'Power Struggle: Lisson Gallery Review' - Canvas Magazine
13 June 2023
Curated by Greg Hilty, this is an exhibition invested in exposing and reflecting linkages between people and objects at multiple levels. It rises like an aria to comment on how these connections are tipped towards humankind’s age-old colonial impulses – to discover, plough, extract, distort, destruct, rename, erase. The show’s very title is the quietest smirk, at us – what happens when we stop seeing ourselves as the drivers of the plot, and succumb to centring what has always preceded us – land, matter itself?
Hilty, both in person and in his curatorial statement, professes anthropology as a key influence, particularly citing anthropologist Tim Ingold: “The properties of materials…are not attributes, but histories.” Even when inverting the balance between human and matter, questioning where agency is really located between the two, the exhibition’s approach is steadfast in not just presenting a series of curated artworks-as-objects, but in largely insisting upon the story and context behind them.
Any audience can feel the insistence of the wide geographical span of artists. Twelve of them, comprising individuals and duos – Allora & Calzadilla, Dana Awartani, Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen, D Harding, Irmel Kamp, Syowia Kyambi, Richard Long, Otobong Nkanga, Yelena Popova, Lucy Raven, Zhan Wang, Feifei Zhou – represent widely disparate cultural backgrounds, from Saudi Arabia and China to Puerto Rico and the USA, Kenya, UK, Germany, Belgium and Australia.
Anthropology as a discipline is rooted in colonial history, beginning as the systematic discovering and chronicling of foreign objects and people. And while the deliberate choices of this varied line-up might initially appear like a detached ethnographic exercise, with each artist becoming a token representative of their roots, the careful, considered way in which they are exhibited renders that assumption mostly unfair.
Sometimes, there’s the minor excision of context. Kyambi’s Entity Costume, her worn outfit from her 2011 Fracture performance series, is presented on its own as a kind of “sculptural object”, Hilty explains. It is made with tea- and coffee-stained fabric, cowrie shells, beads, paint, clothes hangers, and sisal constructed using the Kamba weaving method, typically used to make local handwoven bags or kiondos.
Kyambi’s artful creation alludes to a “juxtaposition” between the local knowledges carried within Kenyan handicraft traditions and British colonial history in Kenya, which created immense dispossession and the disenfranchisement of the Kenyan people and what they make and produce on their own.
Where curatorial strategy really soars is with certain works by artists who are from, based in, or commenting on the human impact on non-Western lands. In D Harding’s case the suggestion is that some ‘Western’ lands were only made Western through the erasure of their indigenous people and the consequent splicing of their histories. The particular shine of such works ends up foregrounding, albeit subtly, the link between Western modernity and human destruction, leaving ghastly results for poorer or weaker countries. It also tolls a bell for the global climate crisis, helping to give the show that necessary climate-focused bent that any narrative on material today must confront.
Read the full review by Vamika Sinha in Canvas Magazine here.
Matter as Actor is on view in London through 24 June.