Elizabeth Price: Slow Dans; Tavares Strachan: In Plain Sight – review


The artist Elizabeth Price is queen of the screen when it comes to the splicing of word with image. At 53, she has found innumerable ways to overlay film with text to strange and shattering effect. From the early User Group Disco (2009), with its satirical blend of B-movies, pop songs and pompous French theory, to her Turner prize-winning The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), which rose to its tragic peak in a crescendo of data, newsreel, smoke and singing, her work is unique and unforgettable. And so it is again with the trilogy of works presented by Artangel in Slow Dans.

In the darkness of a 19th-century assembly room, Price’s films pulse and glow on high walls above you. The first, Kohl, inverts the world, with photographs of disused collieries turned upside down so they seem suddenly alien and new. Clattering across the screen – split in three like a medieval triptych – runs a typewritten dialogue. The old mines are filling with water, we hear, and it’s gradually seeping from one shaft to another. Below us is a building tide.

Worse still, the “visitants” are emerging from this sea like inky black spit. And they are not just found in coalmines, says one overheard voice to another; they are in data mines and wine cellars too. Price slips in the idea of threatening technology so casually you might almost miss it in all the talk of secret dances going on below ground – the sounds of drum and bass reportedly carry for miles through deep water – but it’s there. And was that the past, or is this the future?

Certain images – of high-heeled dancing shoes, for instance – find their way into the next film, Felt Tip, where the disembodied voices belong (as it seems) to the female administrators of some oppressive office where men still wear neckties. Ties are brilliantly analysed, and sent up, and eventually remade as lolling tongues by these sardonic personae, whose obedient answerphone tones mask an almost carnivalesque subversion.

Meanwhile, ties of all kinds fill the field of vision in magnificent black and white closeup, so that the thick weave of an executive club tie starts to look like a furrowed field, whereas the acrylic of its high street pastiche turns a radiant silver.

But the most captivating film is the last, titled The Teachers. Motion-script writing runs across the screen, telling of a strange contagion spreading through society, especially afflicting academics, museum boards, research councils and so on. Some people are refusing to communicate in speech any more. They have split into groupuscules (hints of a Marxist narrative run through like an underground river) and are now communicating only through harsh or mysterious sounds. These are superbly orchestrated by Price – who used to be a professional musician – into a surging soundtrack that incorporates mouse clicks, humming hard drives and what might be the furious internal monologue of a keyboard.

Price’s gift is for transforming highly intelligent social observations into exhilarating visions paced like cinematic thrillers. The Teachers is only about 10 minutes long, yet it baffles and enthrals by turn, as the viewer tries to work out who is speaking – and about whom; exactly who these teachers might be. Visions of ceremonial clothes appear on the screen, twinkling like cosmic academic robes; yet the suspicion is of an epidemic that destroys language. The viewer must put the two together. The ending is mordant in its satire yet also overwhelmingly beautiful: the dying embers of a culture.

Tavares Strachan’s first UK show, at Marian Goodman, would quench the thirst of anyone desperate for live opera or theatre, never mind painting, sculpture or the exquisite neon figures for which the Bahamian artist is probably best known. Strachan (born 1979) gives it everything he’s got. Consider that the artist once launched an effigy of the first African American astronaut out into space, and transported a 4.5 tonne block of Arctic ice to Nassau to commemorate the African American polar explorer Matthew Henson and you will have some sense of Strachan’s deep and memorialising sincerity.

Two darkened galleries are devoted to 2D images. One contains Strachan’s paintings, which function like post-Rauschenberg collages via dynamic jump cuts. Magazine covers featuring Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Haile Selassie are spliced with photographs and flags, baseball grids and surreal collages of black heroes blocked out behind tribal masks (the devastating portrait sculptures upstairs take the idea into three dimensions).

The second gallery is papered with pages from Strachan’s The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, which interleaves previously untold histories, written by the artist and others, with conventional entries. You could be absorbed in this all day, except that a figure among your fellow visitors suddenly begins to dance a slow sashay; and down the stairs comes a man similarly dressed in 50s clothes, singing of the forgotten and downcast, of war, race and freedom – singing for all the world like Paul Robeson.

Tavares Strachan’s Distant Relatives (Mary J Seacole), 2020.Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris
‘Deep and memorialising sincerity’: Tavares Strachan’s Distant Relatives (Mary J Seacole), 2020.
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris

They are joined by two younger performers, their converging arias deeply moving and melancholy. Backlit by the illuminated art – at which they peer, as if into some promised museum of the future – they look like stars of the silver screen suddenly moving, in person, among us.

The gallery turns out to contain hidden spaces, through which this promenade performance weaves its stirring way. Henson and Lawrence and other figures from the Encyclopedia materialise in what now becomes an experimental theatre dialogue (too close for comfort, the day I was there). You are free to wander, to look, learn and listen; to consider what a better world might be.

If there is too much to take in, especially in the allotted one-hour slot, Strachan’s light sculptures crystallise some of his all-encompassing ideas. A ballet dancer stands en pointe, her nerves electrifying; wisps of DNA take on human form. These figures feel like the epitome of what amounts to a kind of son-et-lumiere meditation on time and space – on the past, present and future of the human race.

Star ratings (out of five)
Elizabeth Price: Slow Dans
★★★★
Tavares Strachan: In Plain Sight ★★★★

Elizabeth Price: Slow Dans is at the Assembly Room, 82 Borough Road, London SE1 until 25 October, Thursday–Saturday, 12pm–8pm (last admission 7pm); Sunday 12pm-5pm (last admission 4pm). Book tickets here

Tavares Strachan: In Plain Sight is at Marian Goodman Gallery, London W1 until 24 October. Book tickets here



READ SOURCE

READ  'Our income vanished': Australia's galleries and museums buckle in Covid-19 storm

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here