mac, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH

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Their Wonderlands (Winter 11/12) curated by They Are Here, review by Harry Blackett
‘Their Wonderlands’ is a group show themed around make-believe and folklore, but equally focused on the act of looking and our experience of the exhibition space. Visitors are invited to explore mac’s voluminous single-room gallery in darkness, by torchlight, in its transformed state as a two-tiered complex of cardboard screens and structures, designed by the octogenarian architect Yona Friedman. Boards are suspended from the ceiling and diagonal arrangements fill the floor, functioning as the exhibition display system, with works embedded within walls, or positioned in the recesses and rooms that are formed. Entering the gallery, torch switched on, my first impulse is to direct my light at the furthest board I can see, to get a sense of the space. Pleasingly, other lights move across the walls directed from unseen positions, and immediately the audience can be understood as active participants in an event. ‘Their Wonderlands’’ most interesting (and challenging) aspect is how this balance between ‘event’ and ‘exhibition’ is navigated.
Catherine Hyland’s film, ‘Inglenook’ (2010), and series of photographs (all 2011) depict remote, post-industrial landscapes in ambient ruin, moving away from typical fairytale scenarios. Under the lighting conditions set by They Are Here, Hyland’s work is transformed from how it might conventionally be read. The images resist being understood as single frames, as you scan the large-format prints with your torch, piecing together fragmented strips. In her Iceland diptych, which is dominated by deep black skies, the disorienting images become even more inexplicable or alien.
Whilst Hyland’s works play on darkness and the unseen or unknown to suggest new fantasy landscapes, Susanne Ludwig’s video, ‘The wind can always turn’ (2008) frames a south German pine forest, Caspar David Friedrich-style, drenched in golden sunlight with a backdrop of snowy mountaintops. A slow-moving hot-air balloon in the shape of a Romanesque castle floats through the fixed shot. The combination of these two representations of German romanticism - the ‘untouched’ forest, and the image of the 19th century revival of the 11th century castle - amplifies the artificiality of both. What might initially appear weirdly awe-inspiring is destabilised, emptied and re-presented as hyperreal.
Other works include Emma Hart’s ‘Dice’ (2009), a first-person video that documents a game of dice between the artist and the sea. Hart rolls the die and makes a score; the moving tide then tumbles into the stationary die and generates a new score. Hart’s idiomatic commentary and in-camera jumps in scale from when the die moves from her hand to the wet sand, illustrate an imaginative, altered perspective of the world. ‘Man Overboard’ (2011), by Helen Walker, picks up on similar themes, as two young boys climb over and explore a beached shipwreck. The children’s un-directed play activates their surroundings, transcending their overcast, grey-green locale. In the 8 second video-loop, ‘Somersault’ (2011), by Caleb Morrison and They Are Here, Caleb, a young gymnast, films himself on a trampoline, holding a camera that frames only his head and shoulders. His expression is purposefully plain, deceptively underplaying his physical experience, which suddenly erupts into a 360 degree spin. ‘Their Wonderlands’ is all about these moments, somewhere between the real and the imaginary, where there is the potential for surprise and rupture.
The recognition of the gallery as a potential site for such ruptures and the decision to set it in darkness, are the show’s most contentious points. It obviously alters the work in varying ways; Hyland’s photographs for instance, benefit from the experiential layering of darkness. It also slows the pace of the viewer and triggers interactions between the wandering audience. However, beyond this, is the collection of work too broad’ Hair and teeth are over-familiar, symbolic materials used in works by Corinne Felgate and Alice Anderson, do they punctuate cliché’ At its best Their Wonderlands’ experiential setting connects the work in unexpected ways, generating probing ideas about artists-as-curators, exhibition-making and the imaginary.

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