- Tate Britain
Walking into Heather Phillipson’s installation in the central galleries at Tate Britain is a playful yet powerful and relevant assault on both the senses and on modern sensibility. Here is an artist at the top of her game, firing on all cylinders and with authority of vision. And skilful enough to draw you in to this experience. And experience is what Rupture No.1: Blowtorching the Bitten Peach is. It is time centred. You start at point A and finish at B, paralleling with music and storytelling. Like music, this is not art which requires contextual props and background reading. It is imposed upon you, and you can’t help but absorb. Phillipson’s dystopian population of the central galleries is perfect sensationalism for our time. That which has immediate relevance whether the audience is nine or ninety, professor or publican, scientist or street cleaner, art historian or aromatherapist. This is vital art for our time.
Three galleries open up before you like a slice of rainbow from red room to purple then finally to blue room. The walls of each massive space delicately wallpapered in cloud-like forms with coloured light streaming down from cellophaned portals high above the action. Each gallery is transformed into a cathedral of hallucination.
Into the first gallery of red, you are teleported into a strange world of industrial degeneration and child-like fantasy. Flanking each side of the entrance are what seem like large, rusted, industrial equipment which have suddenly grown umbrella mechanisms and other oddities. It’s as if Mike Nelson’s previous exhibition in the same space has taken steroids! Before this can be digested however we drawn to a dozen or so TV monitors literally staring at you from what could be described as a vaginal or boat like slash on the ground. Whatever analogy, the ground has parted and spews forth a bed of rock and salt. TV monitors, like crooked teeth, emerge from this wound, each projecting up-close-and-personal videos of different animal’s eyes- blinking and wandering, returning your gaze. Not far overhead, hi-fi speakers croak and gibber, suspended from vine-like cables amidst glowing rock forms caught in nets. This all suspends, somehow adorning the eye monitors. Again, there is little time to digest this visual feast before noticing the almighty, newspaper-plastered, tusked deity spanning floor to ceiling at the end of the room under whose legs you’re invited to enter the second room. The sense of micro and macro, of intimate and galactic is overwhelming. This is not cool or detached art. It is red hot and relevant, a sensation which demands attention. My head is spinning. I begin to realise a die has been cast and brace myself for room two.
Purple darkness and a quadrilateral composition greet us in the second gallery. A circular, galvanised-iron, farm-reservoir type water tank lays centre stage filled with a reflective, murky, oily substance. Surrounding it are four enormous, industrial drums laying on transportation trailers. The drums however have grown horns and bow to the central, oily, pool of scum. Each one propped up on pillars of used tires giving them the appearance of mechanical animals elevated perhaps for some kind of extraction. Petrol pumps run out beneath the horns as if mechanical proboscises which fill the central reserve. Projected onto its liquid surface a video plays footage of what looks to be a peek through a microscope. Cellular-type forms move, gyrate, bubble and combine. Overhead, galvanised bathtubs fly like air-boats, butterfly-netting speakers as if they are sonic insects. It’s another head spin. Back to the central, oil, scum-filled reservoir. Energy is present but somehow in hibernation here. This room is chilling. I feel a more solemn response contrasting with the heat of the first gallery. Whether it’s the symmetry and central font-like focus, this gallery has more religious overtones. A meditative silence. A dark, purple and brooding stillness.
Lastly, into the blue of gallery three with videos of ducks and other clips from nature projected onto its side walls. Rockets have landed into enormous pails of sand and metallic insect forms fly above. Farming equipment components have been appropriated to fashion two slow-moving windmills ominously flanking your path towards a beckoning galvanised-iron yurt-like structure at the far end of the hall. Another wonky monitor has sprung up from the salty ground as in the first gallery, this one displaying a monochrome video of some hairy, translucent insect form twitching in high-resolution under a magnified lens. There is a queue to view inside the yurt-like structure which is now looking more like a silo. This is to be a singular experience- only one peeled back sheet metal door from which to view the architectural innards. Inside are large empty gas cylinders suspended in circle as if a massive wind-chime or dream-catcher. The glowing hot rocks from gallery one are back, emerging from the same salty floor. An industrial fan whirrs, blowing air as if to cool them but this only serves to disturb the gas cylinders. The tenderly bump into each other and chime deep bass notes. The sound echoes over the fan- a dystopian symphony. It’s as if civilisation itself has vaporised and the gods have used our debris to entertain themselves out of boredom. I know not what to make of it but I know I have been moved. My head is racing, my eyes are darting. Moving now to the back of this structure we are met with the final act and connection with the installation’s title. A video is projected onto the back wall of a blazing sunset rising and falling through the mirage of heat waves. The orb is not a sun however but a peach. There is something optimistic about this finale footage and I find myself watching it reflecting on the three galleries behind me. I know I will want to walk through them again.
Heather Phillipson has produced a master class in de-mystifying art and connecting with the masses with this work. Not a stranger to public art, her Trafalgar Square plinth- a sculpture of whipped cream and cherry adorned with large fly and drone projected all the visual pleasure and soft/hard, mechanical/natural association which ‘Rupture No.1: Blowtorching the Bitten Peach’ contains. This Tate Britain installation is different however. There is a desperate, urgent quality about it. Fundamental issues facing us today, that which threatens the very extinction of life on earth itself, is at the core of this work. Energy consumption, nature preservation, modern warfare- all mixed together and presented with a strange mythical, religious and ritualistic visual language. There is a depth to the work here where humour seems present but only as a sardonic subtext. Darkness rules supreme yet you leave somehow optimistic, impressed and somehow changed by the experience. This must be contemporary art of the highest rank today. We have become so accustomed to gimmicks and sensationalism that it is rare to find an artist who can use the theatre of a gallery space to present a menagerie of serious ideas so effectively, tapping into our fears and imaginings about the future.
Tom Aberneithie Oct 2021