ICA: Institute of Contemporary Arts

Initially published by (now defunct) in 2006

Judging an art competition involves being fair, objective, neutral or at least paying lip-service to those qualities. Presumably the rest of us are free to follow our noses and generally isn’t that how spectators navigate their way through exhibitions? Performance, of the real live variety that is, which has been making a comeback in recent years, demands a special commitment on the part of the viewer who may find that he or she is more than a mere audience-member: a participant or author even. Naturally also there is the extra pressure of making sure that you are there when the performance takes place. Nevertheless the spaces, objects or structures which surround the ‘acting’ and remain after a live event are significant on their own. It was with these thoughts in mind that I rambled around the Beck’s Futures exhibits at the ICA.

Bedwyr Williams is an artist who performs and also makes sculptural pieces/installations. With the former he employs the idea of stand-up comedy. Galleries and the typical art-crowd have got to find that difficult given the contemporary proliferation of enforced fun in the world outside and a likely need for art to differentiate itself from the everyday. Bedwyr William’s Tyranny of the Meek at Store in Hackney, which ended in January of this year, was not a kind of light-entertainment however. The rhythm engineered by toy train movements around, or backwards and forwards, in a mesh of, what appeared to be, violently damaged pool tables, smashed cues and other related paraphernalia in that darkish space threw up an atmosphere more poignant and musical than joke-like. For some reason the risk of being trapped by theconflict implied through the sets of components proximities was avoided.

William’s art is openly autobiographical, unusual for a male. At the ICA his Walk a Mile in My Shoes, composed primarily of a collection of forty-one pairs of his own shoes, had a tendency to induce laughter. This was mainly because of the consistent size of the pairs of shoes in question. Size thirteen looks unnatural to most of us evoking thoughts of clowns, buffoons, funny walkers, a Chaplin or Tommy Cooper. Repetition too is a characteristic of classical comedy. Combined here was a ‘repetition of differences’ (each pair of shoes was substantially different to the others) and ‘repetition as insistence’ providing plenty for the mind to wallow in.

So despite the usual conventions in galleries, people laughed in front of Walk a Mile in My Shoes. At the risk of sounding like a spoil-sport this could be a pity too. At a time of global crisis, environmental collapse and return to vigorous imperialism isn’t it odd that generally we are inundated with comedy and light entertainment? Historically the fool archetype appeared as both side-kick and provider of unusual wisdom for those involved in more earnest pursuits: kings, philosophers, religious leaders. We appear to have the misfortune to be alive at a time when the fool himself has taken power. Surely that was never the intention. So idiocy does not seem so funny now. But, though Bedwyr William’s piece here and his work generally, should be framed in terms of comedy, it is comedy at another level: more like Beckett’s ‘risus puris [maybe] the laugh that laughs at the laugh’.

You were entitled to try the shoes on. People did too. Each pair had text attached. Nothing wrong with having to read but it felt compulsory here. The pairs of shoes were layed out in ubiquitous grid arrangement, although the fact that one slot had to be twice as big as all the others (to give an odd number, forty-one) made something unacnny of the presentation. Why forty-one? I don’t know. Anyway I laughed in front of Bedwyr William’s shoes and that was despite intending not to. He might be a great artist.

Art is likely to suffer when it is forced to be ‘political’. The problem was a factor in 2004’s Turner Prize for example. Nevertheless as suggested already it does seem odd that so little politics appears in art at times like these: I’d expect it to arise naturally. Flávia Müller Medieros’ Inaugurate did address the Bush issue to an extent but why don’t we see work which is more didactic, like propaganda say, instead of the usual contrived ambiguity. We all know what’s going on. Having said that I’m an artist and I’m not sure I could live up to my own demands here.

Simon Popper’s stacks of Ulysses seemed sentimental evoking memories for me of Modernist formalism or maybe a Joseph Beuys sculpture. Apparently there was some puzzle to be solved here. And for those who need that kind of thing I’m sure the piece was fascinating.

Sue Tompkins’ text and work on paper sheets which have been manipulated, folded, unfolded did supply something distinct from the ‘normal’ overwhelming world outside. She performs too.

I had to verify it with the staff at the ICA but was delighted to have my suspicions confirmed that Pablo Bronstien’s exhibit amounted, in fact, to a wall with arches which split one of the room’s on the ground floor. Other artist’s work actually hung on this wall, as if it were just another partition. This is not so much a puzzle as a truth which suddenly renders itself up. As a result the slight different-ness is amplified enormously. Perhaps subtlety can be noisy in the midst of a Baudrillardian landscape full of slick and stimulating imagery. Art-works which only-just separate themselves from their surroundings, which are mundane, almost, really stand out. Maybe average-ness or mediocrity is the new extreme. Bronstien’s wall made me laugh too.

At this point, I left the ICA.