The Art of Our Time

Surya Bowyer looks at Pembroke College’s new exhibition

In the Oberkassel area of Düsseldorf’s district four, on the west side of the river Rhine, stands a rather remarkable building. It has white walls and a black roof, with numerous windows of various sizes – including a rather elegant loft extension. Indeed, if we ignore this extension and the roof terrace which sits above it, the building is reminiscent of the seminal Bauhaus building that stands a little over 300 miles to the east, in the otherwise relatively inconspicuous city of Dessau. The Düsseldorf Building, having been erected in 1907, predates the Bauhaus Dessau, and has been variously used as a lamp factory, a corset production facility, a picture frame factory, and a theatre workshop. It now houses Julia Stoschek’s eponymous collection, predominantly formed of time-based media art.

It is from this collection that the Pembroke College JCR Art Fund has been loaned three pieces of media art, currently being exhibited alongside the College’s own works in its purpose-built gallery space. The Art Fund was created in 1947 by Anthony Emery. A particularly enjoyable anecdote within its history is that in 1953 it acquired Francis Bacon’s ‘Man in a Chair’ for £150; in 1997 it was sold for £400,000. However, whilst Emery created the Fund in fear of “the ignorance of the majority about the art of their own time”, the gallery only opened its doors to the public last year. This is probably why you haven’t heard of it.

The three pieces displayed are by Elizabeth Price, Helen Marten and Ed Atkins. The exhibition seems fitting, as each artist has their own Oxford link: Price taught at the Ruskin, Marten graduated from the Ruskin, and Atkins grew up in the town. The works themselves are of rather varying quality. The Atkins piece, ‘Delivery to the Following Recipient Failed Permanently’, has none of the arresting uncanniness of his Serpentine Sackler Gallery installation. Rather, it contains only the weaknesses that seem to permeate his work more widely – a poor command of lighting and a seeming lack of eye for composition. Whereas the Serpentine installation was able to somewhat redeem these faults through the sheer strangeness of its CGI protagonist, ‘Delivery’ comes across much more like a student art fi lm – complete with abrupt cuts and rather randomly inserted screens of white and black. Even the visual language of the piece is trite: a head, facing away from us, backlit with a circular light, so as to create an angelic, halo-bordered silhouette. We have seen this imagery before, and often in better lit and composed situations.

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If you are a particular fan of wholly CGI spaces and thus shudder at the thought of Atkins foregoing this medium, fear not, as Marten’s piece fills the void. It is a playful work, complete with a Greek column that both talks and has bizarrely expressive eyebrows. But it seems a little vacuous and unfulfilling, never shaking off its reminiscence to Clippy the Paperclip (Microsoft Word’s ‘intelligent user interface’ of aeons ago, remember?)

Where the other two works variously misfi re, Price’s piece succeeds. Formed largely of static shots of the interior of a modernist home, it satirises the fetishisation of personal living spaces that has occurred as a result of the rise of interior design. The lighting is cold, the composition tasteful yet wholly stereotypical. Price seems to be emphasising the distance and voyeurism inherent in the viewing of another’s living space: when text flashes up imperatively telling us to “ENTER THE HOUSE,” the shot that follows is of the doorway, but is taken from inside the house. The emphasis is that we will never really enter this home, but rather will only look on it as a sort of design pornography – something that exists only to be visually enjoyed.

In the panel discussion held immediately prior to the exhibition’s opening, Dr Elisa Schaar spoke of the need to “perform” digital works of art, as otherwise they remain merely as bits of code. For all the talk of such a performance, the three video installations are not given their own, darkened room(s), but rather are interspersed with the gallery’s own collection. This reduces their potency. I presume as a result of this choice to display them in a lightfilled room, the works are displayed on ultra- HD screens rather than projected. Resultantly, every time there is a cut to black in any of the films, one is left staring at one’s own reflection – a rather strange and unsettling experience. In terms of sound, each video has two headphones, though the headphones on Atkins’s piece were broken during the opening, forcing the audio of the work to be played out loud and thus be drowned out by the hubbub of the gallery goers. Of course there are always going to be teething problems, but for an exhibition that is running for less than a month and only for two hours on two days of the week, every moment of mishap is costly.

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That said, Pembroke is doing something admirable here. Its collection is a first for Oxford colleges, and the decision to open its doors to the public is commendable. Whilst the exhibition is by no means perfect, by bringing works from Düsseldorf to Oxford, Pembroke is providing a public service not only to Oxford students, but the community more widely. Give them the thanks they deserve and take a half hour out of your day to pay the exhibition a visit – it’s worth it.