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Project Space Leeds, Leeds
25 March 27 June
Reviewed by: Matt Roberts »
What is a project space? Why is it that some organisations prefer the term over the more traditional gallery or institutional monikers? To my mind a project space can be characterised by a commitment to exhibitions and events that expand upon specific political, social or regional issues. Their interest is in experimentation, and a developing understanding, rather than on pre-destined outcomes.
Project spaces have become increasingly visible due to emerging artists and facilitators feeling alienated from domineering institutional models imposed upon them as part of large-scale regeneration initiatives, and also due to their unwillingness to contend with a purposefully opaque commercial system. Reasonably priced airplane and rail fairs, and the success of the internet, has allowed emerging artists and curators to work with national and international groups on residencies, seminars, and symposiums, bolstering a generation of activators whose interest is in exchange rather than capital.
The regeneration of Leeds has been mostly based on retail, leisure and commercial property, leaving little room for artists to exhibit within the city centre. However, this has informed the establishment of a range of organisations such as: theartmarket, Black Dogs, Vitrine, 42 New Briggate, East Street Arts, to name but a few, with a long-term interest in location and site-responsive practice. It is within this context that eight artists and collaborative groups from the north of England have been invited to take part in 'Morphic Resonance' at Project Space Leeds (PSL). Using the gallery as a space for the production of work, the exhibition is intended to create an environment that demonstrates the knowledge networks and support structures that are an essential part of artistic production. The co-curator of the exhibition Zoe Sawyer has said: "We're tapping into an historic avant-garde that existed in Leeds at the turn of the last century, which involved the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Michael Sadler and later Henry Moore, Jacob Kramer and Herbert Read. We feel Leeds is once again on the cusp of something exciting and transformative and believe that artist-led spaces such as PSL and theartmarket have a crucial role to play in this."
The exhibition title itself refers to the idea of mysterious telepathy-like interconnections between organisms, and of collective memory described in the writings of Rupert Sheldrake.
Entering Project Space Leeds, a large and airy space sat parallel to the River Aire, I encounter a simple timber framework which plays host to the work of Rhiannon Silver and Joe Mawson (exhibiting as Silver Mawson). The selection of works, which includes video, drawings and sculpture is extremely eclectic, and seems to have been made in a hurry, adding to a feeling of dynamism and a sense of intrigue. Standby For Action consists of a reflection of the gallery space within a pool of water (a distant cousin of Richard Wilson's 20:50) and a series of rough sketches of dated holiday hideaways also create windows into escapist fantasy. The work of Ant Macari continues the theme of instability, and transition. Within the artists' studio he draws large-scale walls drawings, documents them, and then erases them to make way for the next piece. This nod to Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) highlights the way in which the production of new work relies on the evolution and cannibalisation of previous ideas, prioritising an ongoing internal dialogue over a fetishised finished product.
David Steans and Hardeep Pandhal's work creates a dramatic interlude. Polystyrene pantomime figures and crude monuments maintain Steans' and Pandhal's continuing interest in rites, rituals, and obscure narratives. The work is monumental without being overblown, and furthers a unique visual vocabulary that the duo is developing. A sound piece, My fellow artists, illiterates the exhibition title 'Morphic Resonance' with all the elegising poetry of Samuel Beckett's Rockaby.
The exhibition ranges from half light to partial daylight and is paced well, although at times the balance of works seems a little cluttered, and sound clashes abound. On the positive side this contributes to the energetic atmosphere, and gives a sense of the overlapping voices of the collaborators involved. Nous Vous and Pest publications are exemplary illustrations of expansive dialogue, as they disseminate information and visual material engendering shared experiences and destabilising existing knowledge sources and brand identities.
The only duff notes within the exhibition are Richard Rigg's and Rachel Lancaster's works, which although interesting in themselves do little to further the show's cause.
The most engaging interpretation of the exhibition's theme lies in the collaborative project between No Fixed Abode, Penny Whitehead and Dan Simpkins. By using found materials and independent research to construct a raft, the artists found themselves generating a metaphor for the nature of artist-led practice. The raft is pieced together from disparate elements to create a whole that reflects the identity of the group. It is a labour of love where the collective achievement is prioritised over personal investment of time or money. As the artists point out in their research in constructing the raft, utility is secondary to the process of development and dialogue itself. "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated." (John Donne).
The group's collective efforts to build a raft are manifested as a large, crudely constructed, but charismatic creation that acts as the heart of the exhibition. The raft has no inbuilt steering system meaning that it is a vessel long associated with in-between states and a space of intellectual freedom between cultural or political givens. To the Romans, the raft symbolised a division between the living and the dead, for Mark Twain it acted as a space of racial harmony and understanding between Huckleberry Finn and the Negro slave Jim, and in the Charles Laughton film Night of the Hunter (1955), the children's journey on the raft symbolises the reawakening of childish curiosity and innocence, and a liberation from the adult world of sexuality and violence.
As we find ourselves in an increasingly competitive funding environment, where less than five per cent of Arts Council England's contracted organisations define themselves as artist-led, 'Morphic Resonance' sets out its stall to find alternative models of production and display, where the interdependent nature of emerging organisations and groups is harnessed into a tangible system. Local, national and international boundaries become blurred as sustainability is achieved by virtual support networks and the wholesale sharing of information. The question remains whether this level of interconnectivity can be harnessed into an economy where macro investment and event-based income allow the current generation of activators to ride out the stormy sea of the current economic downturn. Or, whether political agitation and institutional critique will give way to a complicit acceptance of the given system where a sustainable career is achieved by the few and the majority give up, or eek out, a meagre existence. Who can yet tell whether the 'telepathy-like interconnection' highlighted by 'Morphic Resonance' will act as a rallying point for affirmative action, or as a collective burden of responsibility?
Matt Roberts is an artist and Curator
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