4th September 2009 — 1st November 2009
Surrounded By Squares is a two-man show by Nils Norman and Dave Hullfish Bailey – "friends who have never exhibited together before'. In a gallery like Raven Row, oozing its generous budget from every floorboard and light fitting – situated in Spitalfields, which has become part of the financial district – it seems fitting that the focus of the show is on regeneration, gentrification and town planning. In Norman's work, these are recurrent themes. As in other projects, such as his 2007 collaboration with Stephan Dillemuth A Mysterious Thing, the workings of art itself draws fire too.
The prevailing physical sense of the show is one of oddness – we are presented with objects to which we do not know how to relate. The title Surrounded by Squares is very appropriate – evoking not only the feeling of being surrounded by these works, but also the situation of the gallery and its environs; of being hemmed in by new real estate developments. The whole show has a very consciously staged look – the specially made bar (made from the off-cuts from Hullfish Bailey's sculptures), left from the private view, is accompanied by a seating area, ensuring that even if the audience does not choose to clamber onto Norman's installation ("at our own risk'), we have to interact with the work, at least on the opening night (if we expect a drink).
After the bar area, the show is neatly divided between two galleries, and Norman's room is the first we come across – dominated by a large hybrid construction reminiscent of Atelier Von Lieshout's installations, called The Death and Life of the Workplace/Public Space. It includes ramps and tunnels with red carpet on them, open books on wafer board racks, arid plants, architect-style models made from grey cardboard which look like they've been chewed by intrepid mice and a water butt on the roof, just visible through a sky-light. The piece, we are informed, "attracts and repels' – it certainly looks fun but it is too large; it offers some kind of utility, but there is much that is uncomfortable and un-ergonomic about it – barriers stand in front of parts of it, spiny plants hover over our heads.
A series of prints hang on the walls surrounding the installation, like design "mood-boards'. These designs incorporate sinister staged photos of characters like The Public Artist, The Planning, Defence and Urban Regeneration Strategist, the faces embellished with false noses, beards and amateur make up. Newspaper articles, maps, artist's impressions of developments and various other accumulated detritus are headed with slogans like "Design Outterorism' and "World Squares and Exclusive Zones for Everyone'. The prints emphasise the farcical, nightmarish quality also present in the sculptural piece, with the nonsensical language of corporate persuasion and social control.
Hullfish Bailey's work consists of large polygonal sculptures, which have been designed by feeding data about "Spitalfields' dissident past' into a 3D design programme. Again, the workings of the pieces are aesthetisized – hundreds of cable ties hold them together; unfinished constructions lie on the floor; the numbers that describe the components are engraved on the surface of the panels. Conceptually, the work reminds me of (or perhaps is an attack on works such as) Goshka Macuga's projects for the nearby Whitechapel gallery, where groups are invited to use a large table in the exhibition for meetings, their activities aestheticized, photographed and catalogued – made into art. The history of dissent in Spitalfields is only nominally present here, we as viewers are not given enough purchase on whatever data was used in the making of the work for that data to become truly active within it. Unfortunately Hullfish Bailey's pieces fade into the background slightly, and it is all too easy to regard the exhibition (as I have probably done here) as a Nils Norman Production, rather than an interdependent, mutually developed and agreed collaboration.
The works occupy the gallery, i.e. they appear to live in it, spreading themselves into an arrangement, secreting parts of themselves throughout the building, and this is one of the more satisfying strategies employed here. However, there is something a little too neat about the arrangement of the building materials and tools dotted about the place – in the words of a friend, this gallery is so beautiful it makes everything look expensive. We are told that the work was produced out of conversation between the artists, and of course, this conversation is also manifest in the space, in the form of a small space in which the walls are covered in diagrams and notes pertaining to both projects. The wall text states that Norman's interests are in how corporate culture absorbs things outside of itself and turns them to quick profit – the precise charade of the show perhaps reflecting the falsity of much of the marketing around ecology, town planning or the creative industries themselves.
In the end, this very rich and complex show makes it obvious that the very processes it is criticising are ones that it and the artists are themselves complicit in, and by extension, so are we – in fact, perhaps there is one poster missing from Norman's series: one picturing the citizen-consumer.
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London E1 7LS