Visitors struggling to get their bearings at Alice Channer’s new exhibition in South London need not worry: help is at hand. Not only do we find a glass cabinet packed with supporting materials on the very threshold of the show, but in addition – alas, for one night only – the artist has presented a programme of rarely-seen films to support her endeavours.
Populating the former – the cabinet of curiosities – is a copy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a work that famously explores the possibilities of consciousness outside the body. Nearby is a text by Simone Weil whose philosophy locates ‘presence’ in ‘absence’. There are trompe l’oeils by Bridget Riley; sketchy designs for fashionable outfits; photographs of buildings whose idiosyncrasy points to their sheer designed-ness. Fragmented body-parts abound – here a thumb, an arm, a voluptuous thigh.
Most notable of all is a pair of snakeskin-print leggings that escape the base of the glass cabinet and coil into the space around us – tellingly close to the gallery’s gift shop and the attendant world of commerce. We are thus promised a critique of pop culture and identity politics but there mischief here too – an invitation to consider the limits of the artist’s control over how her work is interpreted, narrativized, put to use.
These ideas certainly seem to have informed Channer’s choice of films for her one-off screening. The first of these is Helena Wlodarczyk’s Slad (or ‘Trace’, 1976), a film taking the Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow as its ostensible subject.
Wlodarczyk shows a selection of her late mentor’s artworks roaming the streets of Lodz. Their movements are charged with the thrill of autonomy and are accompanied by the dull industrial thud of a radiophonic soundtrack. The sculptures have a life of their own. Discovering themselves alone in the world after their maker’s death, the mannequins forge their own path.
But that artworks may have a discursive life apart from the artist’s intention is a notion open to abuse. Introducing Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel (1962), Channer warns against the liberties taken by such filmmakers when constructing a narrative – and, of course, those of writers, historians; worse yet, critics.
What we get is a portrait of a group of Pop artists operating in 60s London – the emphasis placed less on their work than on their flamboyant savoir-vivre. Paintings are juxtaposed with scenes at the fairground, the dance-hall, the bedsit. Anything underpinning their art – though given lip-service– becomes subservient to the needs of this proto-music video.
Completing the programme is Geoffrey Haydon’s Ed Ruscha (1980), a film that doffs its cap to the road-trip genre. We follow the American artist as he selects, casts, and substitutes a boulder with its doppelgänger in the Californian desert. The result is paraded before the empty iconography of Hollywood Boulevard from the roof of a Landrover, intercut with images from Ruscha’s bolshy repertoire – pure surface: hollow, artificial, artifice.
This sense of presence-in-absence permeates Channer’s work. The human form is everywhere yet nowhere – the list of artworks reads like a list of body-parts, a veritable butcher’s blackboard.
Entering the exhibition proper, we are dwarfed by a trio of ceiling-to-floor draperies. These are cut, rather elegantly, to the dimensions of the room – drawing attention to their site-specificity and to their role as furniture. Channer has, in effect, clothed the gallery space, which in turn takes a little of the meaning and chic of its apparel.
Printed upon each is a classical stone sculpture, digitally-manipulated to emphasise its carved folds and elongated to bear the weight of suspension. The first, Cold Metal Body (2012), is pinned to the floor by a column of marble; pale in colour and polished to stress its blemishes, this takes on the softness and translucence of human flesh. We are thus introduced to one of the artist’s little jokes – the play on our expectations of materiality.
Such humour pervades the show. Breathing (2012) consists of several aluminium casts of looped fabric, ten of which hang from a pair of dowels screwed into to the wall. Pastel in hue, these look soft and comforting to the touch: ridges of hardened paint evocate frills or lacework. Five more are stacked by our feet – to the contrary, cold, solid, and uninviting.
Elsewhere, stretch-fit leggings that once graced the shelves of Topshop receive similar treatment. Two pairs nestle amongst Amphibians’ (2012) steel armature – one is frozen, yet plump and yielding as it reclines in the nadir of a polished curve; another is wrought into an arc, cold and lifeless. This dynamic – this seesawing between opposing sensory interpretations – is echoed by the artist’s use of elastic: a band is drawn tight around the metal arch, making it uncertain which imposes itself
As a result, we are not only prompted to question the relationship between elements within a work, but also the relationship between works within a show. By extension, we may wonder how shows within a movement, a time, a place, congeal to form what we understand as a art historical narrative. The certainty of our pronouncements is problematized – is presented as something subject
to the whims of fashion and taste. Meaning, as ever, becomes subservient to context.
Time is a slippery character. Whilst Channer’s show rewards slow-looking, I wouldn’t worry too much: there’s a good month yet to catch it.
Alice Channer: Out of Body is on at the South London Gallery until 13th May. Visit their website for more information. The first monograph of Alice’s work is published on the 1st April.