Susan Mansfield: Olivia Plender has turned the CCA into a fascinating museum of oddities, but what does it all mean?
Olivia Plender: Rise Early, Be Industrious ***
DashnDem: Imagine Being A World Leader ***
Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen: From the Edge ****
Dundee Contemporary Arts
IF I HAD to say, in a handful of words, what Olivia Plender’s exhibition at the CCA is driving at, I might say education. Then again, I might say social and religious movements of the past 50 years, or the past 100 years. I might say flawed idealism, or mass communication. The point is, it isn’t just a collection of disparate works, it’s driving at something. But what?
Individual works are grouped into room-sized “environments” which together form – according to the blurb – “a museum of communication”. But it’s a museum in which you’re invited to play with building blocks on the floor, and sit watching videos in a mocked-up television studio. And while it’s true that most of the work is about the past, some is documented quite reverentially, whereas other works are sharply satirical. It can be confusing.
The first room, Words and Laws (Whose Shoulder to Which Wheel?) looks a little bit like a Victorian nursery. There is mobile that displays the social order on a feudal country estate, and the plan of a medieval formal garden is laid out on the floor. The wooden building blocks are based on those used by Friedrich Fröbel (the 19th-century founder of the kindergarten movement).
There is a model, not unlike a doll’s house, of the duck house at the centre of the MPs expenses scandal, and a toy horse to commemorate Raisa, the Metropolitan Police horse on loan to Rebekah Brooks, which David Cameron is alleged to have ridden. One can also play a satirical board game, Set Sail for the Levant, in which a commoner is forced off his land, sets out for the city and ends up in debt.
The theme, then, seems to be about how society is constructed, and how little that structure has changed. Depressingly, it’s quite easy to trace the lineage of power from the great estates of the 18th and 19th centuries to the Eton-educated Cameron, or indeed Sir Peter Viggers MP, he of the duck house. The rich are still in power, and the poor are still in debt. Plus ça change…
Open Forum in the next room shifts forward to the idealistic era of the 1960s and 1970s. The focus here is the founding of the Open University, a product of the 60s with the aim of allowing broad access to higher education through the mass media.
Plender has constructed a carpeted “conversation pit”, styled after a 1970s television studio, in which three films from the 1970s are being shown (you have to climb into it to watch them). Two show children’s activities, one of them filmed by the children themselves, and the third is made by radical academic James Dator, exploring groups who choose to live communally, proposing alternatives to the industrial society.
This is another key theme of Plender’s work. While the young, hippie types strumming guitars and drinking red wine out of mugs look quaintly dated, the ideas put across in the film – distrust of finance and commerce, recycling, a sense of alienation from politics – are not. The difference is, perhaps, in the 1970s people were idealistic enough to imagine alternatives.
The sprawling nature of the installation can be confusing. What of the desk on the edge of the studio set, with its geriatric computer and reels of tape? Is it just there to add authenticity? There is a documentary space relating to the Open University art and environment course, launched in 1976, which proposed a rethink of the relationship between art and society, ideas that influenced Glasgow’s own environmental art course. Apart from drawing attention to this, what is it telling us?
The final room, The New Jerusalem, mashes time periods and ideas. The Truth Itself Speaks Through Me, is a meticulous scale model of the landscape of John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress, a bestseller of its time, which (apart from its religious aims) had the effect of instructing the newly industrialised poor on the value of hard work. Next to that is a similarly meticulous model of the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley, where thousands came to marvel at the temples to imperialism and commerce. A film shot around a market in multicultural Wembley in 2009 provides a poignant companion piece.
Tucked into a little room at the back is Regeneration (Awake! Awake! The Dawn is Here), a pair of works inspired by Plender’s research into the Kibbo Kift Kindred. Founded in the 20s as a kind of radical pacifist offshoot of the Scouts with Robin Hood-ish uniforms, the Kindred aimed for nothing less than “the regeneration of urban man and the establishment of a new world civilization” through crafts, rituals and outdoor activities. Despite attracting some heavyweight intellectuals, it failed to take off on a large scale and died out in the early 50s. Today, the Kindred has a loopy if visionary quality: it belongs to an era in which people were bold enough to visualise new societies. Plender’s work carries perhaps a hint of regret that today we don’t.
It all makes for an interesting, though uneven, show. The groupings of works can feel haphazard, and there is a feeling – as there sometimes is with museum-ish research-based practice – that if you throw enough material at a broad enough set of themes some of it will stick. But, like museums, if you’re prepared to put the time in, you will learn something.
The idea of shaping the world afresh is echoed in DashnDem’s (Birmingham-based artists Dash Macdonald and Demitrios Kargotis) installation at DCA: Imagine Being A World Leader. In a room kitted out with the trappings of statesmanship – red carpet, TV screens, flags, banners – P5 pupils from Blackness Primary School took part in role-play exercises on leadership and public speaking. The resulting films show them at the podium, confident, persuasive and clearly enjoying themselves, and the message is simple: if nine-year-olds can learn the tricks of statesmanship in a couple of days, how hard can it be?
In the DCA foyer, one can watch a very different kind of power relationship at play: Danish artist Nikolaj BS Larsen, attempting to make a film portrait of himself and his cat, and getting systematically mauled by the angry moggy. In the larger gallery, a series of his other film works coincide with Dundee’s Discovery Film Festival.
Rendezvous pairs monumental-scale film portraits of Indian migrant workers in Dubai with portraits of their families back in Kerala. No Place Like Home is a kind of portrait of Dubai itself, a city of skyscrapers which has mushroomed out of the sand, contrasting the impersonal frenetic urban life with the silence of the desert.
Tales from the Periphery is in two parts, one about young people in Saint-Denis in Paris, the other about Denmark’s Gellerupparken, both areas associated with large immigrant populations, crime and unemployment. Watching these young women speaking confidently and honestly about their environment and their hopes for the future is life-affirming.
Not, perhaps, a brave new world, but a suggestion that there is still hope for the one we’ve got.
• Olivia Plender runs until 15 December; both DCA shows run until 18 November
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