Rachel Cherry, Jaimie Henthorn, Virginie Litzler
text: Keef Winter
There is an irony in the first instance of arriving at 'Body Material', a set of new works temporarily installed around Trinity Laban by Rachel Cherry, Jaimie Henthorn and Virginie Litzler. The exhibition shows three visual artists who share an interest in the sculptural elements of the moving body but instead of moving bodies we are presented with two-dimensional photographic and video work, a curveball as I walk around a research centre full of dancers in studios and figures in spaces. The works are interspersed over three floors of the building, centrally accessed by a concrete spiral staircase. As one enters Trinity Laban, there is no doubt that it has been designed and composed as an iconic building; glowing colours emanating from the polycarbonate facade, garish pinks and greens on the walls and from the generously gradual concrete ramp throughout the foyer one has a pan-optical view into numerous dance studios and fully-glazed workshop spaces. The decision to exhibit still images and video begins to make sense when I see the work against the backdrop of a hiving institution. This exhibition is not so much attempting to match the grandeur and 'wow' factor of a hypermodern building but rather aims to insert a sharp splinter in the slick, neutralising architecture of Herzog and De Meuron. Where the building creates a set of useful and functional spaces it also induces a passivity in the visitor. In Laban architectural tropes prevail in abundance and Henthorn, Litzler and Cherry acknowledge this.
The first works encountered near the main entrance are by Jaimie Henthorn and are cleverly positioned on 2 screens usually portraying the highlights and news of Laban life (Fig_01). Instead of news I look up at these screens to see an unusual dual display of Henthorn and accomplice navigating two sets of stairs in two different buildings both designed and built in post-war 50's London by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian emigrant known for his modernist 'Corbusian' concrete residential and municipal structures including London Zoo's penguin pool. The righthand video screen shows a video shot on a spiral staircase in Lubetkin's Sivill House (Fig_02) and could easily be mistaken for Laban's own brutal spiral stair situated only metres from the screen (see Fig_03). The stair is bulky, dark and sculptural in form and Henthorn moves her way down and around it in a contrived and complicated set of restricted movements. Her presence and movement in the stairs appears to be one of nuisance. She blocks her partner from moving further, the two bodies interweaving and becoming entangled in both stairwell locations in both videos. At times Henthorn becomes the basic structure of post and lintel herself, carrying the other's weight by her outstretched legs and acting as a turnstile would in the delivery of the body from one position to another. The backdrop in Lubetkin's Bevin Court video is layered in tarpaulin and scaffolding, a hint of future construction, the role played by Henthorn suggests she is part of this, she is labouring to produce an energy in the space to shape and mould what is not rightfully hers - in a sense she is attempting to conjoin the solid forms of steel and concrete with her own, while also deciding who can pass and who cannot.
Rachel Cherry places her images in the interstitial spaces of the building. In one room (Fig_04) the visitor is required to adopt a viewing position to look at an image upside down from the floor. This image shows her subject (protagonist?) asleep. The image is fairly captivating, it's awkward. Here I am lying on the ground staring at a middle-aged man sleeping over me and when my gaze deviates even slightly I catch a glimpse of shiny metal ducts and towering white walls making him hover uncomfortably. Cherry acknowledges the movement required to create a new perspective, she asks the viewer to submit not only to her work but to the symmetrical obedience of this tall white room. Upstairs, her images are positioned within the modulor window frames (Fig_05). The viewer is required to look through a light well and across a roof terrace to catch a glimpse of her images positioned on the other side. Her white bearded-man is shown in different postures of pulling faces, laughing and yawning but the face is cut off matching the awkward placement of the prints.
Litzler's work sits universally in one grand space commonly used for performances and workshops but with a presentable finish. The space is commanding, minimal and requires an effort to make static works of art sit comfortably in it. If photographic images were hung symmetrically on these walls the spatial experience would resemble that of a bank foyer or somewhere corporate, but instead Litzler presents a series of foam-mounted photographs perched on delicate and untreated softwood support structures (Fig_06). The finish of these structures is so rough that it is clear an intentional strategy exists. Litzler contrasts the slick interior of the space with a tense experience of bending foamboard propped up by corners and precariously held by sawn off pieces of wood fixed together by a single screw. Litzler's work is allowed to breathe and lets the viewer breathe with it. The content of the images further contrasts an opposition between athletic bodies set against brutal and harsh facades (Fig_07). Concrete facade patterns are replicated in the subjects movement and pose, and colours are deliberately kept to a singular palette. Litzler's assemblage of thin wood strips and two-dimensional prints allures to the finish of the handyman, to the sculptural dilettante, the artistic renegade. It echoes the unfinished work of international emerging sculptors such as Oscar Tuazon and Nicolas Deshayes, who rather than polish their edges leave sharp overlaps at joints and deliberate confusion when we look for a particular function.
Henthorn has adopted her video work into the TV's of the reception area, she has commandeered a blank slab of concrete facade with a large photographic advert-banner. Cherry's images dot the infrastructure of the ducts and window frames in Laban's upper levels, while Litzler positions her rough timber support structures and failing foamboards against a pristine exhibition and performance space. There is a sense that all three artists are asking the question of what is permanent and what is temporary, the show only lasts three days, the Laban building will last for a hundred years if lucky - these units of time are very little in the scope of something infinite, similar in respects to the fragility and ephemeral nature of our own bodies. All three artists have dealt prickly alternative accounts of the image of the body towards the stark architecture of Laban and its corporate shell (Fig_08), delivered in a clever, playful manner, providing the viewer with a system of imagery that reverberates in my mind much longer than the few days it was shown.
All three of these artists are in the beginnings of their practice-based PhD's. There can be an uncomfortable tendency for artists in research to become become schizoid in behaviour. An artist choosing to be in an institution (whether teaching or researching for that matter) faces straddling the dangerous crevasse of meaningful and engaged artistic practice on one side and carrying out a useful academic rigour on the other. Many have fallen in-between, stuck in a hole of institutional ideas of art production or worse they feel they need to pose as academics. It will be fruitful to follow the progress of these body-focussed Phd researchers, they have stuck their necks out if even only a little for now within the confines of their own institution. If their practice remains positioned at the forefront of their investigations the resultant output will definitely have some brute force.
Fig_01, Jaimie Henthorn, video works at reception area
Fig_02, Jaimie Henthorn, 'Sivill House' video still, image c/o artist
Fig_03, Trinity Laban, central spiral staircase
Fig_04, Rachel Cherry, viewer lying in position, image c/o artist
Fig_05, Rachel Cherry, work viewed across lightwell/terrace
Fig_06, Virginie Litzler, foamboard mounted images standing on softwood
Fig_07, Virginie Litzler, foamboard mounted image standing on softwood
Fig_08, a view through Laban's many transparent vistas at night towards the
unlit work of Henthorn installed on a concrete facade.