For their previous collaboration, Jesse Darling and Takeshi Shiomitsu bussed a gallery-full of visitors to a construction site at the very edge of Europe. The show, Same Same, opened last October in Georgia and involved site-specific installations at Batumi’s CAC 41N/41E gallery in addition to a two-hour journey to the border of the disputed separatist state of Abkhazia. Here, piles of concrete tetrapods embody the duality suggested by the implied ‘ … but different’ of the exhibition title: at once a breakwater and a potential tank trap. Reunited a few months later in their more familiar environs of east London’s Hackney Road, the two artists explored another interface of the modern security state in a show at simultaneously pregnant with meaning and teeming with stuff.
The majority of the 18 works on show at Andor recall something of the (disavowed) early works of the Suriname-born conceptualist Stanley Brouwn: transparent polythene bags filled with a seemingly random assortment of junk. In a 21st-century context, however, the clear plastic bag inescapably evokes the experience of airport baggage screening. While many of the bags’ contents (lubricant and Vagisil, for instance, along with various anti-fungal creams) seem tailored to conjure the potential embarrassments entailed by the compulsory display of one’s personal liquids and foams, other bags – like the one tucked away at ankle-height in a corner of the room, containing two monkey nuts and an asthma inhaler nestled cosily inside a jewellery box (Untitled (archive series), 2015) – are like perfect Joseph Cornell-style surrealist assemblages.
Each of these bags is fixed to the wall with a scrap of familiar red and white security tape. Only, in this case, the red block capitals of the word ‘Security’ have been replaced with ‘Certain’. (Rolls of ‘Certain Tape’ are also for sale, in a limited edition of 50.) This word play led me down a trail of further substitutions: a ‘maximum security prison’ becomes a ‘maximum certain’ prison and the US signals intelligence organization sounds very sure of itself as the National Certain Agency. Behind all of these substitutions lies a poke at the way current calls for ever-heightened security mask a profound craving for assurance. Faced with the seemingly unshakeable absolutes of fundamentalist terror, Western states struggle to shore up their own uncertainties with a string of increasingly absurdist measures – placing liquids in a polythene bag as a defence against high explosives when boarding a flight, for example – that end up feeling like overcompensation for an underlying core of self-doubt.
The slender confines of the space at Andor seemed consciously cluttered. Equal parts airport security area and accident and emergency ward, the standard white walls of the gallery only emphasize the resemblance to a hazardous materials facility in some contemporary disaster movie. Large standing sculptures such as Spirit Level (2015) and Alpha & Anima (2015) dominated the floor space, overburdened with fastening ropes, cords, chains and tourniquets to clinch remarkably trivial items. In the case of Spirit Level, the item in question is just a bottle of milk (soya, naturally), deftly tying food fads into the question of zealous safety measures.
If there were one work in the show that gave concrete expression to its underlying themes, it was Airbags (You & Me) (2015). The piece consists of two steel picture frames, but there are no paintings to be seen inside. The areas within the frames have been swallowed up by airbags. It’s as though the proximity of real or imagined disasters and the emotional need for safety, security – to bolster fragile certainty – has engulfed the very possibility of art.
First published in Issue 170