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Organism, machine and the agency of the artefact: Being Amongst, Within, Without exhibition review

Being Amongst: Within and Without is the work of Sophia Reinisch, Maria Dragoi, and Eric Arnal: an emerging curatorial team with a striking and cohesive debut. Being Amongst, Within, and Without, is far from a traditional gallery. Taking inspiration from the Wunderkammer of Early Modern Europe, the exhibit is closer to an eclectic hoarder’s attic than a traditional white cube gallery. According to-curator Eric Arnal, “[the curators] chose it specifically because it wasn’t a gallery space, we wanted to feel like you were walking into the house of an eccentric collector, and everything on display was at ‘home.’”

Set in Safehouse 2, a stripped-down Victorian house in Peckham, the location is a central aspect of the exhibition. The setting was the seminal point from which the exhibition developed, with the choice of site coming before any artists or works were picked for inclusion. The setting is in active dialogue with the pieces through the process of situating them within a physicality and its context.

On entering, the most immediate work is Swedish artist Hanna Antonsson’s Waiting Talarias: a pair of runners adorned with mechanical wings. The back-and-forth movement of the wings is mechanical and indeed unsettling with the verisimilitude of the feathering. This is the first of many works within the exhibit that straddles the dichotomy of mechanical and organic: with some not inhabiting either realm, but developing into something greater than the sum of its parts.

One such piece is William Darrell’s Parapodia. In the second room of the ground floor, the sculpture Parapodia basks in the glow of an industrial floodlight: both physically and visually centered within the room. Its form and motion is that of a deep sea worm, while its body is composed of 3D-printed PLA plastic. Once the eye is drawn to the piece it is captured: the organic undulation is hypnotic.

The themes of motion and stillness are present through the exhibition. Don’tPlayWith Babylonian Numerology (Do Play With is Sculpture) invites the viewer to take agency in the reorganisation of the piece. Each limb (resembling the petals of a flower) is mobile, and can be set to concrete positions. The piece plays with the human desire to enact agency through “deliberate mechanical decisions”, according to the artist. Its central position in the first room of the second floor invites the audience to view from all angles - and indeed, play with the sculpture.

Meanwhile, Carla Andrade’s film El paisaje está vacío y el vacío es paisaje - e Landscape is Empty and Emptiness is Landscape is at points nearly excruciatingly still. Composed of footage from the Atacama Desert and a soundtrack of meteorological and radio audio, the piece is devoid of anything but the natural landscape. The fifteen-minute-long piece imposes stillness and reflection on the viewer: one must live peacefully with the depicted landscape.

The cabinet in the back room straddles the line between curiosity shop and house of horrors: the collections of De Wei Yu are unsettling: deeply situated within the uncanny valley, the collection includes: a stripped-down crawling baby doll from the 1950s; a Victorian era euthanasia mask; a collection of porcelain teeth; and an assortment of scissors and shears. This shelf is reminiscent of the Colonial obsession with exotica: artefacts stripped of their context and fetishised as cultural aberrations. The crowning example of this is De Wei Yu’s shark-cartilage cane suspended from the wall by a pair of deer hooves.

This spirit of possession and collection of the Wunderkrammer extends through the exhibit. Maria Dragoi’s e Night Crawled Into My Jaw, a large-scale oil painting on the ground floor, presents a collection of memories arranged into a grid. Dragoi utilises the entire texture of the canvas: sections are cut out, and removed from the collection of setpieces, while slivers of illumination draw the eye into other pieces. This interplay of light and dark is developed throughout the exhibition, hiding some pieces and highlighting others. In the words of Arnal, “[the curators] arranged the works to seem like they were creeping out of a corner or growing out of the walls, just as if they had organically appeared in the space.”

One such work hidden in the corner of an upstairs room is the piece 40 Days and 40 Nights by David Dyer: the controversial artist behind a protest against the Catholic Church in the National Portrait Gallery. In the connected projector room. Eric Arnale’s film Altar for private devotions frames the relationship between Patron and Saint as a sequence of spatial relations: the figures change position and role as ritual is enacted on-screen. While the patron was represented in religious art through deferential spatial relation to the saint, Arnal presents this film as a focus on the performativity of this ‘humble’ portrayal. Keen eyes can catch the garments of De Wei Yu used within the film.

The work of Inspection Medical Hermeneutics co-founder Pavel Pepperstein’s series Empty Icons also investigates how our religious artwork is formulated. A set of Biblical icons are re-envisioned without the presence of the Divine: resulting in a series of still landscapes in which Biblical scenes took place. The multiplicity of these pieces as religious artefacts and fine landscape art emphasises context as an arbiter of meaning. Through the act of collecting, the curatorial team behind Being Amongst, Within, and Without have imbued these artefacts with recontextualised agency. The diering thematic threads interweave well, granting new meanings to artefacts through their exhibition in the space. As a debut exhibition from this curatorial team, the project is undoubtedly a success: future projects will be eagerly anticipated.

Images: Dan Drumm


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