(REVIEW) Some Loose Assemblies, by Louis Mason
In this review of the group show Some Loose Assemblies, held at the Hundred Years Gallery in London on 9 June 2021, Louis Mason documents the ethics of feminist composting by analysing the work of artists Sophie Seita, Kate Clayton, Claire Zakiewicz, Gerald Curtis and Libby Heaney. Working across mediums and spaces that stretch well beyond the gallery, Mason traces the artists' playful work as imagining forms of care and awareness emerging out of the detritus which surrounds us, and as a salve against the isolation experienced during the past year.
Some Loose Assemblies is a show that diagrams a series of decompositions. Some of these are symbolic — decompositions of language, of received frames and referents in art, and of the structures and consequences of who is empowered to speak and to look. Some are more literal. Bodies rot, or are broken down into their component movements and gestures. Composting is introduced as a poetic figure; an armature across which a female and feminist literary and representational project is elaborated. Emerging from these gestures are a set of obscure intimacies and dependencies, sketched out between genders, between ages, and between digital bodies and their more visceral, physical (and perhaps inescapable) material counterparts. When things are taken apart it is not so much to see what they are composed of, since the works seem to agree that the frames of expression in art and elsewhere have been built by structures of power that must themselves be subverted, but to liberate the libidinal potential inherent in their degradation. The three pieces that comprise the show, which string together loosely and easily, are installed in a dark room underground. They are a series of performances and videos that together take up a little over an hour, with the audience seated cinema-style, in rows of chairs in front of the projected images and the area of floor given over to the performers.
The first of these, featuring Claire Zakiewicz and Gerald Curtis, takes place on a large sheet of paper laid on the floor. Music with a vaguely club-infused trance energy plays, while the two collaborators kneel at either end of the white rectangle, each holding paintbrushes in both hands. They lock their gazes and begin to paint, long fluid shapes and lines, in different colours. After several minutes Zakiewicz is blindfolded and Curtis guides her movements as she continues marking the surface on her own. He claps if she moves across the edge of the paper, and she attempts to reorient herself. Then their positions are reversed, and Curtis, using darkened sunglasses in place of the heavy cloth blindfold, paints while blind. They conclude with another shared session (no blindfolds), and then hang the fresh painting from one of the walls in the space. There is a softness to this measured and almost mechanical process; a type of laboured intimacy that is strictly formalised, almost ritualistic. The painting that is made in this way is not necessarily a discreet work of art. It can certainly be treated as one (it can be hung on a wall for instance), but it reads more clearly as the trace or programme of a relational game played out between its practitioners. These are images of care and vulnerability, but also of a particular and careful species of mutual submission.
The performance takes place beneath the projection of a large still image, an abstract ground of white boxes, arranged into a grid-like a shop display, and each containing a small green screen and a smaller white figure. Once it begins to move it becomes clear that the image is in fact a 3D render of an infinite display of smart phones, iPads, and laptops, all with their screens showing this same green backdrop and white figure. This is the second work, a video by Libby Heaney titled Figures in Limbo, that takes as its launching point the figure of Vitruvian man, and quickly transforms into a looping narration that deals with the capacities of the body; of its movement, and of its representation. This is the first work that directly addresses one of the essential themes of the show - that of language and its capacity to frame and reframe. A video that begins as something akin to a performance lecture on the insufficiencies of masculine, rationalist frames of representation, eventually transforms into a playing of and with language; into a series of poetic deconstructions that work to break things down, break them apart, see what else might be possible. There is something joyful in this, and this joy in the reconfiguring of language, in puns and repetitions and Carroll-esque nonsense, animates the work beyond the crispness of its critical project. As the language breaks down so too does the image. The screens and the classical imagery — not just Da Vinci’s formulas of movement and articulation, but also sections that angrily mock the historically ‘appropriate’ place for the woman’s body in the classical canon — are replaced with abstract, digitally composited fields of empty space, with fiery phenomena hanging and burning in the air, with floating debris and mythic bodies and other imagery bordering on fantasy. Eventually these break down completely and we are left with swirling abstractions: a final and formally absolute decomposition, and a space, at least in theory (if we are able to take sufficient ownership the language needed to articulate it), of generative possibility.
The final work, a performance and video featuring Sophie Seita and Kate Clayton, and titled Pearl & Theory Make Compost, marks out some formal ground between the first two, and succeeds in effectively tying the show together by clearly laying out and reinforcing its keys themes: the stakes of a feminist programme for intimacy, the play of linguistic experimentation, and the formal motor behind these explorations: decomposition, here literally expressed in the process of making compost. In the performance a bag of pearls are thrown across the floor, and Seita and Clayton sit facing one another. They take turns placing earthworms on each other’s bare arms, shoulders, and face. Afterwards the video plays, and we see the two women, in their personas as Pearl and Theory, ‘make compost’. This turns out to be both a concretely physical process, performed in Pearl’s garden, and a more abstract one, which includes the recombination and breaking apart of language into poetry. This time the work brings in, mixes together, and ultimately decomposes a series of texts, truisms, and theoretical props that are currently in fashionable use in discourses around contemporary art. I was reminded while watching of Kathy Acker’s viciously irreverent repurposing of the literary canon in the name of a libidinal and radically de-individuated feminist project. I was also reminded of the night’s opening performance by Zakiewicz and Curtis — reminded that, beneath or alongside its critical ambitions, Some Loose Assemblies remains committed to the elaboration of a particular type of intimacy. It is sincere, and it could be called radical. Certainly in this last video it is feminist. It also serves a double purpose, as a place of respite from a world of patriarchal bad faith, and as a warning. If our fundamental communicational tools: language, figuration, representation, and subjectification; are owned, designed, and operated by powerful structures of repression or alienation, then what must first be done is to break them down or apart in a sort of excessive, creative dissolution: a process that may look something like composting. From the remains of these rotten historical forms might flourish new spaces of possibility, new possibilities to know one another and ourselves, new intimacies, new bodies. Some Loose Assemblies is able to maintain throughout its sense of play, of lightness and of refusal by the artists to be pinned down, quantified, or measured. There is an underlying humour that effectively cuts through the works and that complexifies them; there is vulnerability alongside urgency, and care with stridency. I think that what is at stake is how we live; not only how we speak and look in individual terms, but also how we can come to trust one another to engage in the mutual and necessary work of breaking language and image into pieces, and of using those remnants to conceive of something new.
Text: Louis Mason
Photographs by Laura Cobb and Felice Knoll