“Presence of Absence”: Paul Carey-Kent in Conversation with Bella Easton
The Presence of Absence, curated by Paul Carey-Kent, at Berloni Gallery
January 30 to March 14, 2015
63 Margaret Street (between Great Titchfield and Great Portland streets)
London, +44 20 7580 1480
Royal Academy-trained painter and independent curator Bella Easton lives and works in South London. She regularly exhibits her work while also co-directing a project space, a platform for invited artists to produce a site-specific work. Her current curatorial and ongoing offsite projects include: “Collateral Drawing,” “The Opinion Makers” and “A5, Athens.” She found time to take in ”The Presence of Absence” at the Berloni Gallery in London, a 14-artist exhibition curated by artcritical contributor Paul Carey-Kent, and to discuss the show with him.
BELLA EASTON: How did the show come about?
PAUL CAREY-KENT: As with the four previous shows I have curated recently, it stemmed from a gallery that I know fairly well asking if I’d like to put on a show. In this case, Berloni had two preferences: for a conceptually based group show and for a minimal proportion of painting, as they felt their existing and planned programmes were painting-heavy and they wanted a contrast.
What’s the idea behind of “The Presence of Absence”?
It’s often said that negative space is as important as positive shapes in a composition. The works in this show turn around a parallel feature of content, as opposed to form: namely, what is not present is at least as important as what is present — so a key role is played by the paradoxical-sounding “presence of absence” in work by 14 artists.
What were your influences leading to that idea?
Probably my background in philosophy: I like a good paradox, and have always been interested in how far you can push an approach in art — for example, how little can possibly be enough? My standard operation procedure as a curator is probably that I see a lot of shows — some 800 a year, of which I write on about 150, so I do have a wide spectrum of artists to choose from once I’ve fixed on a theme. My preference is not to have heavily intellectualised theory, but to look for something simple and thought-provoking that can connect choices together without pretending to exhaust them: there will always be more angles on the work of interesting artists, and so a show can develop its own complexity.
How did you decide what to put in the show?
Just before being asked to curated the show, I had seen a rough cut of Maria Marshall’s new video. She made a film in 2001 in which a boy kicks a ball against the wall of a church; only the ball has been digitally removed leaving only its sound and shadow. It is an attack on the church of sorts, albeit not too effective, with a subtext of how football might have become a new religion. Her new film (premiered in this exhibition) shows a ball bouncing around the dilapidated interior of a church in Georgia. This time it’s the person who has been edited out and the ball bounces menacingly around, looking likely to knock over iconic religious images set on a table — but never quite does. The idea of putting these two films together pushed me towards this particular project, out of the range I had in mind. I planned to mix film, sculpture and photography with a small amount of painting. I decided that a sound-only piece would be thematic; and Giorgio Sadotti proposed the scent installation, which I was happy to accept.
Who else is in the show?
Films by John Smith (The Black Tower, 1987) and Liane Lang (The Last Days, 2012-13) use buildings, outside and in, to animate our understanding of what we cannot see. Stefana McClure gives us the longest films — albeit, it could be said, without images or duration — through two of the drawings in which she traces their complete subtitles. A sound installation by Bronwen Buckeridge creates an illusory space in the midst of the gallery. Nika Neelova presents a sculpture that seems to stand in for another absent work, echoing Rachel Whiteread’s characteristic casting of the negative, seen in her Herringbone Floor (2001). Blue Curry’s found object groupings stand indirectly for people and for differing constructions of their self-images. Alan Magee fills in two hoops with plaster. Anni Leppälä and Jason Oddy exploit the uncanny ability of the photograph to freeze into permanence what is and isn’t there. Two painters complete the line-up: Martine Poppe’s images come and go as we circle round them, and Ian Bruce plays with the absence and presence of people in their surroundings.
What’s that smell?
That’s Sadotti’s Vatican (2015): he instructed that incense be burned at the gallery daily in order to evoke an absent place.
Is curating a creative medium or process for you and, if so, could it be suggested that the outcome of the curation is the presence of the absence of the curator?
I suppose it is creative, yes, though essentially I do it for enjoyment. It’s a nice thought that I was present during the show while absent; though I was present several times guiding people around.
Has there been an audience favorite?
It’s encouraging that one visitor or another has named each artist in the show as a particular favorite. That said, it’s probably fair to mention three artists as being especially popular. The remarkably persuasive spatial illusions created by the three minutes of binaural sound that make up Buckeridge’s Mid Eye Long High (2013) provoked such animated responses in the people listening that I was asked at the opening whether it was a performance piece! It also proved the biggest hit with child visitors. Artists tended to be struck by the simple elegance of Alan Magee’s Return to Glory (2014), in which filling two hula hoops with plaster makes quintessentially light toys into heavy sculptures, removing their function and presenting them as art. Of course there was nothing in the hoops originally, so I see this as an absence of absence itself. The two Maria Marshall films were also very popular.
If given the opportunity to expand on this theme as a larger exhibition, is there anything you would do differently and who else would you include?
I originally asked 18 artists, expecting that some would turn me down, and four did. Normally, one would not mention that, but here it seemed thematically apt to imagine them as present: John Stezaker, with a work from the Tabula Rasa series, wherein the removal of part of an image stands in for a screen and simultaneously implies the possibility of other presence. I’d wanted one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s cinema photographs, which curiously parallel Stefana McClure’s arrival at something like a modernist monochrome through the act of transcribing subtitles to the point of indecipherability. Paul Pfeiffer wasn’t included, but he’s an artist best known for editing out parts of video footage to great effect. Finally, I wanted Mungo Thomson’s The Collected Live Recordings of Bob Dylan 1963-1995, a sound piece comprised only of applause recorded at Dylan’s concerts. That proves oddly addictive, and would, I believe, have been a fitting presence for those who did accept my invitation. Still, I’d like those four to accept second time around, and it would be good to have a more substantial presence from some of the other artists.
Did everything turn out as you expected?
Perhaps not as I expected, but certainly as I hoped. A number of relationships occurred that I had not anticipated. For example: Neelova and Magee echoed not only each other, but also the windows of the gallery’s upper space; and the way in which works covered for each other’s absences was picked up by visitors and critics, such as Rowena Hawkins, who reviewed the show for The Upcoming.
Were there any unexpected or unplanned “presence of absence” surprises that came out of the curation?
What I had anticipated least was how several works would turn out to reference a critical question of presence or absence: does God exist? Wherever you stand on that, there’s no denying the charge that it brings to the work of Lang, Marshall and Sadotti, and there’s also implications of a world beyond in Leppälä and Magee, an angel in Poppe’s painting and a cross to be read into one of Oddy’s photographs of the Pentagon, which shows a rebuilt room 18 months after the crash of Flight 77 destroyed it on September 11, 2001.
What future UK or international curatorial projects do you have lined up?
Curation is very much my third string after my day job and art writing, but I have two definite plans for the rest of this year: a group show themed around “weight” at London’s Maddox Arts in April, and a ten-artist Anglo-German project in Berlin in September, which presents works of art alongside the collateral residue of their production (an interesting theme, but it’s my co-curators, you and Iavor Lubomirov, who came up with it!). I’m also booked well ahead to present a group show of process-based abstract painting at Soho’s St. Barnabas club in 2017. Then there are several possibilities that are more speculative at this stage, including an IKEA-themed show, and two potential co-curations with artist friends Jane Harris and Sara Haq.
Thank you Paul for your very personal and informed incite into a truly exciting exhibition. I look forward to your future curations and working with you on Collateral Drawing Berlin, later this year.
For more details see: www.berlonigallery.com