Edge 88 was Britain’s first biennale presenting artists working in experimental media, both performance and installation work, which has neither the availability nor historical context of sculpture or painting. The event was housed in churches and in the relatively young galleries which have sprung up in the East End of London over the past few years.
I wonder if such locations were the most diplomatic, considering the hostility already experienced by experimental art. What were the cultural intentions of the organisers in terms of the community as an audience as opposed to an art-educated elite? Much of the work was made specifically for the event and intended locations.
Helen Chadwick‘s piece Blood Hyphen, an installation, was made for the Chapel of the Clerkenwell Medical Mission. I found this piece far too reliant upon the ambiguity of the name of the church; the red tape, on the floor, guided you up the steps onto the altar where poking your head through the suspended ceiling, into the otherwise hidden space, you saw a singe red laser beam shooting diagonally across the space. Intruding upon the privacy of people worshipping there, one was put in a position of questioning moral Christian values; or was it a question of nostalgia, or a political statement about contemporary life? Was it just an aesthetic line? I was annoyed by its play on sociological phenonema of spiritual communication. I felt it was built for an art audience who could intellectualise upon its inner meaning and significance in terms of visual language, rather than the community of the church in which it was housed. To me it was a mystifying cliche which relied on the existence of recreating mythology, via the conceptual metaphor.
The performance by Ulrike Rosenbach, In the House of Women, set in the cloister garden of the Grand Priory Church Order of St John again had the connotation of ‘Christianity’ but differently experienced. The three trees in the garden were wound with red wool creating a triangular shape; the performance began after a bowl of incense had been lit, she had switched on the ‘flickering red light’ in the cloister and hung up her coat. The tape played repetitive music, similar to Eno’s ‘Music for airports’, she was in a red dress and began slowly to enter the garden from the cloister. She moved in methodical circles around the shape, tentatively touching the wool but always with caution so as not to get caught in it in any way. In the background was a statue of Christ; it seemed insignificant to the piece but could be read as a convenient connotation. The piece lasted for 30 minutes, rich in terms of metaphor if the construction was meant to be more than just dance. The concepts of the piece were again ambiguous and multiple.
Rosenbach also had an installation piece in the basement of the Air Gallery, Or-phelia, a video construction of three monitors, face upward beneath a rectangular box of trapped water. Yet another shrine, another reiteration of the need to create safe sanctuary, which to me seems to have become an easy trap, that has taken on a condition of emotional communication in order to provoke passion and danger to an audience by means of mystification. It is a question for any artist to confront, as it has the elements of manipulation of metaphor, but seems to lack the confidence of direct confrontation which characterises the unreadability, in which the ambivalence seems to be the fashion, rather than a step forward in language to create a capacity for widespread appeal; because of this I feel, that in many ways, this keeps the work in some kind of suspended aura.
The Business of Frightened Desires (or the Making of a Pornographer) by Vera Frenkel, also at the Air Gallery, was a piece which I did feel had taken on an issue, and rather than being vague set itself up to communicate in an informative manner, but at the same time questioning–is it fact, or is it fiction? She had arranged the space in three sections, first an introductory corridor of text and imagery, then video and seating followed by a more intimate section with personal objects and text. It was literal and concise, it did not depend on location or on its audience having prior knowledge.
In the same way Rose Garrard’s installation Out of Line, at the Slaughterhouse Gallery, had a point to make. Entering the damp space down the stairs there was a video sequence of an ambulance arriving at an accident and the subsequent events thereafter. The room to the left was used to process the clothing into plaster cast objects; these were then transferred to the walls of the larger room on the right. The large table, occupying the whole space, was laid with two long rows of cream-coloured telephones, some with the receiver off the hook repeating their recorded conversations. The personal intimacy of holding the receiver to one’s ear and listening to a complete stranger’s plea relating to a particular time of despair, gave an insight of oneself both internally and externally. I felt that Garrard’s investigation was more a personal statement and not an inflection from society of how one should feel and react in such a situation.
Beside of the modern installation, there is also one oil paintings supplier selling hand-painted canvas art at wholesale prices. They showed a wide range of oil painting of reproductions including popular Van Gogh and Monet’s artworks.
As I myself work in the media of performance and installation I feel it is important that clear statements are made by artists using this direct medium. A common predicament for women artists is that we are all too often trying to place ourselves in society, historically and morally, rather than investigating what we are as people. It is easy to be influenced by fashion and society’s expectations: this is why the use of the sanctuary building, for me, becomes so much of a hiding place wrapped by connotations of sexual identity, which itself has become so taboo.
The Festival was well balanced in its selection of male/female artists but the choice was unfortunately predictable; no risks were taken to include less established artists. I hope that in the next biennale, Edge 90 will make room on this unique platform to include them.