Pacific 1996 © Yukinori YanagiThresholds

Part of The Unexpected Guest
Tate Gallery, Albert Dock, Liverpool
15th September - 25th November 2012
Free entry

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

All the works in this exhibition are from the Tate Collection and are related to the themes of belonging, visiting, travelling, integrating, having a common culture. Some exhibits are comprised of large numbers of photographs or cases and the spacious rooms at the Tate lend themselves to this.

Mark Wallinger’s Royal Ascot (1994) examines phenomena regarded as being quintessentially British: the Royal family and horse-racing at Royal Ascot. What links them, apart from the Court Calendar which exists to present this figurehead family as a role model of cohesion and stability and tradition (!) is the importance of breeding to the lineage, both in race horses and in the ruling elite. And the image of a race horse created by placing the front part of one with the back part of another is both humorous - evoking as it does the idea of the pantomime horse - and apposite because it is an effective image of the practice of selective breeding which so easily mismatches personalities in the interest of other considerations.

Keith Arnatt’s series of photographs A.O.N.B. (1982-1984) questions our fantasy view of our homeland as consisting of areas of outstanding natural beauty by presenting the very scenes in drab monochromatic photographs which include piles of rubbish. Well we have even dropped litter on Everest and are systematically polluting the whole planet so it is perverse of us to have this green and pleasant cloud cuckoo land heritage nonsense.

Layla Curtis produced an alternative map, United Kingdom (1999) which is particularly pertinent in today’s movement towards a Scottish referendum for independence. What is most interesting about this is the way the visitors try to locate their own town on the map and are surprised to find Scottish and Welsh territories within England and English and Welsh within Scotland. Their expectations are thwarted; their territory has been tampered with.

Gilbert and George have also addressed the notion of territory and identity in their works England (1980) and Cunt Scum (1977). The latter is based on graffiti, a genre which has personal and territorial reverberations and which also allows the perpetrator to advertise his nationalist, sexist, homophobic, fascist etc. ideology anonymously but very publically. One artist referred to graffiti practitioners as dogs pissing on their territory and the Gilbert and George work does concentrate on the negative aspects of spray-can expressionism. Yet artists like Banksy and Jean-Michel Basquiat have raised it to a high level of technical achievement and communicative power and street art is the art of the people, cutting through the conventions of galleries and capitalistic investment art. Mark Titchner is also interested in word power and the facility language has for reducing complex ideas into attractive slogans with Utopian promise. The state as family: leading, nurturing and protecting is a seductive offer of safe belonging. Titchner has exploited the visual appeal of typographic effects and the drama of black and red and largeness of scale in order to produce declamatory banners: We Want to Nurture and Protect (2004) and We Want Strong Leadership (2004), which combine the retro feel of agitprop with those radiant religious posters outside churches.

And once you have the territory, once you have the ideology, you have to defend it. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Drift Topography (2003) references the flimsy understanding of complex political and social systems we often have, by creating an unsubstantial ring of American soldiers made of cardboard and sticky tape, surrounding and guarding a territory crammed with doctrines. Yael Bartana’s Kings of the Hill (2003), which shows young men driving off-road vehicles in the coastal hills near Tel Aviv, goes further, by demonstrating the pointlessness of such behaviour. The men are filmed engaging in futile manoeuvres to surmount obstacles.

Being a traveller, being a temporary guest, being an immigrant, catching glimpses of other lives… are themes dealt with in this exhibition too. Hurvin Anderson’s painting Jersey (2008) provides a visual metaphor for the need for a common meeting place. In the case of Caribbean immigrants of the 50s and 60s, barbers’ shops were set up in private homes, where the intimacy of personal grooming and social intercourse and cultural reinforcement against the forces of indigenous prejudice were interwoven.

Sophie Calle’s The Hotel series (1981) views the lives of guests in their absence through photographing their belongings and making written observations. Thus we speculate and draw conclusions on limited evidence without actually meeting and getting to know people and this links with prejudice, though the artist does find things in common with some of the guests. Similarly themed is Simryn Gill’s Dalam (2001) series of 258 photographs showing de-peopled living rooms in which the artist has been a brief visitor, though in this case the photographer had permission for voyeurism. And this might account for the tidiness of the rooms depicted: the host would want to show the space to advantage, wearing its best clothes for the public view, whereas the hotel guests were documented without knowing they had an audience, so it is a very private view that is being made public. Dalam is Malay for inside, interior and also deep but unless the pristine appearance of these interiors is cultural, I don’t know how deep the artist can get in an exercise in which people are asked to put their living space on display to the public - it’s such a self-conscious exercise.

Globalisation and the increase in global travel is another theme represented. Eugenio Dittborn’s To Return (RTM) Airmail Painting No. 103 (1993) documents destinations; Jimmie Durham’s sculpture of found objects: a coca cola bottle inside a gear box casing, with iron pipes and sapling trunks on a trolley, evokes the profession of the explorer-anthropologist in its title alone whilst the object references transport and globalised Western influence through the ubiquitous coke bottle. Peter Fischli and David Weiss took photographs during their international travels. Visible World (1997) shows skylines and tourist scenes and change; I found this all a bit obvious, to be honest. Martin Parr’s Common Sense (1995-1999) had a greater visual impact because his photographs are shown en masse rather than consecutively as in the previous exhibit. These chromatically intense images of the variety of global consumerism are just too much input, which is the point the artist is making. Pak Sheung Chuen’s A Travel without Visual Experience (2008) is a comment on our globally pervasive phone camera culture. Every event in our daily life, as well as in our tourist life, can be chronicled and it’s as if we only see the world through this lens. Images have been installed in a totally dark room on a background of wall paper. They can only be viewed - too briefly to be taken in - by the light of a camera flash: the momentary experience viewed second-hand later. This interaction is innovative, intelligent and relevant, as is Yukinori Yanagi’s Pacific (1996) - shown above - a visually arresting installation of interconnecting Perspex boxes, containing coloured sand configured to represent 49 national flags. Thousands of ants were released into this structure and became the agents of migratory change. Their travels are documented in the tunnels; the effects of their movement are illustrated by the redistribution of the sand from one flag to another, eroding boundaries between the flags and echoing global migration. This is a creatively intelligent way to demonstrate such a colossal redistribution of people but it stops short at depicting the problems caused by change.

The power of commodity is fundamental to world trade and politics. This is vividly depicted in Kada Attia’s film Oil and Sugar (2007) and in his model Untitled (Ghardaia) 2009 which depicts a town built of cooked couscous. The film has the greater metaphorical impact, in my opinion. A structure composed of regular blocks of sugar has oil poured over it and goes into relentless collapse as the oil seeps into every part. It is a riveting aesthetic and kinetic experience as well as a political statement about the way resources and their control can pervade and influence and threaten political and economic establishments. In this case it is implied that the political structure was based on an old prime mover: the sugar industry with its evocation of the slave trade.

Thresholds is visually and intellectually stimulating and though it contains some rather clichéd input and thin ideas, it’s worth the effort for the visual and experiential pleasures offered. But in terms of complexity it cannot compete with the much more hard-hitting exhibition: Port City, On Mobility and Exchange at A Foundation, Greenland Street, Liverpool, which I had the privilege of reviewing in the summer of 2008.

No contest.

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