Hazel Brill’s new video installation ‘Woke Up in Spring’ presents a compendium of media and cultural references that build up a layered picaresque of the artist’s exploration of her environment. The construction of the work allows Brill to mix together elements, including stories of chance encounters and absurd life choices that are both touching and humorous. Saucepans and a kettle are inserted into a modelled landscape that could be the set from an absurdist drama on to which are projected a sequence of video vignettes. The sculptural forms are animated by the video as if each element becomes a performer who has their ‘turn’ during the sequence’s run. It’s a thoroughly entrancing effect. The artist’s animated flower people and tulip bulbs dance around in Busby Berkeley style choreography, while Brill’s theatrical set is also reminiscent of a Punch and Judy end-of-the-pier puppet show.
Brill’s voiceover tells of two lovers, whose encounters take place near roundabouts and other patches of greenery they can find in their suburban environment. There is a melancholic undercurrent in Brill’s work that comes from the experience of London as an ever more intensely developed residential landscape that suppresses nature and, by extension, her lovers’ natural urges. We are also introduced to ‘Heston Blumen-Tall’ a circus performer who due to his passing similarity to the celebrity chef has branched out into being a look-a-like. The first-person narration seems to slip so at times it is this fake ‘Heston’ and Brill who are the lovers described. This creates a subtle blurring – are the couple real lovers or is this a business relationship? Brill humorously captures in her ersatz ‘Heston’ a number of aspects of the contemporary English cultural identity. The figure of the celebrity chef appeals to preoccupations with class. An exaltation of traditional recipes and locally sourced native produce recall tropes of English nationalism identified by George Orwell while ‘Blumen-Tall’, the multi-tasking impersonator working in the gig economy, epitomises the harsher boom and bust reality of Brexit Britain.
The fragments of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ that play capture a paradigm in the evocation of a quintessentially English romantic landscape. Bush inspired a cult following while her refusal to perform live until recently enhanced the enigma of her personality – by means of contrast we also briefly see Annie Lennox who projects a much more synthetic and knowing persona. Brill causes us to question the ultra-sincerity of Bush’s performance – there is a clip from one of the promo videos to remind us of the peculiarities of her original performance where she appeared to be embodying both the spirits of Cathy and Emily Brontë, while the soundtrack is not Bush’s original but a combination of an instrumental muzak version and a karaoke rendition. These slippages between original, artfully crafted simulation and fan tribute are a reoccurring subject of Brill’s. In previous work, ‘I Made a Show For You’ (2017), she depicted fans of the cult British TV series ‘The Prisoner’ reenacting scenes.
The musical earworm of ‘Wuthering Heights’ winds through ‘Woke Up in Spring’, matched by the catchy animation of Brill’s dancing flowers and tulip bulbs. The artist draws our attention to how these small moments can be thrillingly hypnotic in contrast to the quick fix of social media, infecting the consciousness to the point of inducing a feeling of madness. Waiting for the kettle to boil when it gets its turn in Brill’s piece becomes a moment of high drama and recalls that the absurd subject of the first webcam was a coffee pot. ‘Woke Up in Spring’ presents multiple instances of where an innocent fixation apparently crosses the line to insanity. Brill also references the madness of Tulip Mania or Tulip Fever, the 17th century Dutch flower bulb speculation bubble with all its parallels to the current economic crises. Her dancing flower bulbs hypnotise us into believing that the ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery and good times are just around the corner.