Thursday, 28 June 2012

Changing Spaces - A Review

Changing Spaces - A Review
by Valerie Grove 

Although I was closely involved in this project, my role in monitoring and documenting both the process and progress of Changing Spaces was defined by my collaboration with the artist, Jonathan O’Dea, and by my focus on editorial clarity in relation to the project’s online presence. As a consequence, I didn’t actually form an opinion of the work. However, now that the project brief has been fulfilled I can actually take a step back and approach the work, and the exhibition as a whole, from an analytical perspective rather than one of practicality.

This transition has been easier than anticipated for several reasons. Firstly, out of a total of 12 works I had only seen 3 in their finished state. The others I saw only in stages, either in the studio, or on-site in the case of the sculpture. It was only on completion of the hanging that I was able to see the totality of the project. So despite my familiarity with the sometimes literal nuts and bolts of the work and their contextual background, the exhibition itself was an unexpectedly original experience. The same applied to the sculpture. After documenting the early stages and the positioning of the piece, I had purposely avoided seeing it in its final state so this was also like seeing something fresh.

An understanding of the component parts of something does not necessarily entail an accurate perception of the complete and functioning whole. This applies particularly to the fact that the 11 wall-mounted works were united from the outset within a conceptual framework and therefore needed to cohere as a single visual entity, as well as stand as individual works in their own right.

In terms of individuality each piece largely succeeded. Grouped according to size and united in monochromatic and sometimes textural, material or structural motifs, the works were not only visually striking but created atmospheres that were not always comfortable. In the case of Modification, for example, an electric grinder with jagged holes gouged deeply into the handle had a rather disturbing undercurrent of violence not completely offset by the control imposed through its pristine, if texturally erratic, white surround.

This was also the case with the sharp wooden symmetry of angles exploding menacingly from the centre of Transmutation 1. However, the tension inherent in this work was balanced beautifully by its companion piece Transmutation 2, in which an ‘implosion’ created both a sublime visual spectacle and a range of imaginative possibilities.

This balance is evident throughout the show. Each work seems to be displayed with a particular companion. Transfiguration and Industrial Landscape 1, for example, contain familiar objects like breeze blocks, air vents and radiator parts, but where one suggests imprisonment, or an entrance into somewhere you probably don’t want to go, the quiet beauty of the other relieves and reassures.

The three works that use the larger objects found in the Olympic and Lee Valley Parks are grouped together in a way that highlights both their industrial sensibility and their complete transformation. Industrial Landscape 2 memorialises a solid iron pipe which was once part of a Victorian heating valve. Changing Spaces 2 contains a perfectly straight line of London bricks split down the middle with an inlay of wood so polished it looks like metal. In Changing Spaces 1, however, a black pallet is convexly inlaid with a gravity defying circle of sharp, white wood chips. These seem incongruous as part of the piece itself but they constitute a motif that connects to the two other pieces in the show, Deconstructed Landscape 1 and 2.

The fragility and delicacy of these tiny splintered objects and their complex arrangements seem to be a huge material and compositional contrast to the solidity and weight of other works, but conceptually they are in tune. They are both shattered and composed simultaneously, which informs the sense of post-industrial dystopia that pervades this show. There is a constant negotiation between violence and control with the objects themselves looking like the remnants of a lost civilization that now command an awkward combination of nostalgia, reverence and fear.

The show definitely makes the best of the space at the Waterworks. There is a degree of material compatibility in the grey metal grids and wooden wall frames which are effective as backgrounds to each group of works. However, it was frustrating that the impact of the collected works as one conceptual installation piece was completely disrupted. This is not a gallery but an educational area of a nature reserve, so it was inevitable that the existing contents of the space would be battling for domination. It was possible to catch glimpses of how the works in Changing Spaces interlaced and created their own environment, but these glimpses just added to the frustration. I have seen several exhibitions at the Waterworks space and it is ideal for group shows containing a diverse and colourful mix of works that stand alone and do not require visual cohesion. Inherent in Changing Spaces, however, is the kind of conceptual visualisation that actually requires a traditional white cube space to be fully realised.

The sculpture on the other hand is in the perfect location. Created from a whole tree trunk, Intervention stands outside in leafy surroundings a short walk from the main building. Although connections to the exhibition inside are evident in the materials and in the aesthetics of preservation and even fossilisation, there is a sense of this being a separate project. That said, the sculpture does have a similar post-apocalyptic feel but it seems more a triumphant survivor than a cadaverous artefact of loss.

Location and the use of wire mesh and steel straps, means that it changes constantly according to the elements consolidating its vibrancy. In the sunlight it glints and glitters and the rain brings streaks of rust from the nails hammered like ceremonial armour into the top of the trunk. The inevitability of change clearly written into this work is also a celebration of natural cycles and renewal and is both positive and forward looking. Much of the work inside does not allow the viewer that luxury. It is perhaps within this tension that the project is complete.

Originally published on Nature Strikes BackJune 22nd 2012.

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