Carlos/Ishikawa, Unit 4, 88 Mile End Road, London E1 4UN

Steve Bishop: Standard Ballad

Carlos/Ishikawa, London

22 January - 14 March 2015

Review by David Price

Steve Bishop’s exhibition ‘Standard Ballad’ comprises a number of interior and exterior aspects, and a number of rooms within rooms. The exhibition space at Carlos/Ishikawa is a large room, which in its present configuration forms an ‘installation’, for want of a better term; an environment whose territory is covered in a beige carpet. This beige is not used as a colour in any pictorial sense, and is instead a kind of baseline linking numerous worlds of interiors; what Bishop calls ‘this show’s version of monochrome’.

The carpet is the ground for a counterpoint between the notions of the interior and exterior that play out upon it. The word ‘carpet’ is related to the old word for a bed-spread, counterpane, which in turn relates to Old French (contrepointe) and Latin terms describing the pulling and plucking of threads. The linguistic echoes of both music and bedding are intimately woven into the objects and settings that fill this carpeted room.

Within the room there are three beds, each of which are made up with sheets, duvets and pillows of colours equally and softly generic as the carpet. Each of these beds has next to it a bed-side table constructed by the artist, although with the discretion of something un-crafted. The tables resemble constructions made by the artist in previous work, although in those earlier settings the everyday wooden panels felt as if they had passed through an artist’s studio. Oddly, in such a staged environment, they feel here as if they occupy a setting to which they are native. Upon these tables sit slightly different generations of the same model of a Bose domestic radio (each one of which displays the real time), and bedside lamps. These radios play, in alternation, songs from a playlist assembled by the artist.

All the songs are covers, of one form or another. For the most part the performances are by amateur musicians, taken from Youtube videos (many such videos are performed in bedrooms, in intimate spaces), as well as a karaoke version of a song by Prince, and a Jerry Garcia performance of a song by Warren Zevon, the sheet music of which forms one of the superimposed graphical layers of the publication that accompanies the exhibition. These recordings tend towards being what the artist describes as ‘charming renditions’; soft occupancies of found material, and covers that the performers wrap themselves in. The use of these renditions as found material in themselves produces both a remote kind of intimacy and a fragmented sense of authorship. One is reminded of Bryan Ferry’s description of cover versions as being readymades, although in the case of the multiple furnishing-planes of this exhibition (fabrics, objects, sounds and images) there is little sense of ‘appropriation’. These furnishings function more like ‘post-maker readymades’, whose authorial foundations have been untethered and released into a gentle purgatory.

The one moment at which the radios play together in concert is when a version of the song ‘Sunrise,’ originally written by Norah Jones then slowed down by the artist, is heard. This is also the moment at which a large video projection begins its occasional, timed screening. This video shows the closing ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The assembled crowd watch, rapt and seemingly with great collective sentiment, as a inflatable bear floats away into the night sky.

The video comes to an end, the wall on which it is projected becomes a wall again (the walls of the space are painted white, but the bedside lamps seem to render them a kind of magnolia colour that harmonises with the room’s furnishings), and the three radios resume their alternating sequence of bedside narrowcasts, lulling the viewer to, if not sleep, then rest in some way that falls outside of the remit of usual gallery experience. The viewer enters a kind of comfort zone, perhaps, a zone of literal comfort. They can rest if they wish. As they do, the song on the table next to them maybe finishes, and another song begins on one of the other bedside radios. The experience of this transfer of sound is somewhat akin to that of occupying a hospital bed, and watching the nurse pass between other patients in the ward. Usually, in an art gallery, we are the doctor, the consultant, passing between the patients (or the symptoms) of artistic production at our leisure.

As much as the atmosphere of this scenography (‘stage-writing’, to take the term literally) produces a blanked out kind of domesticity, a place of mildly suburban melancholy that is nonetheless genuinely comfortable, there are also pockets of more specific memory. On a high, out of reach shelf there is a collection of shoeboxes, which are filled with the artist’s ‘personal effects’. Their installation here is partly the
result of the clearing out of a teenage bedroom, meaning that the exhibition space is a resting place in their transit to either another domestic space or perhaps their destruction. A text-video (‘The Way She Looked Like a Stranger’), shown on a small domestic television to the side of one of the beds, describes this process. The contents of the boxes are invisible to the viewer, so we cannot guess at their value or significance. Unlike the installation of one and three (bed)rooms and the projected video (both of which share the title ‘Standard Ballad’), the shelf piece is called ‘Whatever Happened to Mixed Media?’ The title gently jokes about the indexical fetish that might prompt an artist to list every object that forms an installation, a habit that has replaced the designation ‘mixed media’ in many cases.

In all of this work, the unspecific sentiments prompted by specific things are both the artist’s and the viewer’s interface with the materials and furnishings. Something has been confided, but the texture of confidence is more tangible than any personal disclosure. We wander into the closing ceremony of an event that has taken place in the past, and rest within the covers of its passing.

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