The first steps into a solo career after achieving success as part of a group are never easy, yet this is the situation that Milly Thompson faces in her exhibition at Peer. Thompson was part of the prominent art collective BANK, which in the 1990s staged a series of exhibitions that pilloried the contemporary art scene. Members dropped out slowly over the years until the group finally broke up in 2005, by which time Thompson had been part of BANK for 15 years. It is thus inevitable that the group casts a long shadow over her new endeavours, but happily she brings those experiences into her latest work.
For its subject matter this show continues to draw on the machinations of the art world, and particularly on what it means to be an artist in today’s commercially driven market. Two of the works focus on Thompson herself: she performs a subtle dance between revealing fears of mediocrity or failure and critiquing the art world’s over-interest in such personal disclosures. This is most prevalent in Opera (all works 2008), a text piece contained in a short book that visitors are encouraged to keep. BANK was renowned for its witty use of wordplay, both in its exhibition titles and in works created by the group, and this dexterity is evident in Opera, where Thompson explores the art-world preoccupation with the question-and-answer artist interview.
The piece begins conventionally enough. Thompson and an anonymous interviewer discuss BANK, and particularly the success and sense of belonging that came with being part of the group: ‘We really cracked it. We were the beautiful people. It was great.’ Proceedings, though, suddenly take an unexpected turn, and new voices – of other artists and writers – appear scattered throughout the conversation. These are woven into the text rather than presented as simple quotations (although their origin is revealed in footnotes), and serve to disrupt the intimate flow of the interview while simultaneously hiding Thompson within it. Thompson uses the pseudo-interview to critique both the self-conscious nature of interviews and the way they are used to explain art works to an audience. In alerting us to this game-playing, though, questions of authenticity arise, which are, of course, also tackled by Thompson in the interview.
In the photographic work La danse de l’amour et de la haine de soi (The dance of self-love and self-hate, 2005) Thompson is on her own. She remains both present yet hidden – quite literally – by appearing in the centre of the work but shrouded almost completely beneath a blanket, slumped and dejected as though overwhelmed by the work at hand. Despite this, the studio in which she is placed is strangely impersonal. With its empty champagne bottle and coffee jug, and its walls strewn with source photographs and drawings, it fulfils all expectations of the ‘artist’s studio’ while revealing little.
A series of drawings, of figures sketched alone but grouped as though at some kind of dinner party, is similarly hard to penetrate. The figures are disengaged from the audience – avoiding eye contact and presented with their mouths either covered or simply erased. More observational analysis is encouraged in a video work, Basking in the melodrama of my own self-consciousness, which reveals a middle-aged woman sitting alone in an outdoor café. Her dress and demeanour signify that she is wealthy, but we are left to speculate idly on her importance to Thompson, with few clues, although in the interview she is explained as signifying a terror of ageing and loneliness. Edited into the video are stock images of hand-crafted pottery and footage of expressive dance, all of which appear hopelessly unfashionable in the glare of a white cube space.
By contrast, a series of brightly coloured Modernist sculptures that round off the exhibition are confident. While the materials used are basic – they are constructed from the humble balsa wood – neatly undercutting any slickness, the works are subtitled ‘a curator’s friend’, teasingly acknowledging the sculptures’ easy, fashionable style.
Self-consciousness runs throughout the works here, yet with Thompson’s gently humorous and insightful touch they never become self-indulgent. Thompson reveals a multitude of opinions and ideas on the contemporary art world while never clarifying where her own sentiments lie, alluding to the performance that is inherent in being an artist and to the genuine anxieties that such role-playing entails.
First published in Issue 116