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Newlyn Art Gallery  24th April - 16th May 2009

curated by Rebecca Darch, Jeni Fraser, Ruth Gooding and Phil Rushworth


'Wastelands' is the outcome of an initiative between the Newlyn Gallery and the new MA curating course at University College Falmouth: a course that promises much for the future, including, hopefully, a new focus for curatorial innovations and ideas in the region.
'Wastelands' immediately sets the bar high in taking its title and inspiration from TS Eliot's The Wasteland: one of the most iconic works in the English language. Written in the aftermath of WW1, it is a poem fragmented in form and prophetic in content, which is seen by many as the epitome of heavyweight literary modernism in Britain.

This choice, as described in the catalogue, seems to represent a clear statement of the curators' ambitions. It also sets up visitors expectations: enjoining us to approach the show in a rather sober and high-minded way. 



The art relates obliquely to the poem, though taps more into contemporary debates about the environment by having a focus on the notion of the landscape itself as malevolent, barren or wasted.

The first exhibit, 'Presence/Absence II' (above top) is the largest and most elaborate in the show. It is also the most perplexing. Kate Parsons has installed a false floor in the lower gallery. It is made of clean, unprimed pine wood, and in places the floorboards have been removed to reveal topsoil and enigmatic fossil-like objects containing finger and hand impressions. But what does it mean? And why go to so much trouble to say it?

Parson's installation is complemented well, at a formal level, by the work in the upstairs gallery, which occupies the space nicely. Jane Bailey's video is projected close to the floor. She is seen walking through a wood with the hesistant, stuttering gait of someone with Parkinson's  - or some similar neurological disease. There is nothing in the accompanying literature indicating how the video was made, and so, initially, it is easy to feel embarrassed for her. But the title 'Revert' gives it away: Bailey has filmed herself walking backwards, and the resulting film has been reversed. Knowing this removes the embarrassment factor and gives the work a creepy strangeness, as well as conceptual elegance and depth (eg referencing both film and art history: think Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Wallinger's 'Angel', and art-walkers Richard Long, Francis Alys and Bruce Nauman).

Joe Doldens 'Redressing the balance' (above bottom) is a sculpture spread across the floor, made of folded strips of card and sand, and evocative of a buried city or lost civilisation, perhaps. The dryness of the sand is counter-balanced by Ally Mellor's 'Blind Faith' (below top) nearby, a swirling vortex of water containing miniature figures, that seems to depict a cataclysmic event of biblical proportions.



The last of the sculptural works in the main gallery is Alison Sharkey's 'Ruths' (foreground above bottom). Made out of latex, they are copies of human-sized dummies apparently used by the MoD in order to practice removing the dead and injured from combat-zones. A family of three slumped, pathetically, in the corner and on the floor, the dummies have a powerful immediacy and presence, and juxtaposed with Dolden's work they seem to refer to recent conflicts in the Middle East.

On the walls are works by Andy Harper and Lucy Willow. They relate more to each other and to art history than to the sculptural works in the space. Harper's oil paintings (detail below top) are compelling depictions of strange plant-forms which appear to swarm all over the canvas, whilst Willow's 'Memento Mori' are contemporary photographs of allegorical still lives, here shown together in a heavy Victorian frames in a group of four.



In the gallery overlooking Mounts Bay, Paul Chaneys 'Crap Corn' (picture below top) is one of the most direct and plain-speaking works in the show, and consists of gaudily-painted casts taken of corn that the artist has tried - and failed - to grow himself. As part of the 'Field Club' series of works, it is part of a record of Chaney's attempt to live off-grid and inevitably it has a strong moral dimension, in this case acting as a reminder of the way in which we have become alienated from processes of food production.

In the same space are small photographs depicting 'Landfall' by Sarah Bunker: rocks containing tiny lights that were placed on the seashore nearby on the opening night. Also on the opening night was Paul Carter and Alexandra Zierle's interactive performance 'Below The Skin' (picture below bottom and described by the artists below), in which ten visitors to the gallery were blindfolded and led through the space by the two performers. The ten upturned pot plants that resulted, called 'Corpses of Desire' are also displayed as photographs in the lift of the gallery for the duration of the show (see webprojects).



'After signing in with receptionist Frances Williams, participants were met by Paul Carter, dressed in funeral attire, in the studio upstairs of Newlyn Art Gallery. They were then blindfolded and led through the wall in front of them which contained a hidden door'.

'They entered the site of the performance proceedings where they were met by Alexandra Zierle. Each participant was instructed to feel and smell their own 'inner wasteland' whilst the tactile material they had chosen from four statements was then rubbed into their hands'.
'The participant was guided down the steps into the deepest depths of their own 'inner wasteland'. On the plateau half way down, the participants were asked to think of a dead desire that they would like to bury. They were asked to think of it and simply listen'.

'Guided further down and into 'the cavern', the doors were closed behind them. They were now asked to take off their blindfold and were met eye to eye by Alexandra in a cupboard lit only by a single minimal light from above. They then proceeded externalizing through writing their dead desire and physically dug a hole and buried it in soil. Above it they planted a dead tree root upside down into a rusty decaying pot and named their tree'.

'The participant's hands were washed and dried by Alexandra, they were asked to turn around to be blindfolded again and then asked to knock on the door. They were welcomed by Paul and led back into the gallery reception through another hidden door. At this door they were left and instructed that they will be met by someone in a moment'.
'Alexandra Glanville, guided them to a seat where they could talk about their experience and look upon their tree lined up on a table outside, along with the other participants trees. Each pot was engraved with a word and at the end of the evening the pots lined up spelt out 'Below the skin, all that is buried is not dead'. The other assistants were Rebecca Weeks and Tim Crowley'.

Wastelands is a good demonstration of the strength of the well-curated group show, as well as the strength of contemporary art being made in the region. It is an exhibition that can usefully be compared to a number of gallery-based group shows in Cornwall that have, in recent years, been set up around similar themes. With an impressive catalogue and signage, Wastelands has certainly been the best packaged of this series. In addition it had curator-curators (not artist-curators), and as a result the choice of works was, probably, more objective and less reliant on eg serendipity or friendships.

Taken together, this series of shows have all, however, offered a refreshingly more thoughtful and nuanced representation of our relationship to our environment and the landscape than that offered by Cornwall's tourist art and commercial art sector.


RW 3/5/09