singer Adelaide Hall performing in the 1920s/30. The figure of Adelaide is barely visible as blinding lights digitally imposed on the film perform an erasure and a soundtrack by Ain Bailey deconstructs the original audio so her voice is barely heard. It is a poetic but eerie work which in the context of ‘Speaking in Tongues’ critiques the underlying habits of both collective and personal memory that have been addressed throughout the exhibition.