For a gallery, the arrival of an anniversary presents opportunities on many fronts. Time for a rebrand, perhaps, or a blockbuster exhibition; a reshuffle of the collection at the very least. But how does this model apply to a space that has never owned any art of its own, which has, rather, been characterized, for the half-century of its existence, as a place of radical experiments, an outpost of the avant-garde in a somewhat conservative university town?
‘Kaleidoscope’ – the year-long programme Modern Art Oxford is running to mark its 50th birthday – proposes some interesting answers to these questions. For the first time in its history, the gallery is running exhibitions continually, each show folding into the next, with the public allowed to view the takedown and installation process as it happens, room by room. Certain artists and artworks will resurface, while themes will run like threads through the whole series. This, at least, is the theory.
A display of posters from landmark exhibitions staged in 2013 prompted visitors to share their recollections of coming to the gallery over the years. For ‘Kaleidoscope’, these posters have transformed into mini-banners that flutter over the main entrance like multi-coloured prayer flags invoking the gods of modern and contemporary art: a pantheon that includes Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Donald Judd, Yoko Ono, Alexander Rodchenko and Sol Le Witt. An impressive roster, to be sure, if predominantly white, Western and male.
Rather than be tied to this trajectory – the bias of which Head of Programme Emma Ridgway, her predecessor Sally Shaw, Director Paul Hobson and Curator Ciara Moloney have done much to address in recent years – the team has taken a more creative approach to the past, questioning why certain artists were not shown at particular times and inserting them where they feel it necessary.
This fluid, playful understanding of history sets the tone for the programme. On climbing the stairs, visitors to the first exhibition in the series, ‘The Indivisible Present’, are confronted by Pierre Huyghe’s film De-extinction (2014). Two mosquito-like insects are shown in the act of reproduction, their union frozen some 30 million years ago at the moment they were engulfed in amber. What a way to go. The camera drifts slowly through their golden wedding chamber with its glistening, suspended air bubbles, before lurching vertiginously, accompanied by the horror-film shrieks and groans of amplified camera tracking, bringing the stippled, microphone-like eye of an insect zooming into sharp focus. Shown on a small monitor in the next gallery, Yoko Ono’s film Eye Blink (1966) is silent and almost half a century older, yet the artist’s gaze, reflected back to us from what seems an impossibly distant black and white past, remains potent.
Another old friend, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) has a room to itself to better allow immersion in its chiaroscuro psychodrama. Watching the shadow of Janet Leigh’s backlit profile advance jerkily across the white-shirted chest of a used-car salesman, I calculate that, lived at this speed, our lives would last over 1,000 years, yet aeons would still protect us from being nibbled by Huyghe’s mosquitoes. Elizabeth Price’s SLEEP (2014), a ‘dolorous animation’ made up of disparate but seamlessly choreographed visual and musical elements, is punctuated by handclaps, slogans and a Greek chorus of backing singers and hosiery models, culminating in a rapid-fire sequence of astronomical slides that contain, we are told, all the sunlight of the 20th century.
Together, these works challenge our notions of the temporal and highlight the limitations of human perception. Inevitably, perhaps, Viola Yes¸iltaç’s photographs of delicately balanced paper sculptures, I Really Must Congratulate You on Your Attention to Detail (2016), are in danger of being overwhelmed by the firepower that surrounds them. John Latham’s sculptures, made from distressed and charred books, bisected by glass or jammed into a drawer, remain resonant: inaccessible repositories of knowledge long before the age of corrupted digital files.
The Upper Gallery, containing Huyghe’s film, is the first to be closed during the transition between exhibitions. A window inserted in a temporary wall frames technicians in a forest of stepladders deploying screwdrivers, clamps, brooms and glue: process rendered as art. Eileen Simpson and Ben White, of Open Music Archive, are painting the plinth on which their turntable will rest. On my return a few days later, the space has re-opened as the first stage of exhibition number two, ‘A Moment of Grace’. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s vibrant paintings and Jac Leirner’s monumental assemblage of found flyers explode with colour on the walls, as Open Music Archive’s vinyl spins, infiltrating the space with resurrected sounds. On the other side of the viewing window, we now observe the space where 24 Hour Psycho played, cardboard boxes, tools and packaging spilling from its interior as it is readied for Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment (1965/2005). ‘Let us show you,’ the chorus in Price’s video insisted. ‘Let us show you now.’ ‘Kaleidoscope’, it seems, intends to do just that.
First published in Issue 180