Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Affirmation - Sophie Risner

The Affirmation

Chelsea Space (Chelsea College of Art and Design)
16 John Islip Street

07.11.07 - 15.12.07
Curated by Andrew Hunt

Artists Involved:
Paul and Steven Claydon
Kajsa Dahlberg
Chris Evans
Robert Garnett
Babak Ghazi
Mark McGowen
Goshka Macuga
Elizabeth Price
Mandla Reuter
Jamie Shovlin
Matthew Thompson
Tris Vonna-Michell

Don't be fooled into thinking that this exhibition is in any way as obvious as its title - 'The Affirmation,' a show based on the same-titled 1981 novel by Christopher Priest is an incredibly enterprising collective exhibition. As you may witness from the large list of artists above 'The Affirmation' symbolizes an exuberance hard to comprehend within the realms of such a small gallery space such as the one offered at Chelsea.

The Christopher Priests novel looks into the mind set of Peter Sinclair a man 'tormented by bereavement and failure.' Sinclair, a man on the edge, decides to move into the countryside and a life of isolation after a failed marriage and losing his job in the city. Whilst hidden away Sinclair embarks on an autobiography. Sinclair soon finds himself writing the autobiography of another man 'affirming' a parallel identity in an imagined world, a persona whose sinister attractions draws him further in.' A tale it seems of tragedy that ends in ultimate madness.

Andrew Hunt, Co-Editor of 'Untitled' magazine and curator of this show requested that each of the thirteen artists invited respond through their work to themes of identity - in a push to mirror the personal exploration taken by Sinclair in Priests original novel. In doing this Hunt begs the artist to distort their approach to art history in 'a way that goes beyond mere ironic appropriation, and extends out towards a new and unfamiliar view of the world.' It is at this point that you can't fail but notice how ambitious this show actually is. Not only is the theme already quite complicated but to fit this negotiation into the small box of Chelsea Space is a very brave move indeed.

Like the book it details, Hunts complex curatorial concept is thoroughly multi-layered, not just with meaning, but with demands on the artists. Each work in 'The Affirmation' is a brand new piece created especially for the show. For this Hunt invited the artists to work directly with the Special Collection at Chelsea College of Art and Design Library boasting that every artist has managed 'to find their own connections within the library's archive.' I don't doubt this but what I do doubt is the general thematic indulgence in this show which unfortunately gets lost as one wanders around the space. It is highly plausible that this show could merely be a collective piece that asked the artists to work directly with the Special Collection at Chelsea Library, to then add the extra layer of the text by Priest doesn't just overly confuse the show but could also damage its credo.

Maybe the Priest novel was a starting point for the show? An inverted moment into the psychosis, referencing the role of madness and how as a society we 'affirm' concepts of identity - moreover how and what we do to sustain our own identity. This would tally with the highly charged historical element of the show and the use of the Special Collection. The contextual element seems to be a powerful curatorial theme in a lot of Hunts prior shows. Hunt seems to be exploring the role of a literary thematic to expand upon new possibilities for an aesthetic experience. The entire construct of the show is so brilliantly multi-layered and complicated that it somehow manages to actually 'work.' Hunt proves to be a genius in his physical multi-layering of the work, directing a mix-hang that forces us to come upon an artist several times as the majority of artists involved contributed more than one piece - again an adventurous insight into Hunts ambitious filling of the gallery space. The mix-media element helps to make the show increasingly visual as well as aesthetically beautiful. Each piece is worth its salt, as the artists have obviously taken time to produce something powerful and interesting (according to the publication provided, the show 'The Affirmation' has been a thought in Hunts mind ever since 2006).

This consideration and careful manipulation keeps the show very tightly curated and annoyingly hitch-less. I can't help but remember that as I appreciated each and every piece on their own merit I did observe how they all looked so 'right' together, this is a good systematic of a well conceived 'group' show. Saying this though as I did traverse the space and spend time getting to know each and every individual piece I couldn't help but only find slight tangible connections between piece and idea (theme). The broad nature of the theme means that it is ever easy to produce work that has a multitude of readings. This idea doesn't necessarily contribute to the first intention of the show and may in fact hinder its interpretation.

It's hard to look in detail at ever piece within such a large show (in such a small space). Goshka Macugas audio selection in the centre of the main space stands out as being some interesting extracts from the Special Collection but thought provoking moments of sound experimentation. Similarly Chris Evans 'The Affirmation, Letter and books, Dimensions variable 2004 / 2007' is a great introduction into the general 'gist' of the show. Other pieces such as Mark McGowens video 'Artist to set himself on fire' is slightly amusing but essentially lost thematically, especially when McGowen espouses the work as a protest on the war in Iraq.

Holistically this exhibition works beyond it's overly complex remit. Each of the work manages to do or say something and as an exhibition it is worth visiting twice or spending a long afternoon there. The surprise of this is based mainly on the size of the show in ratio with the quantity and quality of the work, though not the main reason this is definitely a contributing fact behind the loss of Hunts core theme here. An over indulgence of artists in a tightly curated small space doesn't help Hunts main idea. Aesthetically the show looks great and works well, but this could easily happen outside of the clutter of the theme. Equally the intentions embedded within that theme only hinder the clutter of the show to make this a very individualistic reading far away from Hunts uniting intention.

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