A fully immersive art experience in every sense. It starts with online booking, then a woman in wellies and clipboard ticking off names, in front of a large rusted metal door in a carpark at the back of a warehouses just of Kingsland High Road, East London. You have to walk past a McDonalds and all the excitement of Hackney street life to get there. ‘There’ is Edgelands, the car park is one of several hemmed in blank urban spaces, derelict and graffitied (including oddly a memorial to a Chechen freedom fighter). In the distance the sound of Ridley Road market (“come on love don’t be shy, everything for a paand”) around the wastes are stacks of cardboard for rough sleepers. But we must go; our group of slightly baffled art enthusiasts are being hurried through the door by a tall figure in black with a strange voice.
Down steep stairs into darkness, dampness and oddness. We are recruits for a job with Bunker PLC apparently. We fill out application forms in almost complete darkness, chivvied by strange figures with headtorches, who fit waterproof slippers over our shoes, later we will get into full waterproof ponchos. Scientific glass vessels full of beautiful, crystallised plant life provide light. We watch the company film, full of appropriate corporate cliché, in another room, hurried down many dark, wet mouldy corridors from low ceilinged space to space. We find out more about the company, set up after cataclysmic climatic events in 2012 (we are in the future now). Life evolves underground: human pollination; urban vertical farming; genetic modification by plunging the hands deep into bloody chest cavities; a hands on art work then. The combination of film/ sci fi/ dystopia/ comic references echoes throughout the hour underground and in every one of the rooms; crystallised books by Ballard in one room, references to Tarkovsky on a white board in another. The conviction by the actor/ artists is total, as is the whole set up.
The usual fear of role play promotes the wish to see this art work on many levels. As a walk through film, a theatrical polemic about climate change, an artwork that derives from performance and installation traditions of the 1960’s. I suppose you could say that critique has been implicit within performance art since Oldenburg’s anti materialist Happenings and is certainly present here. You could also point out that a future in which nothing works is a common feature of much contemporary art work. Noticeably none of these futures involves digital technology, imagine Blade Runner without all the toys, or the replicants for that matter.
But you could also say that what links many of these works is a common understanding of the role of time within the artwork and in the way that the viewer encounters it. There is more to this than the simple process of setting the work in the future, as seen in both ‘Bunker PLC’ and ‘whiteonwhite’ (see previous post). Could we say that, in using an overarching narrative: the role of this imaginary corporation in a future society that has undergone cataclysmic change; the search for meaning by a geophysicist in a post Soviet city, both works fluently create sequenced packages of time that are apparently linear, but are in fact circular? Time that appears ‘representational’, in that it is subject to the usual chronological rules that exist this side of the picture plane: diurnal (A diurnal cycle is any pattern that recurs every 24 hours as a result of one full rotation of the Earth).But time that is in fact subject to systems set up by the artist/s.
In the Bunker, although our narrative packages are physically divided by rooms in which the different activities occur, including the relaxation room/ bar at the end where loud music is played at us. Drinks, by the way, have been served throughout in different forms, there is a level of humour/ wit/ fun in this work that is admirable and adds to the sense of understanding this on many levels. Although the way we move through the scenarios appears linear, they could work in any direction. I did try to move away from one room, only to be approached by a very fierce actor/ artist squeaking “Task? Task? Have you completed your Task?” at me; impressively staying in character throughout. In ‘Bunker PLC’, in common with ‘whiteonwhite’, we make the overarching narrative complete in our reaction to the sequences of activity we participate in, and the connections we make between them and what we know of the outside world.
How does that fit into what I have been struggling with in my encounters with an earlier art work (Het Steen, see earlier posts)? We left the notion that art needs to be a physical object behind in the 1970’s. Nonetheless, the way we encounter, for example the glued together boards covered with green and brown paint that is called ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, bears more similarities with these two recent works than you might think. Granted they are not art objects, In an art object, traditionally a flat piece of static painting, time can be encapsulated in the ways in which the artist has laid material on the surface: slowly drawn line; thick violent gestural paint; visibly layered surfaces etc. Time can also be manipulated conceptually ‘through the picture plane’ as it were, on the other side of the Albertian window. So, for example in Het Steen we see the horse pulling the cart with its two occupants to our left, the sun will rise, the hunter will shoot the ducks on the far side of the fallen tree. In other words the representations are presented for us to read as mental images that we can happily accept as a narrative sequence subject to the usual rules of diurnal time.
As I think I have established in earlier post, it is how you traverse the mental image of the landscape that tells the viewer about the qualities of that landscape. ‘Bunker Plc’ the artwork is both a physical landscape – a Second World War bunker- and a conceptual landscape- ‘Bunker Plc’. We traverse the conceptual landscape according to the rules we are given by the imagined protagonists. So what have we established? That these works (‘Bunker PLC’, ‘whiteonwhite’) are also ‘landscape’ in that they involve traversing a landscape (physically and conceptually). They involve presenting time, on the far side of the ‘picture plane’, as a diurnal chronological process sequenced through traditional narrative structures. But, beneath the immediately visible layers of pictorial space, in the formal features of the composition so to speak, are far more complex, contemporary, non linear time based processes. Playing with stories is as old as humankind, it’s fascinating to see how artists are now working with them in such a multilayered referential and, crucially, easily accessible manner.
It occurs to me as a postscript that: Het Steen, like most painting is the work of a single ego, and as many post Pollock (Griselda not Jackson) will point out, white and inevitably male. Whereas both Bunker Plc and whiteonwhite are collaborative works, film is inevitably so and such a substantial installation must have demanded continuous negotiation. Both contemporary works seem to be largely put together by women, Eve Sussman as well as the rufus corporation for ‘whiteonwhite’ and Jo Shaw & Olivia Bellas, as well as the other women artists and actors involved in Bunker Plc.