Central to Candice Lin’s current exhibition, “A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour,” is System for a Stain (all works cited, 2016), a distillation apparatus where popular colonial commodities, such as tea and cochineal, form a dark-red liquid in a shallow wooden tank. Slim plastic tubing emerges, snaking its way to a neighboring room, where it coils onto a floor covered with white marble laminate. As the red fluid gathers in puddles, an audio work, A Memory Blushing with Innocence, reveals the physiological and psychological effects of colonialism for both master and slave, as told through the macabre memories of a plantation owner’s daughter. On the fate of Indians working in the mines, for example, she recalls their skin turning white, their veins silver, and their eyes blue. “They believed they finally understood what it was to be European,” she notes, “as they crawled out of the earth . . . sick and slowly dying.”
But the critique of the capitalist system that facilitated this history does not remain in the realm of abstract representation. A Warner for Survivalists: White Gold presents a small fish tank in which about fifteen giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches are offered only candied fruit and a Chinese vase made of sugar to feed on—sugar being a colonial commodity that some breeds have evolved to avoid, given its use in traps and its detrimental health effects. Horrifically, this controlled environment thus offers a limited set of choices to its inhabitants—submit, starve, or cannibalize. (When I visited, the majority appeared either dead or comatose.) In this microcosm of violence, the viewer is implicated in the cruelty: guilty of seeing something wrong within a locked structure and incapable of breaking it.
Ecstasy is a state that can push you outside of yourself. The eighty-five-year-old artist Marisa Merz offers up large- and small-scale drawings, paintings, and sculptures, all Untitled, of figures seemingly on the edge of such an experience. In one painting from 2016, disembodied hands swirl around a being in a chaotic spiral of energy. Merz uses color to channel its polymorphic magical properties (to paraphrase Michael Taussig), so that she may allude to, or even take us to the brink of, something rapturous. This experience—frenetic, stupor inducing—separates the psyche from the body, forcing one beyond the confines of flesh. And certainly, Merz takes us there, as her use of color is premised on movement and transformation. The artist unravels the solidity of the figures she depicts.
Another work, from 2014, more subdued and drawn on a simple wooden support, presents an innocent, angelic face, its eyes closed off to the world in front of it. It appears transfixed, frozen in deep anguish. This celestial creature, however, is distinctly material—hard. It is as though its numinous condition were some kind of curse. One sees this again in a 2014 sculpture of a bodiless, deformed head, made from a stone smothered in wax, unfired clay, and gold paint. Perhaps Merz’s otherworldly spirits are indeed fallen souls, calcified and condemned for eternity.
Over the past twenty years, gentrification has been slowly but surely consuming East London. Local communities are often forced to relocate due to increasing rent. Augustas Serapinas’s current exhibition highlights this problem. The artist uses the story of a former locksmith evicted from the very site that the gallery temporarily occupies, before it is converted into high-end apartments.
Serapinas creates a kind of mise en abyme, a smaller replica of the building—with identical windows and door. Peering inside, you discover a functioning sauna, complete with hot coals, towels, hanging chairs, and more. The work’s title, Housewarming, 2016, is multilayered, obviously alluding to the sweltering steam room itself and to this venue’s celebratory inaugural exhibition, as well as to the financial pressure cooker that frequently causes low-income tenants of East London to be evicted.
For this work, the artist appropriated the locksmith’s abandoned items and transformed them: He converted a safe into a stove, made some file drawers into a locker for personal belongings, and melted down hundreds of keys to create the sauna door’s handle, in addition to its water bucket and ladle. Serapinas links past and present by exploring the social relations that art engenders—he even based all the cast metalwork designs on a neighborhood local’s drawings. Some arguments suggest that politicized practices such as Serapinas’s simply raise awareness of social injustices while the art world continues to sip champagne at private viewings attended by the 1 percent. But, after a while, the artist’s work becomes too sultry to handle, and you want to flee the building—just don’t forget your stashed valuables in the locker on the way out.
“What language do you speak stranger? . . . Tell me where are you from? It does not matter, here everyone is an outsider. Sit down please, and join my circle of listeners.” We read these words upon entering the space and are invited to take a seat within a re-creation of an al-halqa, the traditional Arab storyteller’s circle. A wooden structure with soft cushions forms the installation accompanying Katia Kameli’s 2012 film The Storyteller, originally commissioned for the Marrakech Biennale of that year. In her first UK solo exhibition, Kameli has crafted a journey through recent works that investigate the power of stories, national identity, their intersections with the archive, and questions of historical authenticity. Part of her ongoing engagement with the reshaping of narratives and the voices who tell them, the source in The Storyteller is atypical—instead of a traditional oral legend, Kameli has chosen the 1964 Bollywood movie Dosti (Friendship), a movie that focuses on the relationship between two young men: one who is blind, the other, disabled.
Nearby, Kameli’s Stream of Stories, 2015–16, uses collage, facsimiles of old texts, animal-mask sculptures, and interviews with translators and other experts to locate the origins of Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables (1668–94). This work examines the politics of translation—the social and cultural ramifications of the transformation of language. Downstairs, The Algerian Novel, 2016, documents a street stall in Algiers where a father and son sell postcards and reproductions of old photographs, ranging from a portrait of Franz Fanon to scenic tourist images and more solemn colonial montages. Following the independence of Algeria in 1962, France took important cultural materials from the country into its own repositories. In Kameli’s film, customers, alongside students, writers, Algerians, and others, reflect on the significance of the images and on notions of selfhood. The documentary, like the exhibition as a whole, offers a poignant and timely insight into how the past, present, and future can be constructed within society.
You’re adrift on a sea of sound. Long, sinuous strands of seaweed curl around you, drawing you in. “The Infinite Mix,” comprising ten moving-image works, is a heady temporal—rather than spatial—audiovisual experience. Martin Creed’s uplifting and bittersweet Work No. 1701, 2013, depicts people of all stripes—young, old, disabled, hurt—crossing a street on New York City’s Lower East Side to an upbeat track by the artist. Ugo Rondinone’s THANX 4 NOTHING, 2015, a multiscreen performance by poet John Giorno (who is Rondinone’s boyfriend), reflects upon themes of life and death. Rachel Rose’s Everything and More, 2015, narrates the experiences of an astronaut who traverses the sublime vastness of space. Jeremy Deller and Cecilia Bengolea mine gleeful absurdity in Bom Bom’s Dream, 2016, a love letter to Bom Bom, a Japanese dance-hall diva; Kahlil Joseph takes us to the streets of Compton for m.A.A.d., 2014; and Cameron Jamie records a series of erotic, unsettling dances in Massage the History, 2007–2009.
It’s two works here, however, that really shine: One of them is Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s apparitional OPERA (QM.15), 2016, a hologram of the artist as the midcentury soprano Maria Callas. Callas was famous for walking out on her own performances, so it’s strange to witness her hovering instead, singing her arias through an eternal darkness. And then there’s Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife, 2015. With its poignant sound track (consisting of two versions of Alton Ellis’s song “Black Man’s World”), it explores notions of trauma and history. Gaillard puts you under, buffeted by waves, as you pass from the story of Rodin’s The Thinker, 1880, a cast of which sat outside the Cleveland Museum of Art and was damaged by an explosive laid by the Weather Underground, the extremist group, in 1970, to the sinuous dancing of trees in the wind, moving like an enchanted Hydra. You do more than watch and listen—you inhabit, sliding into a space of unnamable sensations.
This exhibition is a sucker punch to the gut. You can leave its sensory universe behind at the door, but its power remains, penetrating your heart’s most tender and vulnerable places.
Like a nightmarish excrescence, an eight-foot-high oak chest of drawers, with twenty-foot sides, is crammed into one half of an ornately paneled boardroom lined with carved crests and lit by a resplendent chandelier. A cluster of brass organ pipes protrudes from the top of the chest, which supports a six-legged platform for an octagonal windmill that brushes the ceiling some twenty feet up. Most bizarrely, the cabinet seems operated by levers jutting out on one side and is connected by elephantine tubes to three hooped barrels that sit on the floor.
Meticulously fabricated, Rod Dickinson’s Air Loom, 2002, is a re-creation of the paranoid vision of James Tilly Matthews, who in the early nineteenth century was a patient at Bedlam, the infamous psychiatric hospital now converted into the museum where this work currently stands. Many schizophrenics imagine that their delusions are externally manipulated. In Matthews’s case, it was French spies—determined to lead Britain into war with Napoleon—who were poisoning his mind, and those of politicians, by pumping vapors through “air looms” hidden in basements across London. In a corner of the gallery, Dickinson has installed twelve glass flasks labeled with substances including “Putrid Effluvia” and “Seminal Fluid (Male),” the base ingredients from which Matthews’s fictitious operatives concocted their pestilential recipes.
Dickinson’s installation is timely given Edward Snowden’s revelations, the sudden accusations of rigged elections, and shock referendum results. The absurd mother lode for spook fantasists and conspiracy theorists, Matthews’s contraption, brought to vivid life by Dickinson, suits a time when we might wonder anew at voters’ susceptibilities to mind control.