sat 13/07/2024

Matter as Actor, Lisson Gallery review - living in a material world | reviews, news & interviews

Matter as Actor, Lisson Gallery review - living in a material world

Matter as Actor, Lisson Gallery review - living in a material world

A group show addresses the politics of stuff

Otobong Nkanga, 'Solid Maneuvers', 2015 Various metals, Forex, acrylic, tar, sale, make-up, vermiculite and performance Dimensions Variable © Otobong Nkanga, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
It is fitting that I watch Otobong Nkanga’s performance on a stranger’s smartphone screen. Solid Maneuvers, 2015, is about the extraction of precious resources from the Namibian landscape. It is about the long-term devastation humans wreak on the natural world and the equally devastating consequences nature revisits on us.
But it is also concerned with the more than symbiotic relationship we have with the land itself – the very soil we depend upon, are made of and to which we will return. Scattering mineral and metallic sands – the exact elements found in our handheld devices and cosmetics – Nkanga reminds us of this truth (main picture). In the dust, she seems to say, resides our fate. In the dust, we may find a solution.
 
This is how the Lisson Gallery’s latest exhibition, Matter as Actor, opens. Curated by Greg Hilty, the group show boasts 14 acclaimed artists from diverse backgrounds and geographical regions, all of whom centre materials from their respective cultural heritages. Natural, synthetic and compound materials abound: starting with Nkanga’s smattering of mineral-enriched dust to Allora and Calzadilla’s work of electromagnetically dispersed iron fillings (pictured below right), and ending with Richard Long’s mud-drenched and red clay painted wall, Matter as Actor moves us through diverse terrains and domains, critically engaging with current ecological and environmental crises to reveal the real matter at hand: the material itself. Hilty’s exhibition – a sharp index to the eclectic forms and concepts which contemporary artists are working with today – envisions matter as the mind itself. That is, the subject, the agent, the force, rather than the passive, malleable object we historically believe ourselves to act on.
 

Allora & Calzadilla Electromagnetic Field (July 27, 2020, Meter Number 96215234, Fuel Charge Adj 2,800kWh x $0.05534, Purchase Power Charge Adj 2,800kWh x $0.046489, Munic ipalities Adj 2,800kWh x $0.004094, Subsidies, Public Light & other Subv HH, 2,800kWh x $0.008991, Subsi, 2020 Magnetite on linen 243.8 x 182.9 x 4.4 cm 96 x 72 x 1 3/4 in © Allora & Calzadilla , Courtesy Lisson GalleryIt is this notion that Nkanga’s performance solidifies. Accompanied by stunning tapestries and an installation of the excavated topography of Namibia’s "Green Hill", Solid Maneuvers (a portmanteau of "hand" and "oeuvre") speaks of the toll such laborious encounters with the land has on one man’s body (respiratory diseases, loss of hearing and premature death are all attributed to mining). Human landscapes become mapped onto geographical ones, as one individual’s trauma is in turn landscaped by the surrounding area.

We see this, too, in Syowia Kyambi’s Entity Costume, 2011, which consists of a woven headdress and garment, and represents the ecological, economic, cultural and psychological violence of British colonialism on Black Kenyans and their land. Made with sisal cultivated in colonial plantations, Kyambi’s costume haunts the gallery space as it hangs, sans body and field, from the ceiling. Symbolic of the disinherited and disenfranchised Kenyans, this disembodied spectre of a weave takes the human predicament back to the very soil from which it has sprung. Sisal is, therefore, a material of oppression and protest, retaliation and reclamation, one that announces both the plight and power of Kenyan land and its indigenous peoples.

Dana Awartani’s work similarly explores the dual identity and potentiality of matter. If the stone facades of ancient buildings in Iraq and Syria can be aggressively acted on by terror groups, then matter too can be the active agent in its own reparative and restorative process. Using naturally dyed silk fabrics which have been saturated in medicinal herbs, Awartani sets about retracing,recording and repairing the modern wounds of ancient edifices. Darning and embroidering silhouettes of the “scars” inflicted upon stone, Awartani meets destruction with peace,brokenness with healing. Her tenderly dyed and handled fabrics thus become both an archive of trauma and a store of hope, recognising and reconstituting the very material strands and threads that make up the cultural history of the Arab world.

Richard Long Red River, 2023 Paint Dimensions variable © Richard Long , Courtesy Lisson GalleryMatter as preservation of the personal, as well as resistance to the political, is also evident in Richard Long’s mud spattered wall. Looking back to past works, like Red Earth Circle, 1996, Red River, 2023 (pictured above), centres Long’s love affair with the materials – clay, slate and mud – that have made his art so noticeably what it is. The downward force of the strokes of mud and paint suggest the rhythms and propulsive pull of water – perhaps of his "home river", the River Avon, which is a continual source of inspiration to him. In the visceral and gestural movement of Red River then, Long’s personal work flows out to the universal; to the surrounding socio-political and environmental themes running deep and imaginatively wild in the aforementioned artists’ works; to the precious materials used and abused, but here valued and handled with care, and finally to the most material subject of them all: us.

Sisal is a material of oppression and protest, retaliation and reclamation, that announces the plight and power of Kenyan land and its indigenous peoples

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