Abandon Normal Devices at FACT
Part of the Abandon Normal Devices festival, the latest exhibition at FACT takes up the festivals thematic concept of “Belief”. All of the pieces included interrogate belief systems, structures, and attempt to bring the viewer (or in the case of the immersive atmospheric experience, Zee, the participant) back to a state into which the idea of belief itself becomes, not something to cling onto, but something to question, mock, or even fear.
If the signing of a disclaimer and a list of medical conditions which prevent you from going into an art installation isn’t foreboding enough, The Fear definitely sets in the moment you step into the antechamber of Austrian artist, Kurt Hentschläger's newest offering, Zee and are instructed in the best way to navigate, and physically deal with, the space you have agreed to enter.
A light fog fills the white partition walls of the chamber constructed in Gallery 1, and you begin to feel like you have walked onto the set of a 1980’s sci-fi horror, a feeling which is not alleviated when the main door is opened and you are ushered in, holding onto a rope you cannot even see; thick acidic fog billowing all about you. Trying all the while not to feel like Ripley about to be set upon by some primitive, matriarchal monster, I begin rapidly breathing through my mouth: directly against instructions. The smoke fills my mouth and lungs and burns the back of my throat and I start to panic, wondering if any experience is worth an anxiety attack and potentially having to be pulled out unconscious by my colleagues.
When The Fear subsides- though it never really goes-and you become accustomed to the stinging smoke, an overwhelming pulsating wave of colour embraces you, at once pulling you into the space and away from everyone else who has ventured inside. As far as immersive, interactive installations go, this is superlative. You become the space, the art piece; the light-show is entirely independent on your subjective experience. It is in this subjectivity, along with the absolute removal of any normal form of perception, in this non-drug induced sensory overload, that the subject of belief becomes something more than a theoretical topic for discussion and more an overwhelming presence and continual questioning all around you. What do you believe in when you don’t know if what you are seeing is real? What are you supposed to think when the word ‘real’ has no connotations outside of the colour, shapes and lights bombarding your retinas and taking residence in your cerebral cortex?
This is Hentschläger's intention; to take you back to the ‘tableau rasa’ state of being when you have nothing on which to structure your belief, your knowledge, other than that which you are immediately experiencing. This is the reason why people who have entered the space have come out suggesting it was the artists intention to recreate the sensation of dying- at once terrifying, beautiful and uncertain- or that the piece is his interpretation of Heaven, or some form of afterlife. This is how elemental the experience of Zee is, that many of those who experience it can only interpret it using metaphors of death and dying. Another way in which visitors attempted to understand the intentions behind the piece, and the experience itself, was as a psychedelic, chemical free trip, because it is not usual to be so stripped of the external world and forced to examine your consciousness in such a projected manner. It is not usual to be placed into a space where the outside world and your internal space become one and the same thing. But in here, in a tiny, fog-filled room with a single strobe light and a constant ethereal hum, that is exactly what happens.
Alongside what will no doubt be the biggest pull to this exhibition are two excellently chosen and presented video installations, one by the Chinese artist Zhang Qing and the other by the late Egyptian new-media artist, Ahmed Basiony. The People’s Secretary documents the activities and everyday bureaucracies of the Chinese Communist Party member Liang Zhifu, who may be a real, or imagined, well-respected and revered Chinese politician. As a tongue-in-cheek nod to the supposed surveillance culture of the CCP, this piece is filmed entirely using CCTV cameras, in public, as well as Liang’s private chambers. It is through this supposedly candid footage -narrated by a reverent admirer of the Secretary’s political integrity and social generosity- that a Maoist, hyperbolic portrait is painted of the “Saviour of the People” who has won their hearts and will dutifully and happily fight their corner, even to his own detriment. This piece makes us consider the extents to which we, and those who govern us, are continually observed and influenced on a daily basis.
In the second chamber of Gallery 2 sits Thirty Days of Running in Place, an installation consisting of two screens placed opposite one another in such a manner that you cannot watch one without the other at least creeping into your peripheral vision, informing whichever video it is you have attempted to turn you attention towards. These document what is very likely Ahmed Basiony’s final hours, as well as an installation he performed in 2009 during which he jogged in place contained within a plastic clean room, rigged up to software which turned the various exertions exacted upon his body, into visualisations depicting a body in motion, gradually undergoing imperceptible shifts and changes. These were mapped by a specially made suit full of electronic sensors worn by Basiony, which also collected his sweat. This film becomes more poignant and effecting reflected in the video documentation taken by Ahmed’s own camera in Tahir Square of the Egyptian uprising, in which many protestors were beaten, imprisoned and killed. In the audio-visual mirror which each screen provides for the other, there lies a suggestion of thinly-veiled brutality within the touchingly vulnerable humanity of a body under exertion, stress or oppression. Basiony takes the violence of oppression, this exercise of pushing the body (and society) to its limits, and places this concept within his own unending, optimistic hope for change even when one is contained within a cyclical and apparently impenetrable system.
Abandon Normal Devices, always a cutting edge, and enormously fun festival, has expressed in this exhibition a somewhat more sombre, sobering facet- not to say that the show is not without its fun and utterly irrepressible excitement, just seeing the gasping, giggling and shaking visitors pouring out of Zee is enough to illustrate the vibrancy and expectancy of those who come to visit. But there is a longer, harder look being taken at this year’s theme, here and elsewhere. With this beautifully curated, expertly executed exhibition, then, “Belief” at FACT is something to be mocked, derived, feared and held onto tightly as the only discernible thing in a darkened, yet light-filled room.