The Space Between
REVIEW by Charley Peters
The Crypt, St Pancras Church, London, 5 - 21 June 2009
The Space Between explores the emotional, fantastic and transformative possibilities of the liminal, or the transient state in between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. Co-curators Kate MccGwire and Marilène Oliver, both also showing work in the exhibition, bring together artists Annie Cattrell, Amanda Couch, Richard Ducker, Jan Dunning, Joy Gerrad, Kate Street and Esther Teichmann to develop an exploration of liminality that suggests the otherworldly, abject and shifting boundaries between physical, spatial and material states.
The elegiac setting of The Crypt of St Pancras Church is a pertinent backdrop for The Space Between. The artists’ work, which includes sculpture, video, photography and performance, shares The Crypt’s subterranean passageways and chambers with tombstones and inscriptions to those laid to rest on-site. The ultimate ‘space between’, that of crossing from an earthly existence to a more spiritual plane, The Crypt is an environment imbued with the poetics of death and memory, which itself becomes a silent, melancholic performer in the exhibition. The most notable works in The Space Between interrogate the margins of life and death, human and animal, inside and outside, and succeed in being at once both beautiful and unsettling.
Kate MccGwire employs materials that she deems ‘impure’ to create sculptural forms and installations. Sluice (2009) is a swirling stream of pigeon feathers installed in one of The Crypt’s narrow antechambers, flooding across the floor to form a dark pool of discarded plumage that froths and bubbles at the edges. It is a work of surreal fantasy, the careful placement of familiar objects en masse generating an uncanny scene of animalistic corporeality. The title, Sluice, is uncomfortably suggestive of bodily purging, or the washing of post-dissection cadavers onto a sluice board. MccGwire’s work succeeds through its sensory execution and the disconcerting re-positioning of the everyday, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The convincing fabrication of Sluice makes it seem viable that feathers can indeed shape-shift into fluid form and be vomited out of an underground spring.
A less visceral examination of the body is provided by Annie Cattrell, whose sculptures exist somewhere at the crossroads of art and science. Cattrell turns the human body inside out, working closely with medical professionals to make visible the ephemeral by-products of the body such as a breath inside a lung, or the physical interior spaces that can only be seen using medical imaging technologies. Process (2006) is an elegant lamp-worked glass rendition of the alimentary canal. Literally making the human body transparent, Process presents a clear view of the physiology of a gastrointestinal tract, but references to its functions of digestion and defecation remain absent. Suspended at eye-level in a recess in The Crypt’s brickwork, the transparent delicacy of Process appears like an ethereal altarpiece, a ghostly prayer to the union of art and science, and what is still left unseen.
Like Cattrell’s depictions of the interior secrets of the body, Marilène Oliver’s ‘portraits’ aim to reclaim the inner space of the physical self. The production of Oliver’s spliced impressions of the human form fall between the thresholds of new digital technologies, traditional print, and sculpture, often entailing the use of medical scanning technologies, such as MRI and PET, to generate an ‘unfleshed’ assemblage of the body. The resultant pieces, such as Family Portrait – Mum, Dad, Sophie and Self-Portrait (2002) give us a privileged glimpse below the surface of the skin. Family Portrait is a group of four ghostly sculptures representing the artist’s family. The figures are constructed from slices of data gathered during MRI scans, appearing like specimens on a microscope slide, and presented with small gaps in between each image, a result of the 2cm increments in the MRI scanning process. In Family Portrait Oliver allows us to see more of the body than we are naturally able to, but she also shows us less—the portraits reveal the inner most secrets of the body, but at the same time, the figures lack solidity and appear to be vanishing in front of our eyes. This haunting work makes it possible to see both inside and through the human body, to a space in between the physical and metaphysical.
The remaining works in The Space Between offer a similarly enigmatic, disquieting and ethereal experience, from Kate Street’s darkly witty wall pieces of taxidermied bird parts and synthetic cockroaches, to Jan Dunning’s shadowy pinhole photographs of hand-made models of domestic spaces. This is a coherent group show, showcasing nine artists whose individual practices obviously share a number of significant concerns. To this end, perhaps The Space Between may suffer from a lack of esoteric depth and conceptual tension, but what it lacks in its ability to provoke mental gymnastics, it makes up for in its aptitude to site the artworks sympathetically in an environment already loaded with meaning. Many of The Crypt’s exhibitions fail to find their own voice amongst the mournful architecture and memorial relics therein. The sublime works in The Space Between, however, succeed in finding an affinity with the setting, and the reality of a fleeting encounter between object and space is surpassed by a fantasy that the artworks could always have been there.