Are you fed up with dreaming spires? If central Oxford’s architecture no longer appeals, you could do worse than visit Modern Art Oxford’s two new shows, each concerned with the spaces we live in. There’s not a gargoyle-adorned roof in sight.
Simon and Tom Bloor’s installation, ‘Hit and Miss’, takes its title from a kind of timber fencing used in post-war British housing developments. The artists have constructed a small maze of these fences outside the gallery’s St. Ebbes entrance, along with seating, tall lights and the occasional potted plant. The fencing is opaque, save for narrow slats which allow visibility only from certain angles, which meant that as I wove my way through these fragmented walls I kept half-glimpsing other people behind them, or catching a sentence of someone else’s conversation. The voyeuristic nature of the yard’s layout seems at odds with the cheerful punters chatting within its bays.
The yard also has a bleached appearance: the fencing is a stark white in contrast to the deep red brick of the gallery walls, and sections have been sprayed with bits of neon yellow and purple.
Add to this the old exhibition posters which the Bloors have re-appropriated to their own show, and the yard becomes an amalgam of exhibition space, suburban backwater and public park. The whole effect is bewildering, perhaps replicating the confused designs of Britain’s quick, low-cost architectural projects after WW2. Bits of fencing become a comment on the way we house ourselves.
Materials also seem linked to social comment in Manfred Pernice’s exhibition in the Upper Galleries. The first room you walk into contains his ‘Sonderausstellung’: an assortment of plastic surfaces, unpainted chipboard and loose carpeting which house a particular domestic space. Pernice describes the installation as ‘an exhibition within an exhibition’, and the mock-interior certainly heightens the way we look at the objects collected inside it. The crucial thing is how absolutely bland these objects are: a radio shaped like a can of Coke plays mindless pop music; a couple of tiled cubes are stacked against a wall; a child’s model road set is littered with paper cups.
There is no sense of a uniform ‘design’ like something out of an interiors magazine: these objects sit together simply as the accumulated detritus of living. It’s easy to think that this brash hodgepodge of a room is nothing like our own, comfortingly familiar homes – but all Pernice has done is taken a fairly average living space and stripped it of the people and memories which would normally be there.
Really, Pernice seems to be saying, we all live in nothing more than spaces which gain and lose the objects that accompany our existence.
The focal point of the exhibition is the installation in the Upper Gallery. A circular platform stands in the centre of the room, covered with light, split into sections which mimic rooms in a home. The walls of each section are covered with sketches, newspaper clippings and photographs of chance patterns in an urban landscape. The artist has seemingly included all the preparatory material for this installation within the installation itself: as a viewer, you see a process rather than a finished piece.
This installation continues the uncoordinated objects and dull colours of the rest of the work in the show, save for a final twist (quite literally).
As you walk round the back of the platform, a spiral staircase at its centre is revealed. It’s a self-assembly job of plastic components and wobbles unreassuringly as you walk it – but when you reach the final stair, you are suddenly alone in the beautiful high ceiling space of the gallery.
Everything seems quiet and light: it is a powerful moment of relief from the cycle of banal objects which fills the exhibition.