Josephine Berry Slater reviews the ASC gallery’s show Mutagen
Club Tropicana drinks are free! The ASC gallery’s Mutagen show greets you with a field of UV light effects, ambient loops, biomorphic wallpaper prints and gelatinous blobs. The atmosphere is somewhere between a club chill out zone and the psychedelic splendour of a coral reef. The proposition looks to be a naturalisation of aesthetics. The word ‘endogeny’ is used in an accompanying text by Ben Craggs, meaning ‘growth from within’, suggesting a direction for art. What lies ‘within’ is an open question, but seems to mean both art taken as its own resource, as well as an immanence of art and the natural world. Art within nature, not merely its own traditions – which is an interesting inversion of the avant garde desire to blur art and life. The boundaries, these artists propose, were always irretrievably blurred. This ‘for itself’ of the naturo-cultural continuum becomes the topology of a reinvigorated practice. Form isn’t generated by the historical development of reflection, discourse and technique alone, but also as a kind of organic activity which is co-constituted by the wider field of ‘life itself’. For instance, patterned wallpaper, the fronds of ferns and fish scales start to bear a relationship to each other which goes beyond William Morris’ taste for the vigour of nature’s patternings. They are part of the same exploration of a possibility space, a feeling and variation of surfaces and directions as humans and animals balance between defence and extension, function and aesthetics.
Joey Holder’s liberal use of protean slime in her installations, videos and computer generated forms lubricates the show’s proposal. The formless is the precondition of form, the soup of creativity, an open set waiting to be filled. What is not, is always bearing down on what is. In her Bubble Fry installation, Holder upholsters a replica gallery space within the gallery with biomorphic wallpaper and presents a holographic compound image, of unidentifiable eyes, as the ‘art work’ at its centre. The semiotics of camouflage join up with the signifying activity of art. Nature’s ‘cunning’ in its ceaseless adaption of adaption is both a metaphor for art’s own development of forms, and a way of seeing art in naturalised terms. Despite its lofty idea of itself, the art world is nevertheless subject to the same pressures as animal life. Its inhabitants can’t shake themselves free of the quest for survival through variation, advantage and dominance. That force is part of the background formlessness which forms.
Finding a resource for human creativity in natural evolution and adaption is hardly new. This is what Bergson was proposing at the end of the 19th century as a life-science inspired rebel yell against the Enlightenment reduction of life to mechanism. However, his ideas of the ancestral memory space (duration) and the purity of the élan vital got taken up and converted into nationalist, eugenicist and fascist programmes. And, as Benjamin Noys has recently cautioned, we are undergoing a neo-vitalist moment in which life’s abundant creativity is levelled against the ‘untranscendable horizon of capitalism’, but in a way that seems to bypass politics, or reduce it to an inevitable reflex of life’s own creativity. Lukács was likewise suspicious of vitalism, claiming in the early 20th century that no matter how one orientates oneself to the mystical idea of the élan vital it ‘changes nothing’. But is this growing interest in naturalising aesthetics strictly vitalist? If the work in this show arguably resists such a charge, because there is no sense of divining life’s mystery here, we need to ask whether its convergence of natural and artistic creation leads to the same danger?
Image: Josephine Callaghan, RGB Silks (detail) PVC cold room curtains, 2 channel video projection, 2013
One thing that immediately strikes the visitor to Mutagen is the way it articulates not just the continuum of aesthetics and nature, but also nature’s own ‘artificiality’, which gives this show the simultaneous feeling of a club and an ecosphere. Holder’s use of Flourescent paint under UV lighting references the colours of tropical fish, and their outrageous neon attractions. Or the cellulose patterns thrown, in Josephine Callaghan’s installation, by shining a projector beam through PVC curtains, creates an affinity between plant cells and plastics. The works in the show seem to scramble the proper place of the natural and the cultural, with the effect of perversely intensifying the structures, behaviours and proclivities of animals and plants for the enjoyment of humans, while undoubtedly staging shocks of self-recognition for our animal selves. The natural is deployed as a resource for furnishing irreality, and at the same time the artifice of culture assumes animal characteristics.
The production of forms that don’t exist in nature could be seen as the common effect of reason, aesthetic desire and politics. To think things beyond their given form, in the empty set of potential forms, is a feature of human intelligence. But this proliferation of the new also describes nature’s own (unthinking) tendency. This comparison, it should be insisted, is not a way of claiming that nature is of itself intelligent or artistic, or political. Instead it is an attempt to think the continuum of the natural and the social, as well as where and how they diverge. One simple answer to the latter is that humans think what they do, or at least we like to think that we do. And when we don’t, we like to think about that too. The artists in this small exhibition are thinking what they do with the resources they find in unthinking nature. This shouldn’t necessarily be a sign of art’s defeat or a deferral to nature (akin to the neo-vitalist abdication of politics), but an attempt to exit art’s exhaustion based on its self-understanding as autonomous conducer of the new. Instead, these artists foreground the heteronomous ground of art’s autonomy.
Image: Vicky Wright, Out of a Centre Which is Neither Dead Nor Alive III, Oil on board, 2013
In her painting entitled Out of a Centre Which is Neither Dead Nor Alive III, Vicky Wright paints the knots of the wooden support of the painting. She also draws out the faces that we find in knobbly wooden surfaces (or wallpaper, or clouds). The painting is a witty riposte to Clement Greenburg’s idea that modern art should literalise the material support of the art work by exploring the board not only as flat, but as grown. A growth which doesn’t only lend itself to the production of flat boards, but offers a surface for consciousness by which the world thinks itself in us and we think it back.
Mutagen is at the ASC Gallery, 8 June – 3 August 2013