Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Party at Balfron Tower

A crowd of people storm up stadium steps on Sunday and on Monday the steps are deserted. Just the railings and the concrete remain. People whirl around a turquoise dance floor and have blurry memories of a girl’s hair and an amber light that haloed her in the morning.  Simon Terrill’s exhibition Phantom at Sutton gallery explores the nature of people, place and time in photography.  Terrill is able to capture moments of great human frenzy and excitement and then the stillness and consistency of the spaces they inhabit. These joyous and ephemeral moments become memories that will morph and change as they are remembered. However, the concrete stays still and objective and (like an Aldous Huxley nightmare) can be wiped clean of today’s individuals and gets ready for the next batch. Balfron Tower is photographic mural of the dark, monolith housing estate in which Terrill lives. Balfron Tower had been designed by Erno Goldfinger as part of a post war vision of a vertical London. In the process of constructing this photograph, Terrill enables the residents of the building to make their mark on the place they live their life. By photographing it, Terrill makes the human moments, however small and quirky, rival the longevity of the steel and cement.

The residents of Balfron Tower are out on their balconies or on the green lawn in front of the building celebrating with coloured lights, potplants and streamers and cups of tea and TVs on and holding hands and making joyous circles. The building has been flood lit and has been photographed from a distance so all of the residents seem tiny. It feels similar to looking at a model railway where we are initially awed by the size and scale of the construction and then on looking more closely start to marvel at the detail. We get the perspective of perhaps some omnipotent being that sees all and can peer into any apartment we choose or perhaps we are just a little voyeur who lives in their own big concrete slab across the street.  

The cold and blocky architecture of the Brutalism movement in the 1950s – 70s was founded on a socialist utopian ideology. Erno Goldfinger was part of this movement who wanted to create highly functional, uncompromising, antibourgeois buildings that would be affordable and honest. However, the great grey masses tended to look rather unfriendly and miserable and would stick out from the rest of the urban environment like stark, alien fortresses.  We see in Balfron Towers these small, dark bridges across to the lift tower on each floor.  These bridges have an ominous narrowness in comparison to the bulk of the building. Like a gangplank of a pirate ship, they suggest limited ways to get out once you’re in. The building was said to evoke ‘a delicate sense of terror’.

Terrill picks up on the terror. The floodlit building against the dark sky with the small celebrating figures throughout it fills us with an existential chill. When we start to look at the little groups we see one has written the word disco in lights on their balcony, others have suspended a little donkey piñata between the floors with colourful streamers. All these tiny people, with their tiny expressions of joy or laughter seem so vulnerable. This architecture does not encourage individuals to express themselves outwardly. So while these residents may be close to their neighbours in proximity, they are encouraged to keep personal expression to the confines of their apartment. The building protects these humans from really having to live together and accept diversity.

 By constructing these joyous crowd scenes, Terrill comments on the original utopian ideals of the architects. Utopias rely on a sense of a communal whole that puts aside the needs for individual expression. The little individuals contrast their expressions of happiness with the giant looming ideals of promised freedom and equality that the building evokes. We know this moment of togetherness and community will end like a New Years Eve countdown and they will kiss and say goodnight and wake up to concrete and the gangplanks down to the lifts. However, this does not have to end so melancholically. The project itself was very uplifting for the residents of the building and they got a great deal of joy and empowerment from this event.


at Sutton Gallery

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Deborah White's Ghosts

Deborah White's installation Ghosts of the near future is a surreal submariner’s pet shop that sets out to discuss issues of climate change and environmental dystopias. There are six pretty bird cages with a vivid green almost toxic coloured video projection shining through them. In the cages fish/humans with animal masks swim seemingly up to the viewer, perhaps looking for a buyer or perhaps just looking out of their cage/fish bowl because they are trapped. Behind the cages we see a video projection of a bay window and a fresh green garden. Through the window we initially see a young girl/woman with tight blue pants and a fresh white shirt chasing butterflies with a red butterfly net. We realise that we too are enclosed and looking out just as the swimming rabbit, horse, duck, monkey and cat are. The cages make the joyful butterfly catching more sinister.

This artwork explores our desire to own and collect. It challenges the notion that as we gather more things, and guild our own cages we somehow advance. The principal of collecting centers on a lack. It is about taking pleasure in the infinite; the impossibility of completion that makes collections so stimulating. On his death bed, novelist and passionate butterfly collector Vladimir Nabakov was said to say ‘that [a] certain butterfly was already on the wing’ and he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again. The collection stops when the collector stops, it must remain incomplete in order to inspire desire in life. Nabakov wrote his famous novel Lolita while on butterfly collecting expedition.

The image we stumble upon in the gallery is similar to Nabakov’s famous narrator Humbert (a sexual predator) seeing 'a burst of greenery' before first meeting 'this Lolita, my Lolita'. The desire to catch something or someone, own it in the way Humbert longs for ownership of Lolita can never be totally realised without a fear for its escape or loss. The insidious gaze of the collector turns the innocent green of the garden to the acidic green of waste. However, the ephemeral qualities of girl and butterfly cannot be caged or preserved. The sad, masked creatures that have been caught and caged, allude to the paradox of collecting/owning. Like touching a butterfly’s wings, once you claim to have it, the elusive beauty will be forever compromised.  

In the video, the scene of the youthful girl fades and returns as an image of the girl now a woman with glasses, reading inside. While she is still the object of our gaze, we realise she has put down her butterfly net, come inside a cage of her own and has started a book collection. She reads Australian writer George Turner’s 1988 The Sea and Summer, which opens with a couple rowing between the drowned skyscrapers of Melbourne CBD as a result of climate change. As the video goes on, the pile of book increases. All the books seem to deal with the prospect of environmental disaster. The bay window outside starts to fill with the same toxic green, the caged creatures start to appear beside the reading, aging woman. The books could symbolise a pile of accumulated knowledge on the grave fears for the environment. Ironically, the endless pursuits of book-collectors contribute to this destruction. This work seems to warn us of the destruction in collecting. The more we want may result in the more we lose.