Art: What happens when fiction meets reality?

Mirrorcity – London Artists on Fiction and reality.

By Isla Watton, Arts Reporter

In early October a council painted over some allegedly racist graffiti. This standard procedure on the streets of Clacton-on-Sea hurled Tendring District Council into the national spotlight and set the fingers of arts critics and bloggers ablaze as it emerged that what had actually been removed was a satirical and valuable Banksy painting. Perhaps on this occasion fiction sat a little too close to home and some pigeons holding anti-immigration placards alluded to a reality that was not entirely comfortable?

Regardless, the image made its way to a mass audience through social media and other digital platforms. In the same month as Kent was being scrubbed clean, the Southbank Centre opened the doors of its Hayward Gallery to a new exhibition whose tagline promised an investigation of fiction and reality in a contemporary British city. This enticing description coupled with numerous references to JG Ballard and his dystopian writings in the marketing materials gave the impression that perhaps this exhibition would tackle some of the issues that had been bubbling below the fresh coat of paint in Clacton. What happens when art treads the line between fiction and reality and, to quote the Southbank Centre, ‘How can we navigate the space between the digital and the physical?’ and ‘What is the effect of advanced technologies on our lives?’.

Mirrorcity is a show of recent commissions by key London artist, both emerging and established who have been given the huge task of commenting on our relationship with digital technologies and the consequences of living in a digital age. Undoubtedly, new technologies have had a profound impact on our lives and the two dozen artists and collaborating groups featured in the exhibition have used a varied mix of painting, sculpture, performance, drawing, video and sound to respond to the call. The gallery is set over two and a half floors (as well as a spiral staircase and a rooftop) and navigating your way through this is an exciting experience as the broad subject matter means that you don’t quite know what you might encounter around the next corner, even if you do take the time to read the specially made newspaper by Tom McCarthy which stands in for a brochure.

As visitors enter they are greeted by the upturned hull of a ship inside of which is to be found the first video work of the exhibition, Nowhere Less Now, by Lindsay Seers. Projected onto two round screens, the dreamlike film about history, voyages and places covered some interesting themes but left the audience on the whole a little confused and somewhat unmoved. A rocky start lead to some standout pieces, in particular Anne hardy’s installation and large prints of rooms which echoed abandoned film sets. These were displayed on the Hayward Gallery’s roof and the spectacular skyline of London contrasted with the claustrophobic images of places left derelict but neatly classified with numbered tags to create an uneasy and moving experience. Back indoors the Pil and Galia Kollectiv have created a stage like a financial chart where bands are invited to perform in the gallery (see website for details of live gigs) and Tim Etchells lines the walls with writings which sound like a travel agents’ brochure meets Richard Scarry meets Tim Burton.

Other notable pieces include the drawings of both Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq (Black Hole) and Emma McNally. This entire section of the exhibition was well curated, showcasing work by artists who used simple and traditional techniques like charcoal drawings and paper cutting (John Stezaker) to tap into the confused places between fiction and reality in a digital world. The Emma McNally drawings displayed her usual diligence and emotion in her handling of graphite – a room full of imagined maps of dark nautical places was a beautiful, quiet intermission to the exhibition.

Despite some interesting pieces, the exhibition as a whole seemed a little confused. It was indeed an exhibition of London artists, but the link to fiction and reality was tenuous at best and there was practically no reference to life in the ‘digital age’ in any meaningful way. Perhaps the brief was too broad, but it felt as though the conversation that the Southbank Centre was keen to start with the idea for this series of commissions was slightly lost.

This was particularly apparent in the lack of any work which used digital technologies as a medium in new, experimental or intriguing ways. The main technology on show was an overuse of headphones which seem to have become fashionable in recent years but which added little to the exhibition. Digital technologies and in particular the internet have allowed artists to push boundaries both geographically and in terms of subject matter and this is not a new phenomenon. Mirrorcity is an enjoyable exhibition but the packaging does not reflect what is actually shown.

Even the bookshop on the way out holds key texts about digital technology, art, society, politics and the places where these things collide but where are the artists who are discussed in these pages? If anything, the inspired piece of performance art by Banksy 2.0, Tendring District Council and the Internet offered far more for discussions of the themes that Mirrorcity hoped to explore than the exhibition as a whole. Some great pieces of work are shown and it is certainly worth a visit to see some of the best artists working in London today, but it is possible to leave feeling unmoved. Where is the challenge and the inappropriateness, the controversy and debate, the confused, dark, wonderful places that actually permeate our lives and our relationship with digital technologies?

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