The Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL

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The World Turned Upside Down: Buster Keaton, Sculpture and the Absurd
The Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre
4 October - 14 December 2013
Review by Olivia Threlkeld

Hidden in the far upper corner of the Warwick Arts Centre, behind a steel door, lies that which is, initially at least, absurd. On first impression every art work (spanning film, installations and sculpture) seems bizarre, occasionally trivial and perhaps even slapstick by nature. The exhibition presents the efforts of 26 international artists, all of whom produce art that belongs to the same lineage (in some shape or form) as that of Buster Keaton.

Alexandre da Cunha’s imposing sculpture ‘Landmark’ fuses together two parasols. This has no practical function: instead the parasols are de-contextualised, which forces the spectator to think of how they might be appreciated as an independent physical entity. ‘Landmark’ is functionally nonsensical, but it is artistically resourceful and liberated - a work that is mindful of recycling and repurposing.

Buster Keaton, the celebrated American comic and filmmaker, acts as the pivotal artist to which all other works in the exhibition relate in some manner. Projected on the walls are three of his short films in his trademark style. His slapstick comedy epitomises the 1920s. His short film ‘One Week’ is a tale of two newly-weds, Keaton and Sybil Seely, who build a haphazard and unconventional marital home for themselves only for it to be subject to a bout of bad luck. The 19-minute film - although initially unconventional and humorous, has a sincere undercurrent, just as da Cunha’s does. In both pieces one can imagine the artist at work, trying to encourage the value of looking at everyday objects differently - to emphasise the value of the absurd and unconventional.

Keaton’s films are silent, as are the installations and majority of work on display. Miranda Pennell’s offering, by contrast, is loud and domineering. Her film, ‘Fisticuffs’, demands the attention of anyone entering the exhibition, not only because of its audible presence but also, in part, because of its disconcerting violence. The scene is a London Working Men’s Club, where a Western bar-brawl breaks out. Slowly it becomes apparent the brawl is choreographed seamlessly to country music, as the scene segues to line dancers in the Club. Like so much of the work in this exhibition Pennell’s film is not as it initially seems.

Further into the exhibition, the visitor is forced through a narrow walkway to experience Emma Hart’s multisensory HD video installation, ‘LOST’, in which Hart uses a camera to explore the depths of a sofa. The narrative is simple and the scene supposedly familiar, but the HD recording is combined with imposing sound to create an otherworldly effect. Hart experiments with film and sound in a revolutionary way, perhaps a nod to Keaton’s transgressive work some 80 years on.

Framed artwork is a rare sight in this exhibition, but one is mounted on the wall near the end, although perhaps this might be called documentation. Taiwanese artist, Tehching Hsieh, provides evidence of his ‘One Year Performance’ in which he spent one year of his life ‘clocking in’ to his art. The artist documents himself arriving at his studio in a worker’s uniform at a precise hour every day. The documentation includes a signed contract, clocking-in cards and photographs of the artist - demonstrating rigorous self discipline and scrutinising the ways in which people are expected to work. There is a parallel that can be drawn between Hsieh and Keaton’s works: both expose the artist in their physical form. Their art doesn’t ‘suggest’ their feelings through brushstrokes or symbolism but instead they make themselves vulnerable to the audience by featuring themselves their own work.

Buster Keaton loosely links this wide-ranging display of works, which question the role of sound, performance or even the role that the artist assumes for the sake of their art. But while they may belong to the same extended family, it’s their individual absurdity that is the most refreshing to behold.

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