Fantastic Cities: unveiling the complex realities, and fantasies, of urban life

A review of the Penny Woolcock exhibition at Modern Art Oxford

A group picture of the artist with the crew of her film
Photo Credit: Edinburgh International Film Festiva

“Peaceful change happens when we break out of the bubbles we inhabit, wake up, and connect with other realities.” observes the artist Penny Woolcock, whose first major solo exhibition is showing at Modern Art Oxford on Pembroke Street. Arranged across a number of rooms and comprising film and mixed media installations, the exhibition charts the course of Woolcock’s career, as she moved from Argentina to Spain and then to the UK, helping to establish the Oxford Printmakers Collective in 1976.

The exhibition opens with Utopia, a seven-minute film made in 2015 at The Roundhouse in London, which sees eight people read aloud extracts from Thomas More’s 1516 book of the same. Despite being half a millennium old, More’s considered and eloquent critique of society’s structures – he discusses capitalism, private property, and social relations – chimes with contemporary discussions about the 1%, ‘Generation Rent’ and what seem to be increasingly fractured social groupings: old and young, rich and poor, Remainers and Leavers.

Next is When the Same Road is a Different Road, made last year, which the gallery describes as ‘a dynamic new film installation presenting the startlingly different responses of two individual narratives […] on a short walk through the same city streets’. Those two individuals are a young gang member and the artist, and their thoughts and preoccupations go some way to underlining just how different it can feel to navigate London’s streets. Whilst the artist reflects on the similarities between a playground and the work of the artist Phyllida Barlow, the young man is busy watching out for rival gang members brandishing knives; both are, and are not, members of the same community. This is followed up by the intense, if more intimate, When I First Saw a Gun, where we see a separate group of eight recount their encounters with a gun. ‘The first time I saw a gun was’ and ‘that was the first time I saw a gun’, how they all begin and end their testimonies, despite the diversity of their individual stories, draws them together to emphasise that weapons do not discriminate according to race, gender or class.

Fantastic Cities, the last sound and film installation, is the highlight. Also made last year, it consists of two films which examine experiences of Oxford and Los Angeles from radically different perspectives. In Oxford, we see three white students dressed in sub-fusc strolling through the Bodleian against an unmistakably religious soundtrack, only for that image to be replaced by two rap artists critiquing the town/gown divide and Oxford’s appalling record on student diversity, the camera observing them as though in a music video. La La Land presents us with a Los Angeles where the number of tents on sidewalks outstrips the number of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, its title throwing into relief the city’s crazily polarized nature (and a nod to the very apolitical 2016 Oscar winner). Woolcock calls it a ‘shitty, shitty, shitty city’, one where people go hungry whilst others can buy a beanie for $155. What makes these films is that their artistic aspects do not suffer for their political takes.  

Whilst the layout of the exhibition means that voices from individual sound and film installations occasionally clash, Modern Art Oxford is to be commended for this timely and engaging exhibition about community and multicultural cohesion, which is all the better for its exploration of the importance of Oxford to Woolcock’s artistic trajectory. Whilst pointing to the vibrant and diverse possibilities that the city has to offer, their fantastic nature, evoked in the exhibition’s title, signals also how remote from reality spaces and people in a city can be.

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