“Domestic Bliss”

The South London Gallery, founded in 1891, has become one of the liveliest venues in London since the appointment of David Thorp as director eight years ago. Despite operating on a shoestring budget—around half that of its worst funded counterpart in London, the Camden Arts Centre—Thorp consistently pulls stimulating exhibitions out of a hat. Many artists have been persuaded to show here by the gallery’s majestic navelike space.

“Domestic Bliss” is a good example of Thorp’s intelligent opportunism. Four years ago the nearby Goldsmiths College set up an M.A. in Creative Curating (mischievously implying that the other curating courses in London were uncreative), and Thorp decided to earmark the summer slot for a show organized by a group of Goldsmiths students. Each year he sets a theme and the students come up with ideas. He then selects and develops the best proposal.

In response to this year’s theme, the student curators (Adelaide Bannerman, Cristina De Baviera, Tatsuko Tomiyama, and Thomas Rugani, headed by Naoko Usuki) have chosen six young artists who use banal manufactured objects as raw material, employ repetitive working methods, and tend to make objects that are full of miniaturist detail. The most imposing work was a billowing net suspended from a corner of the ceiling by Swiss artist Peter Wiithrich, entitled Die Kunst des Schauens (The art of looking), 1997. Made from a filigree of thousands of fabric bookmarks, it evoked thoughts of all those heavy hardbacks that had been left behind. The sense of release—of thousands of tiny tongues set free—was muted by a feeling of a larger entrapment.

Entrapment was also the theme of London-based Japanese artist Yukinori Yamada’s Stay with Me, 2000, a series of birdcages made from cut-up bird-food cartons—a variation on the axiom that there are no free lunches. Both British artist Jonathan Moore and the London-based Spaniard Ana Prada arc hybrids of do-it-yourselfer and jeweler. Moore made a calligraphic constellation of animal forms out of melted ballpoint pens stuck together, and a crystalline structure out of toothpicks; Prada showed elegant minimalist reliefs made of nails, straws, and cigarette butts.

The best work by far—and one of the most beguiling new works I have seen in ages—was Antelope Carpet, 2000, by London-based Brazilian artist Tonico Lemos Auad. A deep-pile camel-colored carpet covered the floor of the whole gallery; miniature human figures and a bull’s head had been modeled from its lint. The rather elfin creatures were headless; they reclined or sat directly on the carpet, mostly at the edge. Auad had made them on site by getting down on his hands and knees to tease out the lint with his fingers. The shapes changed slightly whenever someone walked on the neighboring section of carpet. Auad has created something comparable to Mike Kelley’s Lumpenprole, 1991, in which piles of soft toys were hidden beneath an Afghan rug, rendering it lumpy and prompting the idea that a floor covering can have a bad conscience: This carpet is both infested and haunted, a cross between a beach and a battlefield—blurring the boundaries between relaxation and death.

James Hall