Critics’ Picks

  • View of “Moarg Keil,” 2019.

    Morag Keil

    ICA - Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
    The Mall
    January 30–April 14

    Controllers, 2019, installed in the upper galleries of “Moarg Kiel,” is a bile-green door jammed shut. Its peephole affords a glimpse of Alexa’s blue halo, as if to propose the Amazon bot—feminized, confined—as an update of Duchamp’s Étant donnés. Another door opens onto Shopping, 2011/19, where tendril-like wires hang from the ceiling. The wires connect a system of speakers nestled into washing-up bowls from which audio spills, clashing advertising and video-game samples to give the bare room a homely, mall-like atmosphere. Art’s technological support structures become a site of consumption from which to derive new works: Shopping came about as a low-budget experiment in remaking the sound-zoning system in Hayward Gallery’s 2008–2009 Warhol retrospective. Originally titled Civil War, the work casts both the ICA and the viewer as a customer. Follow “Pathway,” 2018/19, a series of posters connecting installations downstairs, collaging the artist’s Instagram feed onto window frames on the floor.

    Complementing Keil’s decision to misspell her name in the exhibition’s title—scrambling branding strategies premised on making person and product interchangeable—the sculpture Reap What You Sow, 2014, strikes a charmingly naff portrait, inspired by one of the first cloned sheep, Morag. The show is encapsulated by the didactic Audio Guide, 2019, voiced by Oliver Corino, who stresses the churning rhythms of works such as Clock, 2018–19, “which tells the time and goes round and round.” In an exhibition full of circular motion, stoppages feel significant as sites of potential release. In Keil and Georgie Nettell’s collaborative film Questionnaire, 2017–19, which screens just once daily in the ICA’s cinema, a rotating purple-black spiral punctuates a monotonous scroll through the artists’ days, a backdrop to questions including “What’s the hardest job in the world?” which elicits responses from twenty-four voices. Fulfilling the exhibition’s anti-professional aesthetic, no one replies, “Artist.”

  • Alice Channer, Elon Musk, (detail), 2018, mirror polished stainless steel, accordion pleated hi-tech lamé; Echioceras Ammonite
    fossil, 20 x 9 1/2 x 1".

    “In the Labyrinth”

    Large Glass
    392 Caledonian Road
    February 8–April 5

    A “red thread” is an East Asian myth about romantic destiny, a fungal disease of turf grasses, a computer-science algorithm, and a Dutch advocacy group for sex workers. It is also the tool used by Theseus to navigate the labyrinth of Cretan King Minos and slay the Minotaur within, a gift from Ariadne before he left her to die on an island far from home. A red thread can be many things, lead in all directions, come undone—a running theme to be followed.

    In this group exhibition, the red thread is Charlotte Higgins’s book Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths (2018). The weave is studiously loose, and the seven artists whose work is included have approached the theme with variety. While some focus on figural abstraction (Mark Wallinger and Alison Turnbull) or the specific use of textiles (Tonico Lemos Auad and Helen Mirra), a spare arrangement of three works in the first room hints at the more sinister aspects of the leitmotif. The question, for instance: How do we get out of here?

    Carey Young’s photograph of staggered white columns could be an Op artwork; pale vertical lengths, flecked with scratches of color, recede enigmatically in 2-D. But the work is titled Prosecutor’s Office, 2019: The columns are opaque slats that shield the workings of the law from prying eyes. The blindness of justice is echoed in Dorothy Cross’s nearby Hemispheres, 2019, a set of weighing scales suspended from a coat hanger with steel wire. The two pans, made of human skull bone, are gold leaf–gilded and hold small meteorites. Alice Channer’s Elon Musk, 2018, emerges from the wall like stainless-steel-bracket fungi. Inside its irregularly shaped disc, a length of accordion-pleated, high-tech lamé coils tightly around an ammonite fossil. An analogy for the condensed structures of new technology, or a glimpse inside the unruly gray matter of the eccentric billionaire’s mind? Look closely—the edges of the synthetic fabric, close to the mollusk, are frayed.

  • Anna Chrystal Stephens, Stern Hood, 2019, acrylic canvas, steel, photographic prints on cotton and linen, paracord stool, outdoor and domestic accessories.

    Anna Chrystal Stephens

    129-131 Mare Street
    January 17–March 23

    If you’re planning an exit strategy—and who isn’t, these days?—Anna Chrystal Stephens’s new exhibition, “Anorak,” is a good place to start gearing up. Think of how useful, and marveling, it would be to wear Utility Cloak (all works cited 2019), made up of several repurposed, lightweight tents perched on a wall, their plastic extremities spread out to outline the place for a body. Stephens stuffed the cloak’s insides with a myriad of escapist musts: water filters, a map, a first-aid kit, plastic plates and cups (indispensable for the posher among us), an emergency blanket, tools, and a vintage “Wild Flowers” pocket guide—alas, presumably not for finding psychedelic edibles.

    Elsewhere in the gallery, Stephens sets up camp. Stern Hood, a canvas and steel tent, stands in the middle. While its autumnal colors, flower prints, tartan blankets, and gas hob make it feel like a modern commodity for the dilettantish urban explorer, a nearby homemade sink—roughly confected from tree branches, fluorescent yellow paracord, and a plastic basin—provides a better example of the artist’s resourcefulness. Hanging on a nearby wall as part of a titular work is a mural-sized photograph of an improvised shelter on a canal boat. Throughout the show, Stephens compels us to imagine how human-built structures can simultaneously respond to and withstand the will of nature. In flaunting her own playful survivalism, she seems to jab at viewers’ unpreparedness, or at least encourages us to grow a sense of humor—that apocalypse essential. With Brexit looming in the background, who knows how much of the artist’s help we’ll be needing. Until then, keep calm and carry on.