Often when writing I attempt to frame my interpretation of the event or exhibition within a context. Whether that is the journey to or the actual venue itself, sometimes it can be an element of the conceptual underpinnings. In this case I wonder if any of that is relevant as I’m purposely heading to the Harris Museum and Art Gallery to review Oculist Witnesses: According to Duchamp.
Already I’m mentally there, it is my focus today. To the point there is a strange sense of surprise to see that the larger of the spaces used to display contemporary art is given over to Lucy Beech’s video installations. I quickly pass the large white box after spotting a liquid black surface jutting out from behind an open doorway.
One standing on the threshold, picking up an info sheet which feels like card, I see that the exhibition is scarce. That despite the presence of Sovay Berriman’s sculpture ‘Entertainment Suite’ there feels like there’s a lot of space, even in this relatively small gallery space.
This space might be a result to the conceptual aspects of the exhibition. Given the subtitle is According to Duchamp that indicates that there is more to what meets the eye. I’m assuming you are aware of Duchamp (I know we weren’t all taught art by a Duchamp obsessive like I was) and that you know that he wanted to rearrange not only the language of art, but the perception of it.
Becoming the Year Zero of all what people love and hate about contemporary art. Though he isn’t technically represented by one of his own works. At least not directly. He is here in the form of a piece of work by Richard Hamilton, which provides the exhibition with its title and serves as a reference point, a point of focus.
Physically the piece is a screenprint on glass of a number of graphically pleasing circular and radiating lines. It sits there fetishisticly displayed like a relic within a plastic box. It does resonate a certain mystic power or at least a knowingness about its own place within art history. For this is detail created during Hamilton’s recreation of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor’s, Even (also known as The Large Glass).
The Large Glass is full of religious and sexual symbols came with body of notes intended to be read in conjunction with its viewing. Though Duchamp and his interest in perception knew that due to the transparent nature of the piece it would ‘resist interpretation’. That the conditions in which it were viewed would effect that interpretation and the interpretation of the works that surrounded it.
Something which was exploited by artists like Hannah Wilke
It feels like I’ve moved away from the actually exhibition itself, there is a weight of art history contained in that sparse gallery space. Despite the presence of Berriman and the Hamilton piece it does feel strangely empty. There are other works in the exhibition but the main dialogue appears to be between Berriman and Hamilton/Duchamp.
These pieces appear to be conversation, this maybe be a simplistic connection between geometric shapes. Spending some time in that space it does occur to me that the sculpture is reacting in some way to the Oculist Witnesses in a sense trying to mimic them. Entertainment Suite appears to be in state of flux, angles and surfaces stick out at different angles. The whole thing feels like a scale model, perhaps of a broken stealth bomber, though whether it is being scaled up or down is unclear.
Both screenprint and sculpture suggest movement, The Oculist Witnesses spin while Entertainment Suite grows like a crystal.
In comparison the other works seem static almost not part of the exhibition. Flanking the Oculist Witnesses are two gloppy paintings of forlorn, jaded people. These are paintings by Lindsey Bull one Statues (2015) sees two figures stare mournfully into the middle distance. While in Bow Tie (2015) the single figure has its eyes closed refusing to bear witness. They radiate a sense of misplacement almost to the point of being embarrassed in being here.
Nearby are a number of postcards which have been manipulated by Ruth Caxton. The postcards that appear to depict religious(ish) imagery seem to have been affected by some form of mediumship. Lines etched within the cards flow to and fro into the eyes of an identical image, or form a cage of psychic energy around the heads of two piano playing ladies. It might be that these images are more connected to Oculist Witnesses did I first think.
Within them perhaps we can see the idea of artist as medium held by Duchamp. Of channelling the pre-existing elements of the world into the production of art.
As a whole what do I make of this exhibition? This room of art. Underpinned by not one but two curatorial concepts, the first being the relationship between the works, the second being the broader and overarching ideas of the Dance First, Think Later programme, delivers exhibitions and programmes which are ambitious in their curatorial scope.
That might lead to you questioning whether such exhibitions with such heavy conceptually underpinnings run the risk of a more casual art audience. Well possibly, but there is still a pleasure to be had in Berriman’s sculpture, Caxton’s curious postcards and even Bull’s painting has a certain seedy charisma. Along with the chance to see work by a ‘name’.
There is also the sense of these being a test, of pushing the boundaries of what is expected from our ‘provisional’ museums and galleries and in turn what is expected from the visitors to places like the Harris. That sounds a little patronising, but Oculist Witnesses, is part of a drive which seems to offer a challenge not only to the viewer but to other galleries.