Commemorative Glass is an exhibition of Nick Crowes work, spanning the last 6 years, with the common material link that all included works use glass. Crowes ability to use this simple, everyday material to bring forth a wealth of meaning is certainly impressive, with a repertoire stretching from straightforward plate glass in various guises to crushed up auto-glass, bonded float glass and diachronic glass – developed by NASA to reflect 2 distinct colours. Yet the overall strength of this exhibition is not its use of a particular medium but is in the opportunity it affords for the viewer to explore and reflect upon the dissemination of images in contemporary society.
The exhibition is spread across three floors, the first floor dedicated to Operation Telic (2005-2006). A series of images lifted from the Ministry Of Defence website are engraved on sheets of plate glass and grouped on shelves around the edge of the room. Each sheet is rough around the edges, suggesting a brittle fragility that resonates with the recent political situation in Iraq where the operation name checked in the works title took place. The engraved images show soldiers smiling, helping bring aid to a local population and playing with children. They are pictures intended to reassure, to present a positive image but here they become malevolent. The crudeness of the engraved line is akin to picture book images. This is strengthened by the directive subtitles Crowe gives to each grouping: Kids looking through sights, Soldiers doing civil order. The naivety is undercut by our broader awareness of what the images represent and by their presentation. Held upright on the shelves only by a covering of thick, lumpy black paint, which evokes tar or oil, the glass is precarious. Each shelf is lit from behind so that the light is refracted to give the panels and eerie green glow; this suggests both chemical contamination and appears as some kind of memorial with each shelf hovering in a halo of light.
On the second floor, works appear somewhat thematically different. The Management Committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) (2000), and Three Cynical Objects – Nasdaq, FTSE, DOW (2001), deal with superficially more benign aspects of our contemporary landscape; namely the world wide web and its impact upon global economics. The presentation here is slicker with the majority of works framed in simple, white frames. The novelty is that, rather than just being in the frame, images are engraved directly onto the glass. With this strategy Crowe raises the idea of the interface. The Information Architecture of the American Museum of the Moving Image (2004) hammers the issue home, rendering a schematic diagram that shows how the virtual world of the internet connects to the real world of the museum. It seems that the real and the virtual arent so distinct; developments in technology change perceptions and impact upon our everyday lives. Computer Spy (2005) raises the paranoia this might bring and June Becher (2003), an image of a web page dedicated to a womens dead sister, represents a very personal use of the web.
Recalling that the images in Operation Telic were sourced from the web, the exhibition begins to manifest an anxiety about the information propagated by this medium. On the third floor a stunning, specially commissioned work, The Beheaded (2006), is dedicated to all the individuals who have been beheaded in the first 5 years of the 21st Century. Tens of headless body shapes, cut from diachronic glass, are suspended from a large, motorised, mobile like structure. As the mobile rotates the bodies cast beautiful, coloured images onto the wall. Transfixed by these images I begin to consider their more gruesome referents. I cannot help but think of the beheadings of Daniel Perl and Kenneth Bigley, images of which found their way onto the internet or were actually created with this medium in mind. The flickering of these coloured bodies comes to stand for the sometimes disturbing but potentially mesmerising images from the information superhighway, raising the question of whether the proliferation of so much visual information desensitises us and dulls our ability for analysis. Most troubling, the mobile motif leads me to ask what do such images do to our children?
Common Occurrences (2005) suggests our children may already be tainted. Rendering childrens drawings as engravings with images including a man holding a gun and a cyclone attack. Yet Crowe is more ambivalent and subtle than this. Recent History (2005) reproduces once wholesome images from colouring in books that now appear dated in their representation of gender roles. The work points to the fact that questions of imagerys potentially negative influence were not spawned with the world wide web, technology just recasts them on a grander scale.
The recurrent childhood images also provide a sense of temporality, of a particular life span or a recent history that the works seek to inscribe. What is commemorated in this exhibition is a sense of the recent past, its effect on the present and potentially the future. This is done with an eye on global events but with recognition of the individual need to mark personal victories and losses. Childhood is at once intensely personal yet universal. Images, for better or worse, provide a point of connection between the individual and the mass.
The least successful exhibit is The Family Tree of Zainab Duranthrrial Sadik, the First Martian Martyr (2006). A text plaque tells the story of a fictional alien-human hybrid murdered on Mars in 2226, accompanied by a family tree that maps out her heritage (half Islamic and half pure sci-fi). Set in the future, the works temporal disjunction is notable. However its failing is due to its heavy handed treatment of ideas of difference and intolerance, imbued with a fantastical sense of humour at odds with the laconic wit of the rest of the show. Moreover, where the majority of Crowes work relies on very immediate imagery that subsequently provokes complex associations, this work requires the viewer to read and decode a large amount of text. It just does not have the impact of his other work. Fear not, however because Crowes final new commission The Campaign for Rural England (2006) packs a punch. A full size bus stop made out of English oak and almost shattered glass, raising associations of poverty vs. wealth, public vs. private and urban vs. rural. Ambitious in scale, it posits new directions for an engaging and intelligent body of work.
Amelia Crouch is an artist based in Leeds.