Exhibition Review: Two Peacocks

Two Peacocks, Gallery North, 04 November until 24 November 2011

Taken from issue 2 of Peel magazine

Follow the magazine's blog here. Issue 2 launches 19.01.2012

Artists involved: John Walter, Cian Donnelly, Corinne Felgate, Michael Whitby, Will McLean, Neesha Champaneria and Hannah Gillespie, Matt Breen, Diana Taylor, Ludovica Gioscia, Jamie Quantrill, Ollie Harrop

After having pinched ourselves to remind us that we are in fact in a gallery we are met with a vibrant collaborative installation in the form of a Department Store, instigated by John Walter, who, at times, seems more of a ringmaster than a curator. Deidre Barlow, a train coursing ?round a railway set and a pink slide that doubles as a tongue extending from a gaping cartoon mouth welcome us into the staged sculptural tableau that is Two Peacocks.

Such descriptions seem far too arduous in their attempt to communicate the immediacy of the show (and it is a show in every sense of the word) so I shall defer to the more concise analogy of snap, crackle and pop. And yet, instead of the indexicality to which the previous onomatopoeic phrase refers, we are presented with a visual dissonance that subverts the supposed accessibility of references to popular culture; after all wasn?t it Nietzsche who said depth can hide on the surface of things?

The work of the 12 artists on display overlap and spill out making it difficult to distinguish where one artists work ends and another begins. For example, Ollie Harrop's to-scale photographs of Ghanian walls onto which paintings by John Walter are superimposed, in front of which are placed artificial flowers whose shadows merge with those of fauna present in the original image. Within this co-mingling of fiction and reality on one wall is inscribed the number of a store to let; one imagines dialing this number and that someone at the other end would pick up. Never was there a clearer demonstration of punctum a phrase coined by Barthes in 1980 to describe a detail that establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it or, in the case of Harrop, an exquisite penetration of the facade.

Elsewhere, voices clamoring to be heard playfully employ the aesthetic of the by now much referred to chronic visual overload associated with modern day culture (the terms used to describe such phenomenon rapidly becoming as overused as that which they delineate.) In the context of this exhibition it produces a rich layering that fiercely questions the necessity of the white cube. Arguably Two Peacocks critiques the white cube whilst simultaneously acknowledging it: why else why else is it in a gallery and not in an actual shop premises?

Another symptom of this overabundance is a breaking down of the barrier between audience and the do-not-touch museum, in turn prompting us to question our own position as viewer within the exhibition as we hover between that of an audience or consumer: Is it possible to be both? Indeed the use of the words item, display and show have a certain duality in the context of the consumerist department store to which this show alludes and is equally like and unlike. Two Peacocks goes beyond a simple straight forward department store in which brands and are clearly demarcated and distinct from one another (notice in Two Peacocks the conspicuous lack of labels or any means of formal categorisation) what we are offered here is a different kind of visibility altogether and not one concerned with the commercial necessity of separation but relates instead, perhaps, to the excess that such activities as shopping produce. It is precisely this excess that ridicules the enforced reverence characteristic of the ritual gallery encounter.

In Hannah Gillespie and Neesha Champaneria?s Slide Rummage, for example, clothes are not purchased but instead given in exchange for explicit participation in the work. This is an unregulated exchange governed by trust and reliant upon reciprocity. Yet it also has an undercurrent of perhaps satirising the greedy consumer carelessly raking about in shops as garments are disregarded and reduced to nothing more than a heap? Even as we swim around in the debris of clothing that we are plunged into at the end of the slide are we being mocked? The artists claim your clothes are your opinions given visual form and it is unclear whether this is meant earnestly or is their own version of what Prof. Helen Baker refers to as the fictional narratives offered by consumer culture (2011) Although I suspect it is the former.

What is also apparent is that Two Peacocks requires an audience or participants to activate it. It seems like a monster that only really comes alive when it is forced to stir from its sleep having been so delightfully disturbed.  Perhaps this has something to do with Brian O'Doherty's assertion in his 1976 nominal text Inside the White Cube that the viewer's arrival in the space is an intrusion and that the artwork should be left alone, re-emphasizing it as something serious. It stands to reason then, given their rebuttal of the white cube, that precisely the opposite is the case with Two Peacocks.

Within this there are no spaces to accommodate pauses. We are not engaged in self- conscious reflectivity but are continually propelled from one thing to another so that thought takes on a form of fluidity that results from the loss of the conscious self. Arguably any post rationalizing and interpretation necessarily occur off site, ironically once the gallery encounter is over. 

The strategies employed John Walter and the artists working in unison create an unexpected visual synthesis between seemingly disparate elements that coalesce into a coherent exhibition. I can't help bemoan the fact that the once luminous walls and roaring voices are soon to be muffled under the inevitable layer of white paint that succeeds every exhibition. Yet, for all its layering it seems perversely fitting that the fate of Two Peacocks at Gallery North is that it is to be compressed into yet another layer of paint among many with only a chink in the surface necessary to puncture the facade of the white cube.

Louise Winter

Image, Two PeacocksJohn Walter Crazy Golf, 2011. Image courtesy of Ollie Harrop.