Steps to Aeration

In Berlin, Martin Herbert finds ‘2017’s daily condition of dread and instability’

By Martin Herbert

Steps to Aeration, 2017 (installation view). Courtesy Tanya Leighton, Berlin

Tanya Leighton, Berlin, 8 July – 1 September 

Commercial-gallery summer shows have evolved in the past two decades from brainless displays of unsold inventory to counterintuitive, usually guest-curated, knowingly ‘dark’ affairs. (Contemporary art, of course, doesn’t ‘do’ happy stuff like summer.) Steps to Aeration is a twist. It is indeed guest-curated, by Sarah McCrory, but the 12 artists’ works on display – ranging, without consistent concern for cool points, from relative unknowns to heavy hitters like Sterling Ruby and Rachel Harrison – are splashed with serotonin-boosting colour. And yet it’s quickly apparent that this merely sweetens the messaging, which has everything to do with things – often bodies – barely holding together.

Much of what’s here bends familiar formats to index 2017’s daily condition of dread and instability. Figurative painting, for instance: Vittorio Brodmann’s juicy oils star pained half-human figures whose arms dissolve into smears, or antlered and wrinkled wraiths locked in endless combat, all of this creepily half-comical. In Djordje Ozbolt’s canvas Promises, Promises (2017) a Pan-like creature, between whose hands a minirainbow arcs, is leading a tribe of followers; it’s hard not to map this onto contemporary demagoguery and the recognition of what kind of values (or absence of same) people will now affirm. One thing Steps to Aeration poeticises, skirting obviousness as it does, is a becoming-less-human, a decivilising. Renaud Jerez’s gleefully mutant skeletal figurative sculptures are made from pipework, chains and scraps of material; a hollow groin holds miniature skeletons, a half-constructed metal head is daubed with what could be a Mexican wrestler’s mask. In the aforementioned Ruby’s pair of production-line stuffed-fabric reliefs, Peace Vampire (6308) (2016) and Peace Vampire (6398) (2017), the peace sign has drooped, as if via gravity, and extended into a variation on one of the American artist’s signature vampire mouths. Values are in freefall; history is disorderly junk, as in Ida Ekblad’s unwelcoming paintings appliquéd with swatches of canvas painted to look like ugly oral textiles and edged with bits of dated-looking graphic design or the throwback phrase ‘DANCE 1990’.

Yet the flipside is that while some things are falling apart, others are arduously falling together. The show takes its title from Elliot Dodd’s digital animation, from 2015, in which a rendered figure has a body like an airbag, blown up huge, sinking to flatness and flicking between genders – pinched breasts, a witchy long head or just wobbly eyeballs on an island of skin – in an endless becoming: a work that appears to reflect a gender fluidity, but here, however uneasily, also turns loosely metaphoric for a state of between-ness that requires fortitude to push through. Hardeep Pandhal’s woollen jumpers, dangling from hangers and appliquéd with the cartoon faces of rappers (2Pac, Scarface), reflect how the artist – a British Sikh who doesn’t speak the same language as his Punjabi mother – forged a second grammar with her through art. Then there’s work that is outright dream-like, such as Kris Lemsalu’s Old friends (2017), a deflated-looking ceramic figure with dreadlocks, lying in a bed-cum-manger, above which – anticipating the release of Stephen King’s IT remake – a scary, red-wigged clown hovers expectantly, the whole thing a kind of harbinger. As an exhibition, then, Steps to Aeration is very much a barometer, a philosophical one. It adumbrates a step-change in what it means to be human – and one might think the other meaning (in British slang) of ‘aerated’, meaning angry, is also relevant here – but also asserts that when things are in pieces they might recompose in new, as-yet-unimagined ways. 

From the 
October 2017 issue of ArtReview