The title of In the Black, an open submission group show recently on view in the The Black Mariah and curated by Matt Packer, acted as a cleverly open-ended provocation that generated a diverse range of approaches and responses. The most compelling, however, were those that adopted a more tangential approach to the curatorial brief. Jonathan Mayhew’s cheekily minimal adhesive letter installation, for example, employs a simple device to pose a satisfyingly complex idea. The title of the work, ‘The Limits of Your Language are the Limits of Your World’, 2012, is a phrase borrowed from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. As an aphorism, the quote eloquently encapsulates the idea that, if thinking happens in language, then, without the words to formulate an idea or a concept, that idea can never emerge. The sentence is split in two with the vinyl letters applied to both sides of the glass panel at the gallery’s entrance. The resulting overlapping and reversed clutter of text proved almost impossible to read, submerging the already complicated concept beneath another layer of difficulty. By so frustrating the viewer’s ability to decipher the message, Mayhew, with a daring economy of means, figures a disorienting instability in language. This demonstrates the unsettling notion that language, rendered incomprehensible, leaves reader or speaker isolated, unable to communicate or translate the world into sensible concepts – the limits of one’s world shrinking to what David Foster Wallace called our ‘one-by-one prison of bone that no other party can penetrate or know’.
Not all the works on show are so bleak, or, indeed, so provocative. David Nugent’s Celestial Series, 2012, for example, in which four digital prints mounted on shallow plinths parallel with the floor show cropped heads floating against a starry backdrop. While the work has a certain tongue-in-cheek, kitschy appeal, ultimately it is disappointingly one-note. On the other hand, Darek Fortas’s Miners After Work, 2011, is a similarly straightforward yet fantastically striking image. An unframed digital print simply pinned to the gallery wall shows two soot-covered miners, one casually naked and holding a cigarette, the other fully clothed, and both equally relaxed, even jaunty. The coal black skin of the two men gives the work a certain surreal charge, as if the photograph had been solarized, while the stark whiteness of eyes and lips against charcoal faces imparts an oddly cosmetic appearance. The image upends the conventional masculine associations with the figure of the miner, particularly the insouciant grace of the naked figure, elbow resting on crossed knee, cigarette delicately balanced, like a sooty Quentin Crisp.
The show also includes a range of video works of varying levels of interest. Declan Rooney’s Untitled (Towel), 2011, for example, is pretty much as the title describes – it shows a white towel falling against a black backdrop, the vignette looped so that the towel appears and disappears with erratic swiftness. The grainy quality of the image, coupled with the blur of the falling towel lends it the appearance of a flawed or damaged piece of analogue film, capturing a mysterious, slightly ghostly event. On the whole however, the simple premise only briefly holds visual interest. In contrast, Angela Darby’s and Robert Peters’ video work, I ain’t no kinda hustler, 2011, records a similarly inconsequential episode – two black refuse sacks looped over the top of public waste bins – resulting in a much more engaging work. The camera focuses on the bags which swell with air and writhe manically in concert, until finally one of the pair fatally deflates, exhausted. The filming is resolutely deadpan, but the refuse sacks’ uncanny animation is compelling and oddly disturbing, as if the transcendently dancing shopping bag from American Beauty has been condemned to some kind of abject slave-like existence, chained to a public bin.
Doireann O’Malley’s A dream of becoming 24 eyes, 4 parallel brains and 360 vision, 2012, is a much more technically involved work. A seductive and beautifully textured paean to moths and dusky shadows, O’Malley’s study has a distinctly gothic inflection with a whispered voice over and the richly grainy look of decaying film stock. In this instance, the sturdily lo-fi presentation of the video pieces, displayed on stocky Beko televisions sat on office chairs, detracted from the viewing experience somewhat, as such a visually gorgeous piece would have benefited from being shown on a larger screen.
On the whole, though, it is the works that focus on the opacity of language and difficulty in communication that prove to be most conceptually rich and satisfying. Helen Horgan’s giant wall mounted Apostrophe, 2011, magnifies said punctuation mark in raised, textured black plastic. Unanchored from language, the mark is rendered meaningless and the resultant sculpture takes on an oddly comic cast, recalling a kind of sinister, looming Pac-man cartoon with a strange gaping mouth. Similarly, Sarah Amido’s video piece explores the theme of frustrated communication in a satisfyingly involved way. Initially, When I’m explaining something to you, 2011, appears to be quite straightforward: an attractive, open-faced girl speaks directly to the camera, recounting what seems to be a complicated anecdote in a relaxed yet animated manner. However, the sound track only intermittently links up with the image on screen as the script or transcript is haltingly read. Compounding the confusion is the fact that the script seems to be jumbled, so that it becomes impossible to follow or even to discern the thread of a narrative. The result is deeply disorienting, belying its surface appearance of legibility, the work jars and misleads, stranding the viewer in a morass of uncertainty.
Perhaps the result of the open-ended nature of the exhibition’s curatorial premise, if it can be so called, is that the show is something of a mixed bag, albeit with moments of real inventiveness and intrigue. Ultimately, however, what is most striking about this exhibition is the sense of resourcefulness – the sense that artists and gallerists both are operating with minimal budgets yet producing work that is compelling and provocative.
In The Black was on view 18 October – 13 December 2012.