This review of Seventeen Gallery’s group show ‘Neither’ was published on Art Agenda, September 2014
No official record of the most cited influence on the work of contemporary artists is kept, but if a tally had been taken over the past five years, top of the list, just squeezing by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, would be the experimental composer and benign orientalist John Cage. Not a year goes by, in the UK at least, that a group show, individual artist, or publishing platform doesn’t cite Cage, display his work, or admit direct usage of the chance strategies he pioneered. The composer is so overexposed, his oeuvre and ideas so thoroughly surveyed, it’s almost impossible to imagine being surprised by either new work, or an exhibition that doesn’t banally wheel out the same aleatoric alibi for some formless, a-curatorial display. Impossible, that is, until now.
“Neither,” the inaugural three-person show at Seventeen’s new London space is an austere and starkly beautiful exhibition. Tightly curated and unashamedly intellectual, it manages that rare, but often-strived-for alchemical feat of turning a complex philosophical proposition into a subtly compelling display. At the exhibition’s core is, thrillingly, an underexposed work by Cage that was also his last. What’s more remarkable is that One11 and 103 (1992), a combined 90-minute film and sound work, exposes a different, more somber and mysterious dimension of the influential composer’s output.
Made in collaboration with German filmmaker Henning Lohner, the film is an abstract study in light and shade. Shot in 35mm black-and-white, what must be a single light source is continuously passed in and out of close proximity to the camera’s lens. The results are shifting and amorphous passages of light in three gradations of black, white, and gray. But it is the music, a gradually evolving tonal soundscape—recalling the more abstract work of Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti—that moves the work into exceptional territory. Whereas certain compositions by Cage have been compared, by the laity, to the sound of a piano falling down the stairs, 103 is the sonic equivalent of ink expanding in water: to listen to it is to be opiated, and yet made strangely more attentive to your environment. In fact One11 and 103 drapes over and absorbs the rest of the exhibition in its aural fabric, but this is no bad thing.
Sonic bleed (the condition, usually in group shows, in which sound from one artwork seeps into the space of another) is a hazard most decent curators try to avoid. But, London-based artist Sophie Michael’s mesmeric 8-minute 16mm film actually benefits from Cage’s music—even if the sound of her projector does obscure some of the more subtle parts of Cage’s score. In 99 Clerkenwell Road(2010), colored orbs, superimposed over a warmly lit domestic interior and dark exterior, move across the frame and segue into one another, like a body of orbiting suns. The visual direction has a distinctly compositional feel—accentuated when moments from Cage’s music, a cymbal clash or timpani boom, seem synchronous with the appearance or disappearance of elements within the frame. Michael also has a clear grasp of film’s ability to capture and present moments of light as objects that appear almost supernaturally radiant and three-dimensional. It is the sheer retinal pleasure of watching light in motion that unlocks and activates the show’s overarching theme.
Tim Steer, Seventeen’s Associate Director and the exhibition’s curator, has chosen a fairly cryptic quote from the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty for the printed gallery guide. Famous in the art circuit as the “body-subject” philosopher who sutured the mind-body tear left by René Descartes, Merleau-Ponty maintained that consciousness is bodily constituted, and was a favorite of the minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, amongst others. “The eye is an instrument that moves itself, a means which invents its own end,” he states, in Steers’s chosen quote. The eye is the essential precursor to thought and propulsion, tobeing, for humans, he seems to suggest. Movement is not an abstract decision made by a disembodied mind, but as stated in his essay Eye and Mind (1964), “the natural sequel to, and maturation of, vision.” In “Neither,” the eye-makes-mind concept is demonstrated through retinal excitations that elicit emotional responses, reflection, and physiological impulses in the viewer to move closer to, or further away from, what is seen. In the final work this conception is politicized.
Harun Farocki’s video essay Eye/Machine II (2002) seems at first incongruous in relation to the aesthetic reciprocity of 99 Clerkenwell Road and One11 and 103, but it adds another layer of complexity to the viewing experience. Eye/Machine IIcomprises war footage and banal video commentaries of graphical combat simulations, factory work, and missile flight. The eye in this instance is the lens implanted on bombs and fighter planes, from the first “television bomb” of 1942, to those cameras that brought televised conflict to our living rooms during the 1991 Gulf War. At one point a pilot engaged in simulated combat flight tries to evade virtual missiles that are guided by camera sensors. In order to dazzle the mechanized eyes into confusion he deploys a number of brightly colored flares that burst like fireworks on the simulator screen. Here, the theme of retinal excitation returns. This linkage, of the technological and biological eye through the mechanism of stimulus response, closes “Neither” with a shrewd curatorial move tastefully executed.