The weird and wonderful world of contemporary art is worth staying up late for, writes Rasika Sittamparam
We knew it would be a monumental task: the third Art Night – the annual contemporary arts festival along the Thames – contains no fewer than 60 exhibitions along the South Bank. We had 12 hours to complete our journey – between 6pm and 6am on Saturday – by which point the trail was flooded with party-goers, and football fans signalling England’s ubiquitous anthem (the other one).
We were, at least, mentally prepared for the sort of thing we’d be seeing: we’d had a sneak peak of one exhibition – forbiddingly entitled txtʃərz – a couple of days before. This was the work of 2012 Turner Prize-winner Elizabeth Price: a slideshow of Rorschach-esque images together with text about a mythical group of academics who unanimously decide to become mute.
The thing is narrated by an almost incomprehensibly digital voice. But listen closely and some of these protesters can be heard saying – as the title of the exhibition suggests – txtʃərz, which is pronounced as either ‘teachers’ or ‘textures’. The piece, installed at Morley College in Lambeth, aims to comment upon the current crisis in UK higher education, where lecturers are turning ‘increasingly corporate’. I approached Price for further explanation, but was warned by a fellow visitor that she’d spent the past 24 hours overseeing the installation. We exchanged pleasantries instead – appropriate perhaps.
Undeterred, I was ready for the 7th July: we used the OXO Tower as a navigation point to make our way to Bargehouse, where six or so of the festival’s exhibitions were located. The four-storey building is a warehouse, now converted into a ghostly exhibition space. As you move upwards through the floors, the silence of the concrete walls and ceilings impresses itself on you, enhancing the strange sounds emanating from installation to installation.
On one floor, we discovered a dark room screening an obscure film about a tech-savvy tribe in Omo Valley, Kenya. The installation – the work of Milanese artist collective Alterazioni Video, Ambaradan (2014)– depicts a world where indigenous Omoans peacefully coexist with the modern world. War paint, braids and mud huts are shown somehow to be in harmony with rave trousers, Coco Pops and a DJ station. Meanwhile, the tunes in the background resonate with the visuals, never missing a beat.
But there’s a surprise in store. A good twenty minutes elapse before a group of armed villains arrives, bringing an end to this mind-boggling party, and their metaphorical independence. The sight of the tribesmen punting towards a large silver wall beautifully captures the plight of real-life tribes in Kenya, whose futures are threatened by the recent building of a gargantuan hydro-electric dam called the Gibe III, the construction of which has forced them away from their ancestral lands.
More was to come in the other exhibition spaces. There were human beings dressed as pillars in Louis Alderson-Bythell and Kate McCambridge's nameless installation, representing the symbiosis between buildings and its human inhabitants. In the shape of Sebastian Kite’s installation, We will meet in the place where there is no darkness, we were presented with a strange experience of white noise – sound containing many frequencies with equal intensities – in a Styrofoam room, with bright coloured screens ahead of us, changing from red to blue and pink and white at an uncomfortably slow pace.
On the top floor was another installation: a slow-moving helicopter view of Los Angeles at night, within yet another dark, tunnel-like room which would usually signal immediate zombie apocalypse in horror video games. This was Skyglow (2008/2018), the work of Jeff Cain which captures the sight and sound from police helicopters whirling above the city at night. The placement of Cain's installation was apt: it was meant to make observers sense danger and crime close by.
‘Oh, the things we do for art,’ a festival-goer dressed up as a white rabbit exclaimed loudly in a French-English accent on London Eye pier. We joined a 2am boat ride to Battersea, where our journey ended, with the shadows of the iconic power station upon us. It was a poor attempt at an art marathon, but the experience comes highly recommended.
Rasika Sittamparam is a writer and researcher at Spear’s
txtʃərz by Elizabeth Price is at the Morley Gallery, London, until 14 July