Anxious art is coupled with a DIY venue offering optimism
This feels like a post-pandemic (or rather, pandemic-concurrent) show in every sense. Magic Craic (2020), a single installation, features around three dozen standing plastic bottles placed haphazardly on the gallery floor, their labels removed, but which look like they once contained pop or mineral water. Whatever drink they once contained has been replaced, the bottles now half-full with various new liquids whose garish colours look distinctly unappetising. My guess, from their consistency and the way they’ve foamed on being poured in, is that they are cleaning liquids. Inside some, but not all, can be found twigs and foliage. Surrounding the bottles are three angled floor mirrors of the type found in shoe shops. A poetic text provided alongside the installation includes the lines ‘And every bead of condensation my own. Blown into, huffed’. Sure enough, over the liquid, one can discern the residue of the artist’s breath captured in the sealed bottles (an assumption confirmed by the gallery).
So, a COVID-19 diary: the importance that hoarded disinfectant came to have in our lives in 2020 (weapons against possibly contaminated objects), the viral threat contained within the trapped breath; the natural elements a reminder of our government-mandated turns round the local park. This might seem an overly literal interpretation on my part – the spectre of coronavirus infects one’s mental state, and certainly the title, references to ‘huffing’ and the presence (according to a materials list) of hemp powder might suggest alternative, trippy, or therapeutic readings – but for me the hall of mirrors taps into the anxiety of lockdown. A familiar sense of bewilderment and claustrophobia, the disorientation and anxiety, suggested obliquely in the way the bottles are reflecting sloping downwards away on all sides. The work raises the disconcerting notion that industrial chemicals have become our friend against a natural foe as the synthetic colours of the cleaning liquids overpower the subtler natural colour of the organisation element; an inversion of ‘nature equals good, synthetic bad’.
Yet perhaps even more timely is the context in which the work is shown. Brockley Gardens offers something akin to optimism among the misery. Housed in a domestic garage in suburban South London, it is a DIY affair going since last year, set up by two young artists who met at art school. The programme features their peers and tutors (Newlove-Drew graduated from Camberwell College of Art in 2019). Viewing is by appointment. The fears that Newlove-Drew effectively referenced in her installation have had massive social repercussions, including the showing of art and its economy, so while major museums falter under the strain of social distancing regulations and the market faces a bleak future, it might be a moment for low budget endeavours to flourish. If that were the case, then the new normal might not be so bad.
Siân Newlove-Drew: Magic Craic at Brockley Gardens, London; 4 September – 9 October