‘Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder’ was curated by Jefferson Hack, founder of Dazed Media, whose offices reside above ground at 180 The Strand. ‘Transformer’ is a group exhibition in search of some kind of “psychic renaissance of wonder” that will transform society. It features the work of Doug Aitken, Sophia Al-Maria & Victoria Sin, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Donna Huanca, Juliana Huxtable, Evan Ifekoya, Dozie Kanu, Quentin Lacombe, Lawrence Lek, Jenn Nkiru, Chen Wei and Harley Weir & George Rouy.
The artists are identified as “world-makers”, an attribute heightened by the subterranean location of the show. The space below 180 The Strand feels labyrinthine and immersive – shuffling through the exhibition, there is no real sense of where anything is in relation to anything else. The works occur sequentially, with no overlap between worlds and no deviation from this path. A varied approach to texture, sound, and scent add to the feeling of discrete worlds, as does the lighting, with rooms ranging from almost totally dark or U.V. for Chen’s photographs to the stark, blindingly white light as in Huanca’s installation, or the blue neon strip lighting that extends from the virtual reality of the screen into the space itself in Lek’s work. The lighting shifts establish a system of divergent but simultaneous realities, but to call the spaces in between these artist worlds, as the exhibition text does, “psychic time-outs” rather than concrete corridors with all the psychic benefit of an underground car park feels forced.
The accompanying text, in fact, often overreaches. It name checks a dizzying array of things, which undermines any impression of curatorial intent. The text cites London’s history, American beat poetry, identity politics, both architecture and archaeology, speculative realism, shamanism, Plato’s cave, ritual, dance and meditation, ley lines, data mining, a nearby ancient holy well at St Clement Danes, hallucinogens, and also the first mobile phone call. To touch on all these things and more in such a brief text feels akin to saying nothing, and left me wondering more about the intention of this exhibition than the artworks it contains.
The subtitle, ‘A Rebirth of Wonder’, is drawn from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem ‘I Am Waiting’ (1958) in which the poet laments the state of American society. He awaits a rebirth of wonder, a moment of transformation, but it is endlessly deferred. I imagine Ferlinghetti would probably still be waiting for this transformation today, some 60 years later. Waiting seems at once apt and against the exhibition. The artists draw on the past to create new environments, new worlds, but are the futures they imagine, like Ferlinghetti’s, endlessly deferred? I would argue that instead of a future, ‘Transformer’ presents an antidote to the present, but without necessarily transforming it.
Aitken’s video work introduces the person who made the first mobile phone call in 1973, and then cuts to kaleidoscopic images of freeways and landscapes. The video is played on four huge screens with mirrors making up the remaining walls to reflect the images seemingly infinitely. It is disorienting at first, the voice over speaks of the after effects of technological innovation, of man becoming one with machine, becoming one with everyone else, “are we going to become God?” it asks. Ifekoya on the other hand creates a clinical, retro-futuristic retreat. The white walls mimic the texture of soundproofing pyramids, and the lighting changes colour relentlessly. In the centre is a Merkaba / bed on which to rest and listen to a meditative sound work. Words such as ‘fortifying’ are repeated as mantras. “Be your own god,” the voice quips, perhaps in response to Aitken.
There is a palpable disconnect between the show and the text, most notably the title seems to disavow the exhibitions strengths. Attempting to think these works as transformational, or locating them in the future, risks losing the vibrant connection that these works have to our collective and disparate pasts. I mean, surely the future cannot be a self-care strategy or a dizzying and existential response to 36-year-old technology?