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22 Aug, 2009

The best shows to see this week

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Paranoia reaches from London to Norwich in two striking exhibitions about entrapment and surveillance this week. If it’s escapism you’re after, David Sherry’s absurd humour provides the perfect getaway

Feel hemmed in by modern life? You’re not alone. In fact, you’re never alone. At least that’s the far from comforting proposition of Space Invader at London’s Aicon Gallery, a group show addressing the flipside of our technologically voracious, globalised age. Dan Holdsworth’s photographs reveal the grubby fingerprints of progress on the most isolated places: a spider’s web of communication poles fill a snowy void in one, a motorway viaduct creeps into the wild hills of Granada in another. Mannequin-security guards patrol Vibha Galhotra’s aerial photograph of Delhi Kitted out in camouflage that blends seamlessly into the 2D mess of buildings, they suggest insidious surveillance. Sanatan Saha’s paintings are overrun with tropical plants, men and exotic beasts, while Alan Michael’s drawings present a jumble of human flesh – post-coital, giving birth or defecating. It’s perfectly hellish.

There’s no reprieve at former penitentiary Norwich Castle, in a show about imprisonment, surveillance and punishment. Lending the exhibition its title, Marc Quinn’s sculpture, No Visible Means of Escape, is made from a cast of the artist’s body, which seems to have been undone by a futile attempt at fleeing its own skin. It hangs from the noose-like flayed appendage, succinctly suggesting that imprisonment is part of the human condition. Louise Bourgeois feels this burden: her eye-like marble orbs gawk back from a cramped domestic cage in Cell (Eyes and Mirrors). Langlands and Bell tackle institutional strictures while Christine Borland’s new commission is inspired by death masks. How can one respond to this bleak picture? Tim Lee provides a bit of absurdist slapstick, captured in a photo, where he reads a book to artist Robert Smithson, tied to a chair and hanging upside down in a parody of Harry Houdini’s famed escapology act.

It takes something extraordinary to make a one-person stand against endemic oppression. But Irish Socialist and Republican Bernadette Devlin showed just that, as portrayed by Duncan Campbell in his prize-winning film, Bernadette, on show at London’s Tate Britain. Campbell sifts Devlin’s story from what feel like endless reels of archive news footage, following the evolution of the youngest female British member of parliament, elected in 1969 at the age of 21, into a seductive firebrand, virtually combusting with righteous ire. Eyes permanently blazing, her mouth machine-gunning rousing words of socialist reform at the TV crews following her, Devlin looks like the stuff of fiction, not history. It makes riveting viewing.

It’s the quiet, even banal build-up to an act of violence that Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari focuses on in his film Nature Morte, at Baltic in Gateshead. Two Arab men are seen silently engaged in their tasks: one mends a jacket; the other makes bombs. Zaatari seems interested in an alternative experience of war to the ones proliferated by explosive images on the news. Here, he works for the second time with an actual Lebanese resistance fighter, Mohammad Abu Hammane, who plays the older man. What thoughts preoccupy Hammane, we can only guess. Perhaps he is sending the younger man to his death? Are they close? What horrors have they seen? Zaatari compels us toquestion what war is and where it actually occurs: on the battlefield or in hushed hideaways like this?

On a lighter note, video and performance artist David Sherry takes liberties of another kind. Violating social norms, his projects have included hugging people he hardly knows, being “confrontationally polite” to a cashier and refusing to look people in the eye. A selection of his videos, at Ikon gallery in Birmingham, prove thrillingly daft, with the artist going about his candid camera routines as a deadpan oddbod. His absurd skits also unravel behavioural patterns, rethinking the everyday world. How would carrying a bucket of water around for a week, as Sherry has done, change your life? On the 12 and 13 September he’ll be performing the work Just Popped Out, Back in Two Hours, where he sticks a post-it note to his forehead bearing these words, puts his conscious mind on hold and sits in the gallery looking gormless.

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