'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Expectation is rarely a helpful viewing companion when visiting an exhibition. On the other hand, one can't very well leave it at home. What one can do though is bring some awareness to it. That is to say bring awareness to the fact that a thing is almost always judged on the degree to which it meets, exceeds or fails to live up to what we, individually, expect of it. In and of itself, it's just whatever it is. It's what we project onto it that causes us problems. And then we want to blame the work for our projections when it doesn't live up to them. It's what makes being a 'critic' an impossible task.

The fact is I can't tell you whether an exhibition is good or bad. I can't even objectively tell you what it's about or what the artist intends. I can only tell you what my experience of it was and my understanding of the artist's intention filtered through my subjectivity. However educated or erudite I might like to tell myself I am, I am never going to be able to be objective. I am never going to be able to exterminate my expectations and my history.

Unfortunately I forgot all of that when I trotted off to see the Bridget Smith exhibition at Frith Street Gallery. The result was, sad to say, crashing disappointment. Probably nothing was going to live up to the breathtakingly sensitive Marlene Dumas paintings that proceeded it nor the exultantly creative press release that accompanied it.

What I was looking at was, in the first instance, six framed prints. Two images of the medical spaces at Lourdes, here empty of people, wherein examinations are carried out to test the validity or otherwise of so called miracles. The other four images were of various locations in As Neves, Galicia, the place where those who believe they've had a near death experience can express their gratitude to Santa Martha by way of pilgrimage. The rest of the gallery is curtained off into a cinema-esque space showing the thirty minute film We Must Live!

We Must Live! is set around the feast day in As Neves, of Santa Martha, who, her devotees believe, has the power to cure illness. The ritual of the day involves those who've been saved from the jaws of death climbing into a coffin to enact, perform as it were, their own death ceremonies. Out of respect they, in their coffins, are carried aloft through the streets of this tiny village, a throng with festivities, drinking, eating, dancing, chanting, wailing, praying, prostrating. All wonderful, rich, other-worldy stuff. And yet we see almost none of that. What we see is a few slices of staggeringly dull (under the circumstances) subtitled interviews with the death survivors, intercut with moments of the local Padre waffling pompously about what a load of old nonsense he finds all of this to be. Then a solitary woman jiving around on a deserted stage like some sort of highly alarming x-factor reject, and a few octogenarians enjoying a quiet vol-au-vent or two from the buffet table.

I'm not looking for sensationalism. Just a little depth would be nice. The press release tells us that the film raises questions of how much recovery from illness can be attributed to personal faith. It's a fascinating question but I don't see it being raised here particularly.

I don't. But you might. So you're probably best off taking my view with a pinch of salt. I'm not trying to tell you what the show's like or even what it's about. I'm just trying to share with you my experience and hopefully to amuse you for a few minutes with some vaguely engaging writing. That's all a writer can hope to do. If I've failed in even that, then it's time to hang up my boots!

Bridget Smith
We Must Live!
9 December 2011 to 11 February 2012
Frith Street Gallery
Golden Square

Written for and reproduced by kind permission of Spoonfed

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