Jennifer Tee Structures of Recollection and Perseverance

Ben Eastham on liminal states, creative exchange and cultural appropriation

By Ben Eastham

Structures of Recollection and Perseverance, 2017 (installation view, Kunstraum, London). Photo: Tim Bowditch. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

Kunstraum, London 1 July – 9 September

At Camden Arts Centre, where an exhibition of Jennifer Tee’s work runs in parallel with her show at Kunstraum, a young man is reading a poem out loud. Two ribbed oval carpets are spread out on the floor in front of him like the patchwork wings of some handicraft flying machine, while the facing wall is lined with tulip petals arranged on paper to resemble a Sumatran textile design. The poem is by Mai Der Vang, whose collection Afterland (2016) brings to light the persecution of the Hmong people during the Secret War in Laos, and is included alongside works on the subject of resistance by Maggie Nelson, James Baldwin and Anne Carson in regular readings in the gallery.

The scene is a potted introduction to Tee’s practice, which combines an interest in esoteric knowledge with a lyrical sensibility in the production of works that critique dogmatic thinking. She has described her work as an exploration of ‘the soul in limbo’, which sounds alarmingly New Age but is in fact derived from André Breton’s illustrated novel Nadja (1928). As Breton portrays a woman whose perspective on the world is exhilarating because it defies reason, so Tee proposes that we must learn to think and feel independently if we are to be liberated. This two-part exhibition explores the possibility that liminal states – between life and death, waking and dreaming – might offer a means of resisting the repressions and unconscious biases embedded in the structures of our thought.

At Kunstraum, Tee has created an environmental installation inspired by the exhibition design of Hélio Oiticica, combining her own works with ethnographic objects, artefacts, books, plants and pieces by other artists. The gallery is painted in a basking orange, a tropical theme developed and complicated by the Upside down palm tree (Trachycarpus Fortunei) (2017) that hangs from the ceiling. The piece pays homage to installations such as Oiticica’s Tropicália (1967) at the same time as the theatricality of Tee’s gesture, and the obvious incongruity of a palm tree with the industrial architecture, draws attention to the violence inherent in removing objects and ideas from their original contexts. Tempering playfulness with respect, Tee is careful to mark out the space between creative exchange and cultural appropriation.

Hanging on a painted fabric screen dividing the space in two, a framed photograph by Fritz Lemaire shows the CoBrA painter Eugène Brands wearing a primitivist mask of his own design, inviting the question of what it means to remove symbols from the systems of knowledge that legitimise them. The mask as agent of transformation between identities and states is a recurring motif, notably in the inclusion in the exhibition of a fin-de-siècle French death mask and Gillian Wearing’s wax Sleeping Mask (2004). The most impressive of these props is a red and green cape, made by Oiticica in 1964, which hangs from the ceiling. Visitors are invited to wear and thus ‘activate’ the costume ‘through movement and dance’ (I didn’t dare). That is of a piece with the exhibition’s wider focus on preserving heterogeneous forms, beliefs and ideologies without segregating one from the other or preserving them in aspic. Tee aims to establish a space in which it is possible to make new connections across cultures and build relationships between communities. Right now, that feels like an act of defiance. 

From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview