Becks Futures 2005

ICA, London

A slightly out of place looking man in a dinner jacket wanders into the upper gallery at the ICA, bottle of beer in hand. He may or may not realise it, but the gallery is currently hosting the prestigious Becks Futures prize. Thus the man is promptly informed that this is an exhibition in which drinks are definitely not allowed, and so he agrees to leave his bottle (of Becks) outside the gallery. Moments later he reappears, this time with an equally ill-attired companion. The couple – who it soon transpires have strayed from a wedding reception upstairs – decide to commemorate their celebrations by photographing themselves posing in front of a nearby sculpture. Unfortunately, Britain’s richest art prize does not permit unsolicited photography. An increasingly exasperated gallery invigilator is once again forced to step in, but this time the couple – their sense of social decorum visibly dulled by alcohol – are less easily dissuaded. Some sort of confrontation occurs, and amidst the confusion the dinner-jacketed party-goer, still gallantly holding his pose, inadvertently backs into the sculpture, sending its precariously balanced glass ball pinnacle crashing to the floor and rolling noisily to the corner of the room, whereupon it comes to a serene halt, oblivious to the raised voices and panicked expressions of everyone around it.

This year’s Becks Futures is the sixth incarnation of the annual award, and comprises a shortlist of six UK-based artists: Lali Chetwynd, Luke Fowler, Ryan Gander, Christina Mackie, Daria Martin and Donald Urquhart; a group of artists whose work is reckoned to be characterised by its independence and eclecticism, along with its interdisciplinarity. The quality of previous Becks exhibitions has been patchy, but this year promises to be an engaging one, at least if it lives up to the promise of the panel of selectors, which includes artists Cerith Wyn Evans and Wolfgang Tilmans. Walking into the first room the multimedia approach is immediately apparent; the space is adorned with paintings, sculpture, an installation of drawings, video work, and even a fragrance-based work. Two videos belong to Luke Fowler: The Way Out (2003) focuses on Xentos Jones, formerly of the experimental post-punk band The Homosexuals. The film comprises all the usual rock-documentary elements: footage of the band, interviews with friends, analyses of their work. But the film is structured in such a way that it avoids any real sense of narrative, and instead presents a rambling, sometimes incoherent, yet highly individual impression of a rambling, sometimes incoherent, yet highly individual musician. Form and content are thus married. Probably. This kind of assertion can never be more than speculative, for Jones is only nominally the subject of the piece, and ultimately we are left with no clear idea of who or what he is (or was). In fact I was left doubting whether the whole thing was not some elaborate fiction, invented as a mere support for Fowler’s maverick film-making talent. What You See is Where You’re At (2001) on the other hand appears to place much greater emphasis on its subject: the experiment by the cult psychiatrist RD Laing of re-housing a group of so-called “insane” into a commune in east London, in which they were encouraged to “express” themselves, and not be constrained by societal straight-jackets. Here, the archive footage is put together in a relatively unobtrusive way, letting the sometimes absurd, sometimes poignant evidence of the experiment speak for itself. Fowler’s general concern is to give a voice to those whose ideas have stood outside conventional ways of thinking, a concern perhaps reflected in his own refusal to conform to the conventions of straight documentary film making.

Donald Urquhart’s practice too could be said to operate on the margins of society. He is best known for his drawings made for the cabaret nightclub The Beautiful Bend; other activities have included producing radio plays, stage dramas and drag performances. Here he presents his installation Another Graveyard (2005), a series of drawings and hand-written phrases presented through moving projections and on upright glass supports. The drawing is simple, unforced, unfinished, and easily reproducible – great strengths in other contexts no doubt, but in the pristine confines of the ICA it comes across as being a bit slight. The cheap air-freshener aroma of the fragrance-work Darnley (2005) does nothing to alleviate the strangely unaffecting quality of the whole installation. Urquhart’s work is purportedly a meditation on feelings of loss and bereavement, but here the sickening scent and sickening sentiments combine to give a sickening sense that the whole enterprise is hiding behind its own inability to communicate. Tear away the endless layers of kitsch and irony and what you’re left with is a distinct lack of, well, anything. Is this the “loss” Urquhart has in mind?

The real heart of Lali Chetwynd’s work lies in her performances (held as one-off events at the ICA during this show), and consequently the cardboard constructed props in the space seem an afterthought, an inarticulate residue of a no doubt compelling live event. Ideas of myth and an exploration of ugliness are hinted at, but the present objects can do no more than offer a vague glimpse.

Moving on into the upper galleries, you enter a darkened room. A button invites you to “press here”; you press here, and the whirring of a projector begins, acting as a signal that you are about to enter the self-contained enclosed space of cinema. Daria Martin’s film Closeup Gallery (2003) is in many ways the most “finished” and certainly the most slick piece in the show; it lacks the sense of a provisional bringing together of elements characteristic of much of the other artists’ work, and as such seems a more confident piece – or at least more at ease within its own form. The film centres around a magician’s display of dextrous handling of playing cards. He performs endless feats of twirling, shuffling, splitting, splaying, all the time watched by his diligent assistant, and by the camera, which teases out the formal and rhythmic patterns created by the coloured cards and the magician’s revolving table. Martin’s films often use elaborate hand-made sets and props as a way of revealing their own artifice: in this case it is those painterly cards and that multi-layered glass playing surface that serve to puncture the sealed space of cinema. Closeup Gallery is a visually rich piece, but the transparency of its construction and the constant nagging of the “sleight-of-hand” metaphor succeed in undermining its apparent confidence.

Ryan Gander has no desire even to try and present a consistent body of work. Allusions to cultural history and self-reflexive probing provide the impetus for his ongoing work An Incomplete History of Ideas, the latest manifestation of which is shown here. Its circular meandering references are illustrated well by a hard to spot cluster of fragments from a Tintin cartoon attached to a passageway wall at shin level, given the elaborate title Herge’s realisation that Alph-Art was conceptually flawed, George Remi’s realisation that Alph-Art was conceptually flawed and Kuifje’s realisation that Alph-Art was conceptually flawed (2004). A shelf is filled with the multi-volume The Boy Who Always Looked Up (2004), a book work which focuses on the creation of the Trellick Tower – the visionary dream of high-rise social harmony designed by the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger. In a disarmingly direct rhetorical piece of installation, the bookshelf is affixed at a height of about nine feet, forcing the viewer to – you’ve guessed it – look up to see the work. But despite such literalness, the piece ultimately succeeds by virtue of its visual and conceptual elegance. Perhaps most indicative of Gander’s working methodology though is Loose Associative Lecture (2003), a so-called “pub” lecture given in front of an audience, and here presented as a photocopied transcript. The lecture plots out its course organically, ambling from one subject to the next, at times serious, at times flippant. Sometimes flowing, sometimes hesitant, it is an investigation into the way we impress our ideas upon one another in our actual everyday lives. Gander here demonstrates most clearly his interest in the fragmentary and suggestive nature of different codes of communication. Art for him is just another one of these codes, ripe for a refreshingly playful investigation.

In the final room, Christina Mackie’s Version 2: Part 1 (2003/05) stands proud, safe in the knowledge that nobody could ever work out just exactly why it exists, in the particular way it does. A large painted blob sits on the floor, with a floppy fabric thing on top of it, and a large glass ball on top of that. A section of a wooden veranda juts out into the space, housing within it a projector, which projects blurry colourful images of flower petals onto the wall. The whole thing is augmented by a contentedly irrelevant musical soundtrack. Mackie says her work is ‘really about being able to do whatever you want, bearing in mind that any material will do, and any process will do, and any anything will do.’ This is all very well, but unfortunately it results in an almost wholly impenetrable installation.

The chaos now subsided, and the wedding guest couple having slipped away, a handful of ICA gallery staff are left assessing the scene. The glass ball seems to have survived unscathed, and nothing else has been damaged. So all that remains is to re-construct the work, which is done with little difficulty. ‘That looks about right,’ says one of the curators. Panic over then. But you get the feeling that the whole wedding reception party could have rampaged through the galleries, turning everything over in their wake, and quite frankly it wouldn’t have made much difference. Such is the overwhelmingly tentative, fragmentary, work-in-progress feel of this show that no amount of repairing, rearranging or precise positioning could ever be definitive, or ever lead to any real sense of clarity. But it would at least be worth trying, and, you feel, is something that all of these artists would like us to consider.

Review published in Dogmanet magazine, May 2005.