First published: a-n interface, Jan 2010
Psychic Geography, Workplace Gallery, Gateshead, 23 January – 20 February 2010
Psychic Geography unites the work of nine emerging and established artists in a deliberately ambiguous assemblage of painting, sculpture and video work. Simultaneously encouraging and eluding theoretical verification, its title makes use of a new and strangely sinuous neologism.
According to Mark Everett, “the psychic geographer specialises in spotting that place where humans and their environment meld”; that intangible, yet sometimes palpable “place” between the world and the self. In this place, “we can no longer speak of individual will as such but only communal or sometimes corporate imperatives, the desires of the space as it speaks through the body politic that inhabits it.”[i]
Offering only this quotation and the loose assertion that Psychic Geography “examines the interaction between spaces and people, places and identity”, Workplace Gallery deliberately impart a concept that is nebulous. The term is new, unfixed and academically improper, and in turn offers a supple and somewhat refreshing premise for a provocative and ambitious exhibition.
The work presented proffers a diverse exploration of the ‘self’ in relation to wider social, historical, geographical and artistic contexts. It follows that many of the artists address issues of identity and appropriation, whilst others ambitiously attempt to assimilate the complex effects of postcolonialism on our sense of self.
If the parasitic occupation and exploitation of ‘other countries’ has left a confused distinction between notions of national, global or personal identity, have hopes of clarity, autochthony and independence, been replaced with cloudy currents of cultural hybridity? And if so, how does this colourful, cultural confusion affect our relationship with the world, or our ability to think as individuals?
Daniel Silver and David Blandy share an interest in these thorny, intellectual questions. Admitting the epistemological legacy of Colonialism, they examine the cultural liminalities left behind by Imperial Rule. For Blandy, this summons a need to assess or seek his sense of self. For Psychic Geography, he presents The White and Black Minstrel Show; a looped film of the artist miming Syl Johnson’s underground soul classic Is It Because I’m Black?
Blandy performs in whiteface make up, a morally ambiguous inversion of the controversial tradition of blackface, popularised by 19th century American theatre. Eventually acknowledged as overtly and offensively racist, blackface very gradually became culturally controversial. Amazingly, it continued to appear on the BBC until 1978, in the programme ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’, the title of which Blandy also appropriates and inverts.
In The White and Black Minstrel Show, Blandy doesn’t simply reconfigure an old fashioned, stereotype for contemporary consideration; he highlights the continuing cultural ramifications of social and historical change. Blandy makes this process deeply personal by relating it to his own identity. In turn the piece is full of elaborate, ethical questions such as, Is Blandy’s adoption of whiteface an amoral act? Or, does this piece represent only one example of a routinely muddled sense of individuality; a general feeling of disorientation prompted by postcolonial confusion?
The morally ambiguous issues that Blandy raises have a deep seated effect. As much as we are aware and emphathetic of the artist’s intentions, the film also solicits a personal rethinking of self. As a young, white British female, I rarely question my social position in relation to race or ethnicity. For the most part, my personal aspirations are shaped by how much time and money I have, and the question ‘Is It Because I’m White?’ seems almost alien.
Invariably I asked myself this question during The White and Black Minstrel Show. The guilty assertion that no, it is not, was obviously uncomfortable, yet triggered an internalised self questioning; a long and illuminating look at myself and my relationship to the world.
Homi K.Bahabba suggests that in an increasingly globalised world, where many fear the processes of cultural homogenisation, “the postcolonial world should valorize spaces of mixing; spaces where truth and authenticity move aside for ambiguity.”[ii] In Psychic Geography, this kind of ambiguity is most evident in Blandy and Silver’s work, however others such as Dan Ford and Lara Viana offer an appealing aesthetic ambiguity, where painterly gestures become tools to obfuscate obvious imagery or subject matter.
In Studies for Adam and Eve, Daniel Silver relocates familiar, cultural iconography. Terracotta objects, totem-like abstract sculptures and crudely painted wooden figures convene on a series of three eye-level plinths, covered in felt and ornately patterned fabric. Plaster cast candles and found religious objects, such as a vulgar bust of Jesus sporting many mock gold chains, are scattered amongst these sculptural suggestions of the human form.
Through the appropriation and amalgamation of classical, primitive and modern sculptural elements, the work cleverly cites the current complexification of cultural identity. Silver’s evocative use of busts and head-like shapes, encourage a consideration self in the face of civil and religious diversity.
In another untitled piece, two reductive marble forms are punctuated by very subtle serrations and protuberances, suggestive of the human head. Perhaps perceivable as a symbol of the artist’s self, or an elusive analogy of what the face or head, really is, Silver’s heads are almost featureless. If “a face is something that is incomplete: a work in progress that stands in continuous need of being seen or touched or written upon”[iii], then Silver’s heads seems to suggest the plurality of ‘self’; the inherent impossibility of solitary, self-sufficiency.
Silver’s work is one example of the abundance of busts, portraits and self portraits which simply, yet effectively compound Psychic Geography‘s interest in identitarian issues. Another example is seen in a new series of self portraits by Eric Bainbridge. Best known for his seditious subversions of Modernist sculpture, we see Bainbridge progress into a more personal sphere. Self Portrait After Modigliani and Self Portrait After Ryan Giggs offer a perspicacious depiction of identity in relation to the world of mediated imagery.
Collaged clippings from magazines locate familiar depictions of the fettished, female form in unfamiliar compositions. Initially instrumentalised for advertising and product promotion, images of idols like Penelope Cruz become idle imaginations of popular culture. Inept, inert and ineffective they are transformed into absurd abstractions, which are further ironised by their placement within Bainbridge’s own self portraiture.
Laura Lancaster‘s series of 26 monochromatic portraits also bears testament to the exhibition’s frequent, iconographical references to the ‘head’, as does Sophie Lisa Beresford‘s The First and Second Creation. In one of an ongoing series of confessional ‘to-camera’ videos, the artist’s head fills the screen. Akin to a ‘Big Brother’ diary room interview, Beresford voices her paradoxical concerns about the process of art making. Her struggle to separate conscious artistic activity from spurious, spiritual impulses is revealed through a sentimental, stream of consciousness, the effect of which is somewhat hypnotic.
Beresford essentially addresses the issue of control; she attempts to manage her innate, mental disposition to become a better artist. Speaking at once to us, and to herself, she explains her attempts to purge her naturally impetuous artistic energies, in order to create a clearer distinction between ‘Art’ and ‘Reality.’
Projected onto a huge, floor to ceiling screen, the image of the artist’s head initially appears quite comical; like some kind of clandestine, celestial body trapped in one of Workplace Gallery’s attic spaces. However, Beresford’s honest assertions of personal insecurity appear so true and touching, that in the end, an exaggerated scale makes the piece affecting and intimate.
Like Mike Pratt, Beresford is a recent twenty-something art school graduate. Therefore, it is interesting that both artists chose to expose the evolutionary process of self actualisation; the artist’s ever present state of becoming.
In paintings like Snake in the Grass, Pratt blatantly borrows motifs from older, more established contemporaries like Christopher Wool and Richard Prince. By appropriating aspects of other artist’s work, “he comments upon the cycle of assimilation constantly evolving from an affecting voice or act into popular culture.”[iv]
With Pratt, ‘psychic geography’ seems to refer the peripatetic process of ‘finding a style’ or ‘voice.’ Another intelligently arranged sculptural composite explicitly references this by using 12 classical plaster busts from art school to support a configuration of found objects. This process suggests elemental identitarian insecurities, and therefore positions Pratt’s work in an interesting area of ambiguity; a middle ground between making and mimesis.
That Psychic Geography obviously, and automatically, alludes to Guy Debord’spsychogeography, begets a desire to define, however in the end this prospect is uneasy, and perhaps undue. The exhibition doesn’t so much posit a theory, as allude to theoretical frameworks, presenting a stimulating variety of socio-political and personalised approaches to art making. Linked by spiritual sensibilities and an acute awareness of space, society and the self, the exhibition reminds us that personal perspectives are still interesting and relevant.
Whilst permeated by cultural narratives and outside influences, the self is always a vague and vulnerable entity. To this reviewer, Psychic Geography communicates the ‘uncommunicable’ ‘secrecy of private life’[v] which, when channelled by creative outlets such as artistic expression, provides a fecund and fascinating field from which to explore the effects of common cultural narratives on individual experience.
[i] Matthew Everett, ‘A Brief Explanation of Psychic Geography’, The Agenda, #15
[ii] Homi K.Bahabba , The Location of Culture, 1994, p113
[iii] Nicolas De Oliveira and Nicola Oxley, ‘Invitation to a Beheading’,http://se8.org.uk/exhibitions/past/1/
[iv] Psychic Geography, press release, Mike Pratt, courtesy of Workplace Gallery
[v] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’