The traditional handshake with an opponent after a hard fought match became a new taboo at my tennis club created by the ultra-hygienic pandemic fears and was replaced with a tapping of racketheads. Happily this taboo is fading and it reminds me of the consoling and even redemptive value of physical contact, particularly useful after the antagonism of a sporting tussle. Touch is perhaps the most symbolically fertile of our senses as it can tap so directly into our emotions and unconscious. The emotional language of touch that exists when the spoken word is redundant (or lost due to stroke or dementia) is similar to the visual language of art expressing feelings that we struggle to articulate. Touch, of course, is surrounded with a vast array of taboos; touching soiled objects and touching with our feet among them, issues that two recently viewed artworks have helped me to explore.
Behold, a wildly eclectic and ambitious group show exploring the theme of touch, curated by Sasha Galitzine with Graham Little, has just opened at Hypha Studios’ incongruous and crowded pop-up exhibition space in a vacant high end retail unit in Mayfair’s Conduit Street. Its friendly, makeshift, mildly anarchic atmosphere is amplified by its proximity to the vast, cool, white warehouses of the prestigious galleries of Pace and Hauser and Wirth, currently given over to huge macho canvases.
As the show includes a varied selection of exciting artists, many of whom have already featured in previous mialondonblog posts, this made it unmissable. So, of course, I headed down to the opening (UN)PRIVATE VIEW/ FEEL to catch up with them and to check out their different takes on this intriguing concept. A more comprehensive overview of the show’s artworks and Hypha Studios’ mission embedded in the show will have to wait for the next post. This one focuses on a pair of the exhibiting artists, Rebecca Moss and Louise Ashcroft, whose ideas speak so urgently and eloquently to the topsy-turvey, precarious state of Homo sapiens in 2023.
Hands are emotionally expressive as well as practically useful. So there is double loss when you cannot use them. Feet might seem inadequate as stand ins (!) for hands. Compared to our fellow primates, we have made an evolutionary trade-off, gaining fine manual motor skills but losing prehensile ability in our rear limbs, to become upright and bipedal. However some of us have had to learn how to use whatever grip the foot muscles can exert in place of hands to “manipulate” objects. We see this in the worldwide foot painting community and the remarkable UK based gardener, Sue Kent. Her shortened arms bequeathed by the thalidomide drug scandal led her to devise a range of adaptions including the donning of foot gloves to allow her feet to till the soil and thanks to a BBC Gardeners World appearance she is now a garden designer.
Dirt and feet are where our two featured artists land their free-floating imaginations for this show. They both subvert the natural order and creatively mine the rich dissonance of “matter out of place” a concept developed by the structural anthropologist Mary Douglas whose reframing of taboo theory in her influential text Purity and Danger precipitated a tectonic shift in my worldview when I first read it in the 1970’s. Crossing boundaries she argues is conceptually threatening, not physically dangerous; an important lesson in understanding the ferocity that fuels the current culture wars.
Like Sue Kent, Rebecca regards the foot as a versatile, unsung appendage. In her video Comfort Food she deploys her own foot as a puppet creature rather than use the customary hand. This upturns a taboo of body representation and like all transgressions we can’t help but giggle to mask our discomfort. In her interactive performance work, Scavenger Coat, Louise asks us to break the hygiene taboo to explore a piece of litter with only the sense of our ungloved hand and the experience seems to provoke wild imaginings. In both works we get an impression of these artist’s dry humour and unflinching eye for life’s absurdities combined with a compassionate take on our struggles (tussles?) to come to terms with them.
Comfort Food instils our empathy of the risks taken by the impoverished and hungry. This is a deadly serious sequence and a long way from the “playful” moniker beloved of fashionable artspeak. It may look cartoonish as the foot/mouse makes tentative moves to pilfer the cheese cube from a spring-loaded mousetrap but this is a real person who is facing imminent injury and we flinch as it snaps shut. I was reminded of the desperation of dumpster divers living off food waste and the tragic fates of the homeless sleeping in commercial garbage bins who have been tipped into the crusher.
Physical jeopardy is integral to many of Rebecca’s videos but the visceral affect of her self inflicted discomfort is a powerful means of generating a flow of associations in the viewer. In an excerpt from Home Improvement (2021), currently viewable through her website, she enters a back garden still in her cosy pyjamas and dressing gown and connects herself to a DIY apparatus. This maybe designed to lift her mood if we follow the conclusions of psychological studies suggesting that the conscious tensing of our facial muscles into a fixed smile will stimulate similar emotions to those associated with a natural smile.
The metal heads of two clothes hangers are connected in a pulley arrangement to the corners of her mouth which the mechanism pulls into a gradually broadening grimace. The apparent pain as her lips are pulled into a form we only usually get to see in the archetypal, macabre, painted grin of a circus clown is excruciating to watch. Clinically depressed people who have been told to “just cheer up and make the best of it” will empathise and the daytime dressing gown may remind them of the past psychiatric ward protocol to deter sectioned patients from doing a runner. When the risk of absconding was deemed to be lower the patient was then allowed to dress in their ordinary day wear.
A time honoured “snapper up of unconsidered trifles” the delightful, scheming rogue and pickpocket, Autolycus, introduced in Act Four of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has his more woeful present day counterparts; the benefit sanctioned desperately foraging for discarded material to glean some paltry living from them. Judging by my own observations and the Facebook feed of my neighbourhood hub notifying found items, an alert local scavenger could have garnered hats, gloves, keys, cuddly toys, a bank card, a single wellington boot, a new designer coat, Airpods, a gold earing and a sportsbag in the last week alone. These objects suggest a story. Whose were they? Were they lost or deliberately discarded? Why do some people just post photographs rather than than pick them up for safekeeping? How much of this stuff has already been carted away under “finder-keepers”? Why do we continue to accumulate this stuff when its threatening to drown us?
Louise is our present-day Autolycus, a shapeshifting trickster/clown trying to source found objects and material from the city streets for the enlightenment of her audience and asking us to tell their story. Even finding litter is problematic in tourist-conscious Mayfair as the local street cleaner, an assiduous public servant, is so effective! Donning her hi-vis, polyester work jacket with its orange trim she might present as a fashion-conscious pickpocket with a reckless exhibitionist streak as capacious pockets line the outside as well as the inside of the garment. Rizwana at Khadi Tailors shares the credit for its manufacture.
Gathered round her we are each in turn invited to feel inside one of the pockets and guided to reflect on what our tactile sensory associations can glean from it. Slowly a joint narrative begins emerge. She describes this as “mining the landfill of our unconscious”. Litter and its disposal in landfill is inherently disturbing and this is becoming more accentuated as it comes to represent our blind, headlong dive into disastrous consumption accretion. Expect macabre stories to emerge when Louise compiles and uploads them. Her consummate skills in this type of improvised interactive performance was electrifying to behold.
Her deeply ironic and totally engaging, “don’t get angry-get even” take on surfing the imperatives of late capitalism is on show in a celebrated Hackney Women TEDx talk as she chronicles her observations of the idiosyncrasies of Stratford Centre, the indoor shopping precinct opposite the slick gargantuan, Westfield Mall constructed much later to exploit the 2012 Olympics. We laugh merrily at her guerrilla interventions while we rue the absurdities of the marketing strategies they expose and more importantly she spurs us on to do likewise to subvert the consumerist values we are surrounded by. You start to realise the inspiration for the stunts pulled on Channel Four’s comedy consumer programme Joe Lycetts’ Got Your Back.
The entrance to the Stratford Centre is clearly visible as you pass through Stratford Station, one of the busiest in the U.K’s rail network. You will not fail to be amused by the ungainly attempts to shield its concrete frontage behind massive, titanium, green and yellow fishlike sculptural structures. They have a poignancy about them especially as they replace the original “sail” type structures which were so much more honest about their cosmetic function. There is something symbolic about this failed rebranding wheeze which inspired Louise’s unfunded “residency” at the Centre in 2015. She is very much up for a psychoanalytic interpretation and the thought strikes me that the so-called “Stratford Shoal” is more of an iron-clad “shawl” masking the dirty secrets of retail capitalism and the attendant values of avarice and deceit it depends on. The colourful and incendiary cladding on tower blocks like Grenfell advertise the same failure of morality.
It was great to meet with these two warm yet incisive artists at the Behold opening last Wednesday and I came away buzzing with ideas and heartened that art in its small but significant way is a force for good in the world.
Exhibition continues at Hypha Studios, 60 Conduit Street, London until March 16, 2023
Featured image copyright Rebecca Moss. Still from video Comfort Food, 2022- courtesy of the artist