Norwich University College of the Arts, Norwich, UK
This year’s East International is a tangle of fictionalized histories and word games, comprising a selection of works that all hover uncertainly between the conceptual and visual. This is hardly surprising, given that selection duty for this year’s edition of the open submission exhibition was shared between Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden of UK collective Art & Language, and Łukasz Gorczyca and Michał Kaczyński of Warsaw’s Raster Gallery. Although from opposite poles of Europe and a generation apart, both duos have their origins in magazine publishing – Art Language in 1969, and Raster in 1995 – which goes some way in shedding light on the sense of exposition that surrounds this show.
The 25 selected artists share – for the most part – a cool, ironic distance from aesthetic seduction. One of the first things we encounter is a 12 by 60 grid of glass panes, just under half of which display postcards. Elizabeth McAlpine’s Found Time (Big Ben) (2009), is a collection of images from over the past century that features the eponymous London landmark, attempting to find every minute in the 12-hour cycle; though her effort falls short of its ambition, formal composure and illustrative categorisation are clearly its salient principles.
Text and narration take pole position, with several resonant histories weaving through the installation. Stuart Whipps’ reserved study of the UK’s declining automobile industry is a quietly emotional elegy that incorporates archival texts and photographs of empty factories. Four posters break down all of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 speeches with a tongue-in-cheek textual analysis: 125,295 major words; 34,328 minor words; 5,461 trivial words; 21,357 key words. Agnieszka Kurant provides an unsettling vision with an edition of the New York Times dated 29 September 2020, with headline stories of a poisoned water terrorist attack across a dissolved European Union.
While the didactic tone works in these pieces, most of the videos shown at East International collude to work against each other. ‘I’ll try to remember the sequence, but I don’t think you’ll see much in this film,’ the narrator of Corin Sworn’s After School Special (2009) declares solemnly. He’s right. Ursula Mayer’s swirling Lunch in Fur (2008) is a fictional meeting between Josephine Baker, Dora Maar and Meret Oppenheim, but instead of exploring the potential of this situation, Meyer’s film curls in on itself as each character is lost in personal reverie, taking turns talking through each other in melodramatic platitudes. Between the self-consciously dubbed found footage of Sworn’s film, to Gernot Wieland’s re-interpretation of Pasolini’s Teorema (in which words like ‘family’ are replaced with ‘revolution’), the film and video works in the exhibition interact in such a way as to drown in a Last Year in Marienbad-like deluge of monotonous formal language.
Laure Prouvost’s playfully anarchic video installation Owt (2007) manages to exploit these tensions between discursivity and immediate experience. The video is of a self-proclaimed ‘curator of artist’s video works’ explaining what he sees as the role and function of video art, quoting Walter Benjamin along the way. His speech, though, is spliced and reworded so as to become almost incomprehensible. There are distracting jump-cuts to people in pools and farm animals, while the voiceover is humorously mis-subtitled: ‘How can any film be an artwork, and how can any film not be an artwork?’ comes out as ‘How may feeling a cow can always be in? Why he never felt like that when he kissed Madonna, even at work?’
The majority of East International is so level and systematic that it comes as a welcome shock to find the black, hardened mass of Olaf Brzeski’s Dream – Spontaneous Combustion (2008), a sculptural plume of smoke that comes crawling out of the corner in the basement. Only Brzeski and painter Andrew Cranston veer away from drily cerebral concerns to explore more ambiguous, surreal territory. Robin Tarbet’s live video installation Monitored Landscape No. 12 (2009) attempts to straddle both worlds, presenting us with a passing industrial wasteland created by the relay from a camera mounted on a model train track as it passes an assemblage of circuit boards and electronics. Tarbet doesn’t cling to his illusion, but rather opens it up with a structuralist filmmaker’s hard honesty.
Despite some works only seeming to have been selected to lighten the mood, such as Angela Bartram’s video Licking Dogs (2007), in which she French-kisses a St. Bernard and a German Shepherd, East International provides an intelligent, if sombre, survey of young European artists’ working in a post-conceptual vein, uneasily trying to anchor their own unwritten history.
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