'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

Friday, 26 October 2012

Writing about Rashid Johnson's exhibition Shelter at South London Gallery feels awkward. Rashid Johnson is an African American living in New York producing socio-politically informed post-Colonial work. I am an English Caucasian female and feminist art historian. Inevitably there is a lot in this show that will resonate with me and a lot that will go over my head. Which doesn't invalidate my responses but does (as my shrink would probably tell me) warrant acknowledgment.

I'm encouraged by Rashid's words in an interview with Matthew Day Jackson earlier this year: “I've always had a difficult time recognising myself in historical narratives although I grew up with them as a backdrop to my childhood because my mother was a historian. But I didn't relate to those histories nor did I want to reproduce or live them. Now I've begun to pick and choose which parts I find useful and in many cases I also create my own. The artist functions as a time traveler. Using my work as a means or portal to effectively rewrite history, not as a revision but as a work of fiction.”

This feels liberating, permission to make my own way and to embrace ambiguity.

The artist, we are told, has transformed South London Gallery's main space into “an immersive environment”. On the walls are works made of black soap and wax, others comprised of mirrors, shea butter, LP covers, oyster shells and books, as well as photography and branded flooring. All of these are recurring media in Johnson's work.

In the centre four day beds dominate the room. Each occupies its own persian rug, two standing on end, one on its side, only one embracing its intended usefulness on all four legs. It feels like a rebellion of sorts, an uprising. Upholstered in zebra skins, their frames and rugs are defaced with black soap and wax or otherwise scratched and scared. The pelt recalls the Corbusier / Perriand / Jeanneret B306 Chaise Lounge, cow hide versus zebra flagging up African-ness with a nod to modernist aesthetic and middle class collectibility. Irreversibly interwoven yet disparate cultures.

This curious ordered chaos is the setting for an imagined society, perhaps a future society, in which psychotherapy is freely available to all. But something has gone awry: the couches aren't “available” and the pot plants look down on us from the rafters way above. As a psychotherapeutic environment it is topsy turvy. With one hand it offers and with the other it takes away, which may or may not be an intended comment on the psychotherapeutic process itself. Is there shelter here one wonders?

Persian rugs are highly symbolic and mystical objects, the designs influenced by factors in the weavers life, personal, religious and cultural. They also set a strong Freudian tone - the father of psychoanalysis was a voracious rug collector, his talking cure couch always draped with Persian carpet. As Tom Morton suggests, they are also emblematic of the artistic achievements of a non-Western culture as well as functioning as “a place holder for American anxieties about Islam”. That the rugs are here subtly defaced with black paint and wax suggests violence - mental, emotional and physical - a violence associated, at least in part, with racial tensions.

Whilst flagging up the fictional nature of histories this show brings together questions of race, power, violence, growth, flux and much more in a deep and poetic investigation that has things to say to all of us, whatever our real and imagined personal histories may be.

28 September to 25 November

written for This is Tomorrow

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A colour photograph hangs at eye level, of a middle aged woman seated on a child's ceramic potty. Her body is stooped and twisted in shame, face lost in shadow, girlish white knickers bunched around bare ankles. Behind her, scuffed floorboards, a bannister worn with age, the bumps and bruises of family life. This is the excavation of human trauma in the name of healing and of art.

2012 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Jo Spence. By way of homage SPACE, London and Studio Voltaire have collaborated to create a two part exhibition that chronologically spans the artist's career. As a key component of Spence's modus operandi was collaboration, this synergy feels right.

Part II takes place off Clapham High Street and covers the period 1982 to 1992. The subject matter is Spence's cancer diagnosis, her subsequent journey into the world of holistic health care and the pioneering photo therapy that makes up the greater part of her best known work.

For Spence, photo therapy meant using the camera to heal herself within the broader context of psychoanalysis. It was a process she undertook with photographer Rosy Martin and through which they both discovered that 'there is no single self, but many fragmented selves, each vying for conscious expression, many never acknowledged.'

Coming into dialogue with the fragmented selves became a means of self-empowerment and of moving towards health; a way of rejecting existing mythologies and the systems of hegemony and dominance that spawned them, yet without creating new ones in which to get lost once more. It was a way of acknowledging her own constantly shifting totality.

One set of photo-theraputic works is devoted to the re-enactment by Spence of various moments in the life of her mother. Putting herself into her mother's position, she reported, made her feel guilty for the way she had behaved towards her mother when she was alive. This material is so raw and so emotionally fraught it may begin to explain why work of such evident potency has been almost totally overlooked by the existing art establishment. The exhibitions at SPACE and Studio Voltaire are her first retrospective in London. The Victoria & Albert is the only public collection in England to include her work and that by donation. As Spence herself once observed: “breaking out is not painless for anybody.”

The work on show at Studio Voltaire evidences her rejection of the cult of the artist. She employs a democratising technique of willed amateurishess, even abandoning the title 'artist', envisioning herself instead as 'cultural sniper', capable of appearing anywhere and in any guise. Her work is more commonly laminated than framed, giving the exhibition an awkward, community centre feel. Yet Spence's output is steeped in theory, amalgamating the academic with lived experience.

In 1991, having contracted leukaemia, she began The Final Project: A Photo fantasy and Photo therapeutic Exploration of Life and Death. She spoke of a crisis of representation. “I have not the faintest idea how to represent leukaemia except for how I feel.”

In one self-portrait from this series, traces of dark hair creep out from behind the toothy grimace of a rubber death mask, whilst over one black-clad shoulder a large wicker shopping bag nonchalantly hangs. The power of Spence's work is in its directness. She projects the strength of an army with the sensitivity of a butterfly. This confrontation drags death into life rather than the other way around. And not just into her life, into ours as well.

It may seem that Spence's political engagement, her socialist and feminist sympathies and the documentation of her difficulties with the NHS during what she parenthetically referred to as 'the cuts', could lodge her intensely auto-biographical work into a time specific niche outside of which it lacks resonance. This show at Studio Voltaire dispels that myth. Spence uses the deeply personal nature of experience as a means of accessing the universal. She presents us with the inescapable facts of all our lives Рchildhood, ageing, illness, death - and she does so without clich̩. It is the brutal honesty with which she casts the objective gaze upon her own life that makes this exhibition so important and so long overdue.

WORK (Part II)
13 June to 11 August 2012