‘State of Denmark’, currently on display at Modern Art Oxford, is a historical survey of works by acclaimed British performance artist Stuart Brisley (b. 1933). The works show the explorative depths of Brisley’s expansive artist practice - painting, sculpture and video included - revelling in a cacophony of political, cultural and territorial commentary. An integral form within this survey, ‘Before the Mast’ (2013 – 14) and ‘State of Denmark’ (2014), trace Brisely’s infatuation with the body as an instrument in which to address the autonomy of the individual and fundamental notions of power, authority and freedom.
The main gallery appears derelict and sinister, the walls are ripped and cracked where the previous exhibition, Barbara Kruger has been forcibly removed and then left to wither, before being reclaimed by Brisley as a vehicle for progressive thought. This is most apparent in ‘Before the Mast’ (2013 – 14) where a series of documentary photographs captures a ten-day performance by Brisley that explored the introduction of the decimal calendar after the French Revolution. This in itself was a process by which to eradicate any religious or royalist influence on day-to-day life - a subject with which Brisley is well known for being fascinated with. The photos are black and white and depict Brisely ominously venturing through a rubble strewn interior, echoing the gallery’s own state of decline.
Hanging over the main exhibition space, ‘State of Denmark’ (2014), is an iron crown that becomes a pinnacle of retained desperation. Below it is a wooden structure. The structure itself reflects Brisley’s historical research and is symbolically constructed. One side is made up of removable panels denoted as republican, whilst the other side, the interior of the structure, is the monarchy. In the interior a portrait of an infant princess is surrounded by the claustrophobic restraints of her existence. Brisley’s own forays in ‘Before the Mast’ could appear to offer him up as an anti-hero, albeit a catalyst-come-antidote to the fledging grips of institutional monotony. This is further expressed by Brisley’s invitation for the audience to contribute and express their opinions on the makeshift walls of the structure. Corroborating this, the nearby sculpture ‘Hille Fellowship’ (1970 – 2014), a perfect circle of stacked chairs also seems to be indicative of the manner in which history is doomed to repeat itself without careful and considered debate and awareness.
In stark contrast to the festering occurrences of the main gallery, the Piper Gallery presents a body of painting work that superficially garners quite different reactions. The act of painting is
explored and experimented with yet the conceptual depths to which Brisley delves with this particular body of work sees a strong affinity to those in the main gallery. Part of a series of three paintings, ‘Next Door (The Missing Subject)’ (2010) depicts, in a pseudo-photorealistic style, a derelict business in the days that followed an inconclusive election, forming a temporal relationship to the interior seen previously in ‘Before the Mast’ and the main gallery’s abandoned traces of Barbara Kruger. Opposite, ‘Royal Ordure’ (1996) is comprised of various materials that amalgamate on the canvas surface in a decrepit and sludgy texture, its colour reminiscent of decomposition and thus summoning the exhibition’s origin from Hamlet - as Marcellus exclaims to Horatio: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. This is Brisley’s response to the institutions he is challenging and to their dying breaths as they become entwined in irrelevancy.