ALBION'S Politics of Fear in London

By Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London

Heading over to Battersea always feels to be an insurmountable challenge to those based north of the Thames but, nevertheless, over I went for the opening of ALBION's Politics of Fear exhibition, which opened last Tuesday evening. Based within the Norman Foster-designed riverside development, ALBION is the largest commercial gallery space in London or, rather, it was until Larry Gagosian opened his newest gallery in London recently. The exhibition brings together art and politics, creating a really contentious show that brings young artists, who work in or are nationals of Pakistan, India, Algeria, China, among other countries, to comment on issues that deal with their personal, immediate or global surroundings. The artists (Xu Bing, Rashid Rana, Avishek Sen, Shilpa Gupta, Kader Attia, Sophie Ernst, Jorge and Lucty Orta, Reza Aramesh and Jennifer Wen Ma) have created artworks that raise our awareness of issues not often discussed by the press, or if brought up, are often relegated to the comments pages, or in editorials.

Art being the immediate communicator that it is, this exhibition is particularly effective in challenging us to re-evaluate the manner in which we look at things, and at the opinions we hold. This is--and always has been--the power of art. This exhibition makes me view so much contemporary art as self-indulgent or, at least, self-indulgent on the artists' part. One could argue that art exists for its own sake, but I feel that this idea is antiquated, relevant to a certain period in art history, and that in today's world, it is the deft contemporary artist who should stand up to the viewers' complacency--and yes, let's face it, boredom--who are creating something more important and with greater longevity. It is all too often that one visits a gallery and leaves feeling numbed, perhaps a little more indifferent than how one felt before entering the space. The Politics of Fear exhibition makes me wish that more exhibitions and galleries were brave enough to open their doors to a little contention, a little criticism and a group of very talented and subtly political commentators. And I'm talking about the galleries and curators giving freedom to the artists to voice contrarian views of current affairs, not the visitors.

At the front of the gallery, Hamra Abbas "Battle Scenes" (2007) hang parallel to one another. These works, lenticulars, are based on two battle scenes from the 16th century miniature album, Akbarnama. Abbas showed selected battle scenes from this miniature to people in London parks and asked them to pose for her as the warriors depicted therein. The results, shown in hologram so that as one walks from one side of the works to the other, the figures shift position, bringing a sword down or across their body. One is faced, across from the entrance, with five large-scale photographs of Shilpa Gupta's, "See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil" (2006). In these photographs one female figure is dressed in olive green khakis and has donned a military peak. The figure stands with three sets of hands (including her own) placed over her mouth, eyes, and ears in varying positions, completely obscuring the features of the face below her hands.

courtesy of the Shilpa Gupta and ALBION, London

To the right of the entrance, in gallery 4, hangs a series of paintings by Avishek Sen ( all "Untitled," 2007). Sen spent the formative years of his life in a remote village in India. He uses water-based media for a light and lyrical impact. These paintings have delicate additions of detail: the scales of the crocodile with opened jaws are painstakingly rendered; a figure, carefully portrayed; a flower's petals, lusciously fat. Gallery 5 contains what at first seems a light-hearted fitness video with figures running in place or doing squats, in accordance with the viewer's movements and click of the mouse that is placed on a pedestal in the center of the darkened room. A series of voices call out in unison, distorting the clarity of the word "eat, eat, eat, eat eat..." The words are projected in a running commentary across the base of the video projection in green text. This chant, alongside the fact that these girls each wear fashion camouflage gear, from small minis to longer trousers, playing with distorted ideas of fashion chic and whether the girls are training to get fit or training in a subversive camp. The piece plays with gender, fashion and preconceptions - could they be a new breed of (training) guerrilla freedom fighters or suicide bombers? As easily as fashion went mainstream, surely military tactics are no more than a couple of steps from that?

Untitled, 2006, Avishek Sen
Photograph courtesy of the artist and ALBION, London

Returning to the main entrance, one enters into galleries 1 and 2. In an exhibition that is predominantly video heavy, the pieces that stand out are Reza Aramesh's "I am a believer (2006)," which is a video projection on an ICA funded project to re-enact the Changing of the Guards with a group of volunteers who trained for months for the performance on Trafalgar Square, Hadrian's Wall, Steel Rig, Cumbria and George Loveless House, London. The volunteers wear smart black suits with a white shirt and handkerchief and move seamlessly together. More particularly of note is Sophie Ernst's "Dying Gauls (2007)." These white plaster cast heads act as monuments to the heroes of the past. Onto their frozen faces are projected film footage of young men in Lahore, Pakistan who were asked questions about heaven, death and dying. They evoke footage shot of suicide bombers discussing their opinion of heaven and martyrdom. As they talk animatedly, their faces bring to life those frozen casts and the sculptures appear to be speaking. Next to this is Kader Attia's "Oil and Sugar (2007)." This video projection uses sugar as a metaphor for a white cube but by pouring oil over the cubes it is transformed into a black cube, referencing the Kaaba, the sacred stone in Mecca towards which Muslims must face when praying. Attia draws attention to the relationship between sugar and oil where for centuries it was oil sugar that symbolised wealth whereas now it is oil.

Oil and Sugar, Kader Attia, 2007
Photograph courtesy of the artist and ALBION, London
The cavernous gallery 2 leads off from gallery 1 on either side. There are herein a fantastic selection of works. The first is Xu Bing's three Magic Carpets (numbers 1 - 3) (2007). The first was created for a Buddhist temple and has had selected passages from four significant faith-based texts (one Buddhist, one Gnostic, one Jewish and one passage from Karl Marx), which Xu then transcribed as square word calligraphy and then synthesised into one text. The Chinese authorities thought he was being subversive and have banned him from returning to China. The Buddhist monks felt that they could not walk or pray on sacred texts and they refused the carpet. Xu went on to pixilate the original. The monks felt that this changed nothing of the essence of the piece. Not to be disheartened, Xu took one word, 'belief', which he wrote in square word calligraphy. It is an elegant script that encompasses both Chinese script and English. Sadly, at this stage, the monks had chosen another carpet. These three pieces are more beautiful once the history behind them has been told and they are definitely not to be walked on. Kader Attia's two works are hung to the other side of the carpets; they are created from the debris left behind, or representative of, the student riots in Paris in 2006. The two blackened squares of burnt wood and metal are of more interest conceptually than they are visually. Rashid Rana's "Veil (2007)," is extremely evocative. Five women stand shoulder to shoulder, their faces and bodies hidden beneath heavy hanging dark grey veils. The works appear pointillist and, stepping closer, it becomes apparent that the image has been constructed by smaller centimetre cubes of photographs of naked women in a variety of provocative poses. It is a surprising and very clever piece that plays on our expectations on two levels - how it has been constructed and what we really expect to see below the veil. I personally do not think to imagine the burkha'd figures as containing sexualised female bodies (for a host of reasons, namely my gender and my country's customs), I see them rather as complete forms encompassing their sexuality and their faith. Rana's works tear back the faith and put focus on the women's sexuality.
Luce and Jorge Orta's pieces are powerful, "Fallujah - In the Name of God (2007)," consists of two Red Cross ambulance doors and a selection of emotive photographs. As the Orta's have noted, the siege of Fallujah constitutes one of the most extensive human rights violations of recent times, breaching over 70 articles of the Geneva Convention. US forces bombed schools and hospitals, sniped civilians holding white flags, cut off water and medical supplies and instigated a chemical weapons assault, deploying napalm and white phosphorous - both banned by the UN. The photographs have been taken off the websites of journalists based in Afghanistan whose photographs were banned from leaving the country and from being published. The Orta's have taken images from the websites on which the photographs were in due course posted. The inclusion of their work in this show precedes a larger exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, in May.
Gallery 3 contains Rashid Rana's video projection, Meeting Point (2007); the gallery reverberates with the roar of two identical airplanes as they fly towards one another. The two planes are perpetually suspended and permanently racing towards one another but they never meet. They are of course highly evocative of 9/11 but can also represent the conflicts we encounter in our social, religious, political and emotional lives; issues that are never resolved or solved.

Meeting Point, 2006, Rashid Rana
Image courtesy of the artist and ALBION, London

Sitting in the sun here in Edinburgh, writing about the exhibition, it surprises me how clear my memory of both the individual works of art are and the exhibition is. I find it inspiring that an exhibition has stayed with me and provoked me to discuss it with so many. Art acts as a neutralising factor, told in the third person, but it gives birth to us as the viewers to ponder and take up some of the issues raised as we so choose. I hope that this show, alongside Mark Wallinger's State Britain (2006) currently showing at Tate Britain in which he has meticulously recreated peace campaigner Brian Haw's Parliament Square protest (which he began after the economic sanction in Iraq in 2001), heralds a new focus for the artists of our time and that they will perhaps be able to say more than us mere voters are able to. I hope that it is through their co-joined voices that, if nothing else, they will act as a record for the generations to come, that there were some of us who, despite being seemingly mute, could find voice in the art of others and who did not all endorse what our governments are calling our international policy overseas.

Exhibition dates: 27 March - 18 May 2007
8 Hester Road
London SW11 4AX

0207 801 2480