When I first planned to spend six months after graduate school in the United Kingdom, I expected to be living in London or commuting there regularly. However, with train fares nearly five times the cost as in the US, I quickly faced a deflated travel budget and few choices for art in my base in the university city of Cambridge. The area does offer some options: there is the nearby Wysing Art Centre, a residency and project space with the occasional open house; the Kettle’s Yard compound, which includes the former home of Tate curator Jim Ede (now operated as a museum of the Ede collection) and a second on-site white cube space; and then there is Aid & Abet, an artist-run space located in a former workshop and equipped with partitioned studios, a film room, library, large project space, and – like so many of the art spaces in the UK – adequate funding through Arts Council grants. Yes, even their tense rounds of grant negotiations are enough to make a Chicagoan pace with envy.
The first show I saw at Aid & Abet was titled An Unnatural Theatre and was a four-person group show examining performance and sculpture. Four years in and already we can say that ours is a decade devoted to negotiating the aesthetic boundary between performance and literally anything else – painting, sculpture, writing, reading, texting, fucking, voting, drinking, whatever – and with good reason: the critical perspective has long involved the meaning and significance (energy?) in an art object with the act of producing it, and artists have been catching on. The social position of the artist at the time of making, together with the auratic point of contact between the everyday and the aesthetic, can combine to create powerful impressions. The risk run is heroic banality, or an exaggerated importance given to gesture and display, at the cost of complexity on the level of artifact. Robert Morris letting things fall at the Whitney in 1970. Jutta Koether grooving around her painting at Reena Spaulings in 2009. Georges Mathieu on stage, whipping paint; Yves Klein, rolling women; Pricasso – well, you get it.
Spread between three gallery spaces and one film screening room, An Unnatural Theatre was plenty of work. In the main space, a trio of televisions on pedestals played Sophie Clements‘ There, After (2011). The three films were composed of rapid-edit moments – a firework going off, water splashing, lumber crashing – which the artist had repeated and rephotographed from different angles. Run at speed, the films seem to preserve these events as if each were a static climax, stuck in time at the moment of greatest action and unresolved tension.
In the same room, Jorge Rivera‘s Remains/Clay (2013) told the tale of its creation: the artist had thrown handfuls of clay at a pedestal until it piled up, weeping slip and looking like shit with fingerprints. The building of this work features in Rivera’s film, In the Skin of the Bull (2009), projected in the film room nearby, which had the sand-covered floor and wooden crate seats of an arena, a fighting pit, or an alternative art center film screening room, depending on interpretation. Themes of power, ritual, violence, and embodiment joined the physical process of art-making and bronze casting in an unabashed ecstasy of weird dude energy.
CJ Mahony converted a rear space into a nightmarish crevice, with the white gallery walls pinched into a restrictive path forcing viewers to wedge through and twist along its path. This must have been absolute hell at the event’s opening, with wine glasses tipping and claustrophobic classmates hyperventilating, but I found it a brief but ambitious installation, more in the tradition of phenomenological theme park rides than sculpture or performance, but perhaps more quirky than the artist intended. The path is so tight, with such oppressive white-cube universality, that it was a real shock when I was deposited outside, in a back alley of a crumbly light industrial district in England.
Alice Walton‘s sculptures occupied yet another room, though this one small enough not to overwhelm the work’s reduced scale; she also took an easily-missed corner for additional works, ostensibly for the same reason. Up close, her arrangements of reflective geometric shapes with black and white printed photos suggested an interest in archives and imagery (especially found images of the female body) but many felt uncomfortably close to tumblr collages, where, pulled from their historical context and juxtapozed, historical images are free to look cold and creepy and that’s it. Though these pictures twisted and turned as the viewer circled them, I kept thinking their scale and number prevented any stronger impressions, and there wasn’t enough in the image selection to prompt deeper engagement. I found her wooden wall-works more interesting in terms of form and material.
Overall, I was impressed by the scale of the gallery and the huge amount of space it gave to these four early career artists. While the theme of An Unnatural Theatre provided a frame through which to think about this work, it wasn’t stifling, and there was plenty of other considerations at the corners. I was happy to see investment in the objects and artifacts, especially in Sophie Clements’ video works, which seemed to best blend the performative immediacy of experience with the passive quality of sculpture.