The Bluecoat, School Lane, L1 3BX
Friday 2nd March - Sunday 22nd April, 10am-6pm

Reviewed by Minnie Stacey


Topophobia means ‘fear of place’ - it’s an exhibition conceived and curated by Anne Eggebert and Polly Gould. I visited the show for their opening Saturday guided tour. The exhibition features 10 UK international artists.

Eggebert-and-Gould like to use the phrase ‘butting up against’ for our experiences in relation to landscapes, and quote Jean Francois Lyotard to field their philosophy that we’re unable to see a landscape when we’re in it - ‘Estrangement would appear to be a pre-condition for landscape’.

Although the art on show claims to be representative of threatening places that foster spatial anxiety - places to be feared - Eggebert-and-Gould have chosen several settings distant from the prospects that most people live and survive in. As a result, this exhibition is largely cleansed of presence and lacks credibility. The curators use the subtitle ‘Technologies of Disappearance’ as a didactic umbrella for the show, but if it takes people to personify fear, does this exhibition fall down on the very premise it was set up on?

Within the context of the exhibition’s title ‘Topophobia’, Matthias Einhoff’s video installation does present a place to fear. He investigates a wasteland, previously part of the militarised zone within the Berlin wall and now a stalled late-capitalist development. Einhoff makes the area even stranger by using high-end corporate video techniques - he disembodies the viewer with an almost flying camera and a discordant propagandistic soundtrack. The sniping sounds of branches and plant life hitting camera glass bring to mind the live gunshots guards would have fired. This is a place of anxiety, an outcome of totalitarian rule - whether Fascist, Stalinist or Market led. Here, people go about their daily business in an ominous atmosphere of ‘what now’?

Contrastingly, with ‘Foamy Water’ and ‘Solid Growth’, Almut Rink invites the viewer to perch uncomfortably on what could be described as virtually a stool, to take us on an imaginary journey in a virtual space with a monotonous, clinical soundtrack ‘coaching’ us on actions like drawing and rendering. While mouse clicking snips at your brain, the two video installations are supposed to pose the question of how these computer simulations affect our understanding of real landscapes through being human - as Almut’s work ‘thematises the notion of nature’. A series of pixels, this cyber screen space isn’t a place to fear, it isn’t ‘a space our ego occupies’ but too dull for an ego to stick around, except to play at constructing obviously fake environments - and that facility isn’t available here. It reminds us of the existing power of the natural world but Rink fails to link her art with actual software-realised urban environments, or the escapism of computer generated movies, and people do not feature. According to the curators Eggebert-and-Gould, from the virtual plants in the displaced demonstrations, we’re able to pick up on a metaphor for communities of people and alienation, i.e. what is it like being an alien in a community? So is it actually the art spiel that personifies a fantasy of total control in this exhibition?

I turn the corner and it’s always good to see books, but the relevance here is what does the artist Abigail Reynolds have to say by presenting these second-hand, centuries-old devices for viewing? Her ‘very intentioned photographs clearly point to the social uses of landscape – ground as ideological ground’: but is this any more than the before and after photographs we’re all used to seeing, albeit here some with the novelty of a layered peel-through access to a counterpoint in time? A field packed with chrysanthemums becomes crammed with the faces of Glastonbury Festival goers. A country scene with Morris Dancers becomes a fence surrounded by Greenham Common protestors linking hands. This is about the politics of landscape, but the reference point is in the past and disappointingly isn’t contextualised within the current global nuclear arms glut. Any trace of politics here is even further neutered by the curators’ assertion that ‘The world has moved on from the nuclear threat to those from natural disasters’.

In the same room, Uta Kogelsberger’s photos of the wilderness and urban American landscapes are either cleansed of fear by being photographed from the distance of the desert, or by being de-populated by long exposure camera work and rendered expressionless as film shoot settings - unpopulated backdrops. She succeeds in making a power station float and the light pollution of filthy cities sparkle as if they were a collection of rocks and stars seen by the Hubble telescope. Far from representing human agency in the landscape, her photographs alienate us from this.

I wondered what the blurb for the next work ‘Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place’ could mean within the Exhibition focus. Louise K Wilson’s 13 minute and 13 seconds looped video installation is about fictional disappearance - it’s basically a speeded up version of Picnic at Hanging Rock with an out-of-synch pre-digital sound track. The curators point out that the artist has pixelated the rock formation of the ‘real’ place the story is set in, thus enabling them to soak up the filmic girls. If this obscure metaphorical possibility allies the fantastical subject of this installation to Topophobia, why is it inaccessible and not overtly linked to, for example, the everyday space of the living room where mindless consumption of television can ‘disappear’ us?

During the guided tour we suddenly see a pair of legs, then a ponytail, dangling from a distant box high up on scaffolding. This is a surprise simply because – though silent, remote and compartmentalised – Liverpool based artist Emily Speed is a human being in an exhibition largely cleansed of contemporaneous representation. Also on display is her flat-pack version of a mediaeval defensive design for the Star Fort, which is ‘capable of being worn as a hybrid form that references furniture, clothing, and architecture’, and a sculpture of backlit boxes of the same. Unfortunately the Star Fort doesn’t come across as exemplifying ‘how architecture represents an especially poignant example of transience’, and has a middle-class designer edge. Emily wasn’t present the second time I went.

The penultimate room houses the contributions of three artists, and although it does contain some people and watercolour paint, in the end its tidiness is cold and destroys the human narrative elements that would bring about a fear of location. Anne Eggebert is looking for something to evidence the presence of her father in her largely googled and unearthly spatial allocation. ‘Have you noticed how when you float along a street in Google Earth you can’t look in at the windows’, she says, to which I want to reply ‘Yet’, but fear this may add an unwelcome political dimension. From Marja Helander’s self-portrait photographs - setting her in the snow, and among the cardboard and tin of supermarket packaging, all sold with a change of outfits, jaunty stances and a red hat – we’re supposed to pick up that she is displaced, shamanistic and missing tribal ancestors. Polly Gould’s watercolours are literally flat, but brought to life in ‘hand-blown’ mirrored globes to ‘engage us with themes of perspective, distortion and the presentation of space’. This ‘delightful visual trick’ is pretty but makes me think of an upper-income bracket shiny shopping experience.

I butt up against Topophobia’s art when I find it amusing that I have a similar red hat to the one in Marja Helander’s pictures. Getting it out of my bag, I momentarily place a glove close to the surface of a watercolour on a column supporting a globe. While fully understanding Polly Gould’s quick, po-faced dive to remove the gauntlet, I notice that the hat humour isn’t really welcome in such a serious exhibitive landscape, and, as something to be cleansed, I hold my laughter in with an effortful act of personal enclosure.

By the time I climb the long staircase to the final work, David Ferrando Giraut’s ‘perpetual site of distress’, I want to burst out laughing as my ordinary, everyday shadow mischievously walks along the screen when I cross the room to gain a viewing perspective in what turns out to be another seriously considered but empty filmic phenomena. A previously live, continuous, meta-textual but narratively static, panoramic turn of a camera depicting the aftermath of a crash, this mini road movie is set in the countryside and populated with props. It does contain a human, but an expressionless one who doesn’t move or speak, and though injured, I’m told is capable of remaining sturdily upright for the 49 minute duration that I doubt any viewer would hang around for. The panning, coupled with an unnaturally weird audio track, doesn’t achieve its aim of placing me at the centre of the work to be trapped in its direful time, as my naughty shadow proves when I pass the screen to leave.

Apart from Matthias Einhoff, with his war zone presented in a Stalinist/Capitalist duel of dangerous reality and propaganda, this exhibition is cleansed of politics - though an effete attempt was made with the curators calling Emily Speed’s occupation of a box ‘a gendered space’. The show lacks originality, is seriously flat, middle-class and remote. Beyond a veneer of presentation in ways of seeing, or ‘devices of spectatorship’ as the blurb goes, it is devoid of meaning. Cleansed of the actual embodiment, actions and politics of human life in living landscapes, this art doesn’t evoke a fear of place - it alienates us from itself. Topophobia presents ephemeral viewpoints wrapped up with a tome of words - writing that’s both on the wall and available at the bookshop. It’s an anthropophobic, apolotical and funded folly, exhibited in a place where gallery attendants are generally unpaid, and often unemployed, volunteers.

After Liverpool, Topophobia moves on to the self-referentially named destination of Spacex in Exeter where it can be viewed from 22 May 2012.

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