REVIEW OF “PLEASE TOUCH” @ THE TAP GALLERY, CURATED BY MICHAELA FREEMAN; 3rd JUNE 2010

Opening the first of the two sets of doors leading into the TAP Gallery I discover a man kissing a wall. He’s really going for it, palms sensuous-flat caressing brickwork, eyes dreamy-yum shut, a one-way embrace no less passionate for that, kissy kiss kiss with his lips and tongue. He’ll explain later that he’s right now hearing a voice in his head saying “KISS… KISS… KISS…” and he must obey. As an explanation it won’t really explain anything so he’ll go on to tell us that this is “FLIRTMAN,” it involves a discreet headset beaming commands from some unseen controller into his ears, commands like “WALK IN A CIRCLE” and he walks in a circle, “YELL” and he yelps loudly and everyone pretends not to have heard, “KISS” and he starts to get worried but the unseen director won’t let up, “KISS… KISS… KISS…” Possibly, this man reflects through tumbling beads of sweat, the art-gallery crowd is sexually conservative enough that if he sets upon some stranger and jams a tongue down his or her throat that could create a bit of a scene. The wrong sort of scene. So he got inventive and we, as yet unaware of the good solid sensible reason for his actions, find him here snogging mortar and white-gloss paintjob.

Open the second set of doors and into the gallery and there’s this diagram pinned to the wall, “PROGRAM” by Silver & True, from whose skulls also emerged “FLIRTMAN.” The diagram shows chat-up strategies reduced to not one but two flowcharts, split into separate male/female flows in order to reinforce gender stereotypes in a so-ironic-it’s-not-even-ironic sort of way e.g. MAN: “TAKE HER TO A BAR.” WOMAN: “FOLLOW HIM.” Cute touch, the two start differently, the woman’s graph begins: “FEEL LONELY?” with the “NO” arrow shooting past all the chat-up business all the way to “END,” while a “YES” cupids her into the dating-game which basically involves wandering around until she finds a non-hideous guy to be smiled at by. The man’s chart starts: “NEED SEX?” with a “NO” skipping to the end, a “YES” and he’s flowing, on the prowl for a non-viperous woman to smile at. That should be “WANT SEX?” surely? N

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Way: it made me laugh and that’s the main thing, unless it isn’t. There’s another set of doors to the right but the bulk of the gallery is to the left so turn left, here’s the first of Chris Mercier’s contributions: “THE UNRAVELLER,” like a wooden loom, or a church lectern with a handle; stand turning that handle and watch flipbook images of unravelling fabric unravel and keep on unravelling. On the wall along from that is “PULL GENTLY” – the flirting theme continues? – which consists of two square canvasses with a bit of wall in-between, they’re abstract images, the one facing your left eye shows a white orb against a black background, a moony sphere which seems to have had words scrawled over it by NASA hooligans but on closer inspection they’re not words at all. Glossolalia cryptograms. The picture eyeing your right eye is all shocking pinky-reds and shocking blues and yellows too, sharp geometries, an “x” and a “+” overlaid so see the Union Jack of some brighter world, then see “PULL GENTLY” as a single piece, see the two images together as the ingredients of a game, or the beginning an equation, “Zero plus…” or “Zero times…” or this is the gaze of some reverse Cheshire Cat with a plug-socket for a nose or anyway what you do is, you choose one of the pictures, exclude the other from your attention, pull the little strap attached to the top and it opens like a pop-up book and from out of the one picture unfolds the other, so see that electrick flag hatching from alchemical space-egg or vice versa. Harsh lines to complex curve and back again. Pallid to shocking and back again. A catch-all metaphor.

Keep moving and there’s something wrong with the walls, eldritch black creepymould spreading, like some fungal infection that shouldn’t be there until you touch it at which point it definitely should be there. Helen Sturgess has offered as well a collection of plasticine shapes, pink and inviting they spend the evening being tug-of-warred between vaginal and phallic. Past a room in which large faces are pulling faces courtesy of Sam Holden, here’s the third piece from Chris Mercier: it’s a clunky ancient hand-operated letterpress, a printing-machine like the oily-black god prayed to by useless old typewriters, plus there’s a pile of cards sitting next to it. Cards: blank white on one side, on the other there’s text giving the history of this machine and the intention behind its current employment: “The letterpress… wants to be assured of the enervative nature of this unlimited-edition print.” Find the artist. Ask the artist what that means. He replies: the idea is, you put the card in the press, blank side up, you push the handle to tighten the machine’s jaws to stamp the card, you wonder why nothing is happening, realise you’re probably supposed to pull not push, do that then your card has an inkyfresh block of writing on it; if this card is considered as the artwork then every time anyone uses the letterpress the work becomes less scarce and therefore less likely to ever be art. The machine – which, the accompanying text informs us, was a radical Communist in its youth but which grew out of that phase and got a sensible job instead – works against itself now. More: the words you stamp onto the card constitute a block of HTML code which, for homework, you type into your computer to generate a link to the artist’s website. These are basic social conventions that are being subverted: instead of giving you his business-card, Mercier has you create that card. Instead of saying “www.whatever.com” you’re told you’ll have to work for it.

Next are two exhibits from Ole Hagen: in the Cupboard you sit in darkness watching as on TV a sitting figure with a featureless concave cranium picks up shapes from the shelves around him, and fits them into the hollow of his head, then he takes them out, and puts them back on the shelf, and tries on another, then another, he tries on a square for size. Drone noise. He tries on a triangle for size. He tries on a circle for size. Drone. Noise. He tries on a star for size. And outside, back in the gallery proper, we meet “NODEHEAD.” Again with the head: this time bulbous and huge it sits pathetically on shoulders, only shoulders, the rest of the body perhaps buried in the sand. Faded-gold head, fit to burst, featureless but not entirely: there are eyes, only eyes, sticky-out and if you bend you can look through them and if you do you see: someone else. There’s another same-sized faded-gold head some way away, not far but not quite near, someone else, and he or she could be looking at you same as you’re looking at him or her but you’ll never know because your view of each other is obscured by a couple of big bloody pillars in the way, you can see only the outline of the other, not the eyes or anything much, not the look or poise or intentions. It’s a cruel piece, it speaks of long nights slumped mumbling along to “I Want The One I Can’t Have,” it’s like the time you scored tickets to The Greatest Show In The Galaxy only to find yourself stuck sitting on the Worst seat in the house.

Speaking of seats, here’s one and it’s comfy. A good old claret-leather chair to get lost in. As with Mercier’s letterpress and the bathroom-sink still to come, this object possesses an aura, if it could talk then oh the things it could tell you! and this chair can talk: Karen Storr has recorded its previous owners James and Gene as they chatted about their dad Maurice who, we are told, was a semi-pro bullshitter, Maurice Flitcroft, top tall-tale teller with his two sons out now to beat him in that league: so sit on the chair, lift headphones over your ears and the talking begins. It’s oddly compelling, it’s like finding yourself accosted by some benign irritating chatterbox and you’re desperately trying to think up some excuse to shoot off then you realise you’re not looking for that excuse anymore, actually you’re kind of enjoying it, there’s nowhere you need to be and he’s not so irritating after all so you just smile and nod and let him bore you to joy. The two sons, reminiscing, their dad: “He was in the elite, in the SAS, in the army… He was an elitist.” Pause. “…He was in that Elvis film.”

Down from there and we get the same theme played in a minor key, again we’re sitting but this chair could have come out of a catalogue yesterday, it has no aura, it was chosen precisely for that absence, that voidiness. “SWEET WAITING TIME” by “AlteregoRelativamenteSensibili.” There are pictures tacked to the wall above and behind the chair, pictures being forgotten even as they’re being seen. And there’s another set of headphones, but here we don’t get brag and bluff and blag and banter we get classical music and this music must have meant something once, someone lived to make it, people have been moved to hear it but not anymore, now it’s only anaesthetic in that eternal Moment before the doctor or dentist or nurse or boss or potential boss calls your name. In front of you, by your legs, there’s a table with on it not magazines but – marvel of incongruity! – clumpy chunks of ice-cream. Fresh out of the freezer. So sit reflecting on the dismal fact that time will have its way, all this sweet stuff too must melt, the ice-cream will pool up in its little plate and melt some more and spill out onto the little table and melt some more and spill down onto the floor and there will be flies and you realise you’re getting this all wrong, the title of the exhibition isn’t “PLEASE LOOK” or “PLEASE REFLECT” it’s “PLEASE TOUCH” so what can you do? you raise a hand towards that melting dessert, get a blob of it on a finger or two, look around wondering if any of these art-gallery types might want to lick it off, decide probably not, stick your fingers in your own gob. Nothing’s better than an ice-cream satori. But what exactly are we waiting for?

…And here’s the bathroom-sink, and most of the bathroom too by the look of it. This is Laura Kennedy’s “THE BOOK OF NOT KNOWING,” it collaborates artfully with its setting tonight to own the space perfectly turning this room into a different room and you are you’re in the bathroom and there’s soap but this is some other kind of hygiene. Every bar of soap has words etched into it, fears, e.g. “What if I spend the rest of my life alone” or “What if I get the dream job, the tender spouse, the doting children… and I am still not satisfied with any of it.” So you can pick up a bar of that and shuffle to the right and stand at the sink, turn the tap, hold your soap under falling water, it starts to soften, maybe use your fingers to hurry the process along. Soapy water down the plughole, blurred-away words, and put what’s left onto some other waiting shelf and there’s even a hand-towel provided. Or, of course, you can choose not to do any of this. All the fears are different, there’s only one of each: so you find the bar on which is written “What if a third arm starts growing out of my head” and that resonates, those long awful nights of panic but what if someone else has it worse, what if some other poor soul loses even more sleep than you over that dread possibility? A brilliantly involving work, this is Marcel Duchamp with a heart and rudimentary plumbing, archetypal everyday, the opposite of a bad dream, a grace given, a Netzach moment, this symbol that persists: water falling from a tap.

It’s in this looming-haunting banal-profound bathroom glow that we get a performance-piece plotted by Lizzie Le Quesne, who once decided to replace the storefront mannequins in some hip Prague boutique with real nude women and who promptly found the weight of the Czech authorities forcing her to do no such thing: the State decreed loudly that if there are naked people in the High Street then by God they must be plastic. Here Le Quesne forwards the “Touch” theme in cathedral silence with her co-conspirators, they drift grabbing decent respectable gallery-goers by the hand and making shapes with them, putting people together into patterns, slow, a dreamy flow to everything, everybody, cramped in a spatial but not an emotional sense. It feels ever so odd to be holding hands with a complete stranger. Contemplate the rules: wonder if we’re allowed to grab people too and put them in patterns, so maybe we do, slow-motion, move and be moved, and at the designated time the performance ends and everyone goes back to acting the way they were acting before. And then it’s Dot Howard’s go: rolled up in a red carpet she rolls-unrolls along the gallery-floor from one end of the room to the other, past the doors of the Cupboard where right now on TV a hole-headed man is fitting a star in, past plasticine and letterpress, past chairs and sink, the carpet is unfolded allowing you to read the multicolour words lettered firmly onto it: “AS SOMEBODY WHO REGARDS ANXIETY IN A RED WAY…” and there’s a load more text but no-one ever remembers what it says, but they remember the red carpet, stretching past the “PROGRAM” flowcharts facing the entrance/exit, stretching past actual (but probably not actual actual) dynamite stuck to the walls by Sara Christensen, past “ONCE MORE WITH FEELING” which seems to be some sort of time-machine courtesy of Sam Holden, and here at the far side of the room there’s another set of doors, these lead into the White Bus cinema which enfant terrible Lilith Freeman has détourned to make space for her piece “EAT SLOWLYCOACHES,” one of a sequence of conceptual works meant to subvert the conventions and expectations of the art-gallery experience. Along the lines of Lizzie Le Quesne’s piece but with tons more powerpuff ultraviolence, the artist invited her audience to trample over chairs while fighting with enormous beanbags thus exemplifying in the most immediate way the death of spectator society and the re-emergence of lived experience as the primary force and motivation of 21st Century life; in her subsequent piece, “ICECREAMPRETZELSFLOORGLASS,” she intended to play a gallery-wide game of hide-and-seek in order to confront and destroy the-done-thing, bigtime Dada, to send-up unchallenged and unchallenging notions of normality and to inject yet more mystery into the room. Unfortunately the printed matter announcing the artist’s intentions, the text supposed to be stuck to the doors telling the crowd what was expected of them, was missing: lacking clear instructions as to what was art and what wasn’t, the Beautiful People erred on the side of caution, leaving commence de siècle games unplayed. Everyone went home relieved to find their phones had not been stolen from their pockets.

In conclusion: as with everything Michaela Freeman is currently doing at TAP – the “Last Friday Shorts” film-screenings and the irregular Applied Entheology workshops e.g. “TELEPATHY 101,” in which a psychic experiment was proposed and if you chose to participate then it worked – this event was emblematic of a rare toy-gun-toting better-to-believe-in-magic-than-be-bored numinous mixtape aesthetic, a stew of moods around the central-sensual fact of tactile experience and/or the absence thereof, a messy but perhaps not-quite-messy-enough brew of metaphors for all the things we still need metaphors for.

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