'Shelf Life' at the Gasworks in London
by Sean O'Toole
'Shelf Life' is a group show grounded in contemporary polemic. Throughout the tightly spaced confines of the Gasworks studios, viewers are confronted with the detritus of our consumerist landscape. Logos, brands, pulp fiction, design typefaces, reconfigured vinyl records: all of these simple everyday objects feature prominently in the works of the 11 participating artists/collectives.
In Santiago Sierra's 8-Foot Line Tattooed on Six Remunerated People (1999), an eight-foot line literally runs vertically across the length of the upper backs of five shirtless males. A jarring piece, the work's impact is heightened by the fact that each of the subjects depicted in Sierra's large grainy photograph were paid a princely sum of $30 to have the tattoo etched onto their skin.
Mexican-born Sierra's work probably best fits the show's curatorial aim of investigating the mediated landscape. His work unquestionably gives credence to the organiser's statement: "We live in a time when branding has become an art form." Yet not all the works presented on 'Shelf Life' are as obvious, either in appropriating or deconstructing the consumerist paradigm.
According to the show's curators, smith + fowle, 'Shelf Life' offers a selection of artists who provide a space for reflection on personal expression, cultural difference and incidental occurrences - the "human" aspects of our constructed world. While it is a refreshing approach to the anti-globalisation debate, one is not always convinced that all the artists participating necessarily form part of "an invisible network of resistance to the homogenisation of culture".
Take, for instance, the work of Robin Rhode. 'Shelf Life' has offered Rhode his second opportunity this year, after 'Juncture', to entertain London audiences with his maverick performances. On the opening night Rhode staged a rather amusing attempt to kickstart the wreckage of a wall-mounted motorcycle. The continual failure of the generator driven arc light that illuminated his performance seemed to both frustrate and complement the poverty of his piece. The performance drew to an appropriate close when a real-life motorbike roared through the crowd, whisking the artist off into the bowels of a cold south London night.
Inside the Gasworks studio, Rhode has also presented a static series of photographs of him bench-pressing an imaginary weight. In the context of the show, one could argue that Rhode's humourously surreal engagements with his line-drawn icons seem to parody the inaccessibility of consumerist objects. This said, Rhode's work represents a curious blending of influences, mixing the language of the marginal street cultures he grew up in with more resonant references to his childhood when he was forced to endure unforgiving rites in the schoolyard. Given the rather pointed trajectory of the show, one is obliged to ask at what point the show's conceptual premise stops suggesting compelling new avenues for exploring an artist's output and merely becomes a stilted point of entry.
Careful consideration has been given to the presentation of the artwork on 'Shelf Life'. The
architect Andreas Lange was commissioned to design the exhibition installation, a series of modular shelving units that are intended to blur the line between art and commodity. This said, the rather matter of fact presentation of an array of Bitterkomix did little, in my opinion, to promote an engaging interaction with the work of Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes. Certainly the biting satire, and Lynchian intersection of horror with humour, will be lost to Londoners left to haphazardly thumb their way through the foreign-language comics.
This aside, 'Shelf Life' is noteworthy for having brought together a host of young artists, each possessed with a remarkable fluency of expression. Notable mentions must go to Dario Robleto's transformations of vinyl records into new domestic objects, as well as Maria Hedlund's microscopically detailed photographs of the imprints, grease marks, dirt stains and scars left on everyday objects - in this case a computer keyboard.
The US's Will Rogan probably best demonstrated how simple humour can animate a sometimes weary debate. In his video piece untitled (1999), he filmed Bob Linder in a succession of fashion and department stores putting on layer upon layer of clothing, until quite literally unable to move. At once ludicrous and yet laden with irony, the video piece is a consummate document of the weird logic that defines consumer society. It also offers a welcome reprieve for those bored with the dour rationalism that seems to be piloting contemporary debates.
Until January 13 2002
Gasworks Gallery, 155 Vauxhall Street, London SE11 5HR
Tel: 020 7582 6848
Fax: 020 7582 0159
Hours: Wed - Sun 12 - 6pm or by appointment