Critics’ Picks

Olivia Plender, Open Forum, 2008, platform, screens, paintings, monitors, lamps, desk, table, fake plants, props, dimensions variable.


Olivia Plender

16 Narrow Quay
July 14 - September 9

Olivia Plender’s historically grounded, stagelike installations draw attention to the ideological dimension of the objects and institutions that shape our subjectivity—among them games, education, architecture, and design. Empire City—The World on One Street, 2009, presents a model of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, whose attractions ranged from a Maori hut to palaces of industry, arts, and engineering. It is twinned with another model, The Truth Itself Speaks Through Me, 2012, which depicts a scene from John Bunyan’s 1678 book The Pilgrim’s Progress. One of the most widely read books during the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain (it was often used to teach people how to read), The Pilgrim’s Progress, with its exaltation of hard work as a means of spiritual salvation, encouraged loyalty and obedience and had an overwhelming influence on workers. Similarly, the British Empire Exhibition used the nascent leisure and tourism industries to promote imperialism. Another installation contains a collection of toys and games, including the 2007 Set Sail for the Levant, a board game in which players begin as indebted tenant farmers and strive for social advancement. Despite the premise, the game is unwinnable; faced with spiraling debt, players find that their only solution is to “set sail to the Levant, where the law can’t reach you.”

The installation Entrepreneurial Garden, originally conceived in 2010 and re-created here, transforms Arnolfini’s Reading Room with lava lamps, a foosball table, a hammock, and primary color accents. Cool, laid-back, and creative, the decor exemplifies the post-Fordist corporate ethos made popular by companies like Google and Facebook. Within this installation is a model that imagines the Arnolfini itself as the same sort of office space, replete with inspirational posters, Zen areas, lounge seating, and an in-house chicken coop (where, presumably, local, ethical, and organic food could be sourced). By training her eye on details that may seem trivial—ornamentation and entertainment—Plender emphasizes the ways in which these aspects allow choice and thus freedom, making them the most elucidating expressions of society’s cultural values.