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October 16, 2013 6:13 pm
Thirty years after his Brave New World, the novelist Aldous Huxley framed his last novel in 1962 as a kind of companion piece. Island is about the fictional isle of Pala, a bittersweet utopia on the eve of its own destruction, where many of the themes that have given the idea of an island such a strong hold on the human imagination are played out: enchantment, self-discovery, the loss of idyll, colonial exploitation and ecological meltdown. Now, at the Dairy Art Centre, curator Savina Basta has used the book as a framework for an intriguing exhibition of contemporary art, drawn partly from the collections of the Dairy’s founders, Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm, and partly borrowed from around the world. None of this art is formally linked to the novel. The idea is simply to riff on the experiences of Huxley’s modern Gulliver, the journalist Will Farnaby.
Diversity is the key to this show of 70 works by 40 artists. There is bound to be unevenness, and a liberal, thoughtful response is essential. That is actually encouraged by the absence of any wall-labelling – to find the artists’ names you have to search through an alphabetical thumbnail chart provided on entry.
Only two paintings, hanging opposite each other, represent actual islands. One is Julian Schnabel’s blow-up of an old postcard of Capri from the air, splashed with paint and scrawled with the words “Ogni angelo ha il suo lato spaventoso” (Every angel has his scary side). The other, Dirk Skreber’s “Atoll”, is also an aerial view, this time of an entire island in the middle of which squats a vast and malevolent circular structure suggestive of a Wellsian spacecraft. More abstractly island-like is a blocky, plinth-mounted jigsaw-puzzle piece in the shape of China by Ai Weiwei. Made of recycled wood from a Qing dynasty temple, the piece poses characteristically subtle questions about China’s relations with its history and the rest of the world.
Another Chinese piece, by Fang Lijun, shows island ecology in full tropical gorgeousness. Mao-like (or Farnaby-like) swimmers bobbing around in crystalline surf are overflown by tropical birds and underswum by fishes, all arranged as on a children’s encyclopedia page. More domesticated are Jagannath Panda’s pair of fibreglass goats, covered in something like tapestry, and a large-scale portrait by Ann Craven of a parrot in triplicate that might stand proud on Long John Silver’s shoulder. If these paintings feel friendly, even idyllic, a menacing black palm tree, growing up around a piece of ruined domestic furniture and made entirely from shredded truck tyres, changes the tone. This magnificent work by Douglas White warns (J.G. Ballard-style) of nature’s revenge on civilisation, but it is a nature horribly transformed by the human intervention to which it reacts.
The innocent human ingenuity that plays with the world around it is seen in two Neolithic-style human figures made by Ugo Rondinone from piled, lichen-encrusted rocks. At the same time the globalised commercial interventions that undermine and eventually destroy that innocence (as they do on Huxley’s Pala) are lampooned by Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “primitive” African figure, its clothing adorned with the McDonald’s logo. Subtlety is not to be expected from the brothers, but as a three-dimensional cartoon the piece does its job very well. Not far away is another comment on cultural appropriation, a recovered 19th-century landscape oil painting over which Cyprien Gaillard has floated the cartoon head of a grinning red-skinned brave. In a similar register, but more deadpan, is another Ai Weiwei – a genuine Neolithic vase painted with the logo of Coca-Cola.
But Huxley wrote The Doors of Perception as well as Island, and was much interested in more interior and (he thought) more positive forms of intervention through mind-expanding drugs and meditation. R.H. Quaytman’s image of thin white lines converging from the edge of a rectangle across a slate-grey ground towards a pulsing white centre rewards meditative attention with an intense visual experience. Meanwhile numerous diverse pieces scattered around the Dairy, and an enigmatic 10-minute film, “Medea” by Ursula Mayer, offer ample further material for philosophical reflection.
To December 8, dairyartcentre.org.uk
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