Half of the Holly King show at Art Mûr is a retrospective. She’s been doing this for 30 years. I’ll confine myself to addressing the new work, though it’s worth noting that while her work has become warmer in hue, it’s also become less romantic in tenor. Made up principally of photos and a few viewing contraptions, A la frontière du mystère features studio created landscapes blown up as large photo prints. Sometimes the backdrops to these images are painted with loose brush work in swirling Sunday painter style as mildly whimsical skies. Sometimes they are enlarged, glossy tourist getaway brochure type images filled with glinting pebbles. In both cases, she places what amounts to still lifes of largely dead plants and the occasional gewgaw in the foreground and in focus. Sometimes these are a bit glittery to play against the background. The few smaller, strictly still lifes against black play this angle more, covering the dark grounding with what looks like a shower of dandruff, or maybe it’s glitter.
The past few shows at Art Mûr have been high on this sort of optical illusion pseudo-landscape stuff, though not usually with such a sense of being luxuriant garbage. It’s fun as far as it goes, with its twisting of diorama conventions and friendly skewering of nineteenth century sensibilities. The diorama had married two of that century’s big trends – the sublime and the fascination with the mechanical – into one curious form, what could be obnoxiously regarded as the desublimated sublime. That’s basically what King’s work is. A mildly theatrical, kind of ironic or mildly self-analytical take on tourist photography, internalized by studio practice, and then orchestrated like a Freudian joke about the relationship between the phantasm (controlled improvisation via assemblage) and the birth of photography.
The curious bedfellow of this tendency appeared in Hull at AXENÉO7. Rehab Nazzal’s Choreographies of Resistance is marketed in the press release this way:
Following a year of field work in Palestine to create this new body of work, Rehab Nazzal has gathered sound, video, photography and found objects to create immersive environments which speak to the tragic conditions Palestinians face today. Although based in documentary, the installations that make up Choreographies of Resistance function more as commemorations, for the still-living and the deceased. Rehab Nazzal was shot and injured in Bethlehem in 2015 while gathering material for this exhibition.
Everything about the show yodels kitsch. It works like a send-up and seems to mock what it wants to do. Without a hint of exaggeration, the show is like she tried to imagine what she could cobble together from a gift shop for the Palestinian territories if they were a theme park.
One room is filled with vinyl silhouettes of a Palestinian launching stones (debris etc). It has the nuanced quality of a decal. It looks like an IPod ad or the wall decor for a jazzercise studio. There are bits of debris on the floor you need to navigate and that also add to the sense of exercise/dance lesson atmosphere. This is echoed with a video piece in the hall which is the flickering of debris on a black screen. It’s all little video dissolves. This motif is also taken up by a large projection of images in the next room. These have little tilts and dissolves like a high school video project. Cast up against the images of eyes peeking from hoods and scarves are the shadows of a heap of slingshots. They have a Dennis the Menace/ early Bart Simpson quality to them and they are bundled together like the conceptual mobile from someone’s awkward prom. The rest of the show is taken up by photos on aluminum, slightly pixelated and distorted with more painterly effects. They flirt with a sort of light Impressionism, only a bit dour, like Turner but drenched in a more forced pathos. But the whole exhibit is coated in this patina of kitschy aesthetics. My viewing companion was more impressed by the artist’s restraint. They might have just put a sad teddy bear in an empty room, she said.
There are a couple of ways to interpret all of this. You can see it as satire of the romance of politically involved art, a romance that has extended back for centuries but hit a real plateau of daftness in the nineteenth century and has rarely come down since. This could be why the thing looks like a mangled 1980s version of cliches from the 1880s. But knowing the concerns of the artist and the mandate of a state funded gallery like AXENÉO7, it’s hard to imagine them pulling off something that self-aware. That is, unless the statement is a critique of political content in art in the name of some mystical human substance beyond representation, therefore pointing to the poverty of depicting the holiness of political struggle (the religious symbolism that saturates it is unmistakable). Could this be why it’s so aggressively interactive – asking you to stick your face in a gas mask mounted on the wall to watch video footage (I think I saw this at a war museum once) – as a way of forcing empathy? Or is it just a statement about the spectacularization of war through the media? But if the latter, doesn’t the whole show not only participate in that, but obscure facticity with sentiment to an even greater degree? There’s actually no meaningful or instructive content in the show. It’s all affective tourism.