Saturday, March 24, 2012

Read a review of Ryan's show by Alex Hardy:

There is great chaos under heaven: the situation is excellent
Ryan Curtis at Motorcade Flash Parade, Incub8 Series, March 2012

Before this exhibition started Ryan had posted on his blog site the film Civil Defence Bulletin 1, made in the 1960's by the Home Office, it gives advice on what to do in the case of a nuclear attack. This set the tone for the exhibition which draws inspiration from historical views of the future - both 'genuine' and fictional. 
Dealing with history - even the history of the future - can be a tricky subject for an artist. Working around potentially emotional subjects without direct experience of an event that has affected other people's lives can raise the question of how an artist can respond. However, Ryan's area of interest is the materials that reference the potential for disaster, revolution etc, instead of the events themselves. This allows him to concentrate on how the language that builds up around events says as much about the hopes and desires of the people that made them as the events themselves. Central to this is the idea that narratives of the future are constructed and subjective which can lead, as Ryan himself puts it, to a 'romancing of the future'. 
The first piece one encounters on entering the exhibition is  'Nuclear Survival Handbook'. This piece exhibits the book by Barry Popkess of the same name, published in 1980,  attached to the wall in such a way that only the front cover and spine are visible. The installation means that the viewer can only imagine the advice that is earnestly given inside to help survive a nuclear disaster, or the dystopian world that this would create. Placed near the entrance at head height it could almost appear to be there ready for quick access if necessary, giving it more of a sense of relevance and immediacy, and yet the brackets also withhold the contents, accentuating its possibilities as the imagination runs to the extremes of what might be inside. 
A second piece in the exhibition which directly references source material is named after the 1936 film 'Things to come' which was directed by W. C. Menzies and written by H. G. Wells. The film is playing on an analogue television balanced on a rickety, roughly made wooden stand with a broken leg. The television sits comfortably enough for now but its weight could break the stand. Here Ryan's concerns with historical narratives of the future meets sculptural interests influenced by artists such as Kevin Hunt who often balances objects for dynamic effect. 
The other works in the exhibition do not contain references to specific narratives but have something of a Constructivist aesthetic to them. The Constructivist art movement started in Russia around the time of the 1920's Bolshevik revolution and aspired to a practical form of art for the people. With direct links to the revolution this form of art is itself inevitably tied to the aesthetics of an historical perspective, but it was also concerned with the physicality of the materials used which relates to Ryan's investigation of the nature of objects through their installation. 
One such piece, Untitled (2011), is a stone precariously balanced on several pieces of wood and plastic. Made from discarded pieces of man-made materials, the sculpture is about as tall as is possible from the constituent pieces without anything to hold them in position apart from gravity. It is as if its architect aspired to create the most impressive form possible without regard to solid building techniques. The possibility that the structure might collapse is a very real one, infusing the piece with inherent tension. Within the context of the exhibition as a whole this work could be seen as symbolic of the way societies can be built around ambitious but fragile ideas that can then easily topple from their own weight. As is said in the final scene of the film Things to come: 'the universe or nothing, which shall it be?'
Two other pieces utilise the dynamics of balance to create tension but have subtly different approaches to focusing their meaning. 'Cosmic Ray Gun' (2011) has several glasses and glass bowls placed on top of each other. In this piece the title focuses the way this new configuration could be construed, tying it to the under lying apocalyptic scenarios. Another piece named 'Untitled' (2011) utilises this method of construction only the objects appear to have taken on a new function. What this is can only be imagined within the context of some kind of dystopian world. In both cases, the original use value of the materials has been subverted or removed to allow them to be considered in new ways.
The largest piece in the exhibition, and with the same title, entails a half finished brick wall that appears to be made by someone who is not versed in the intricacies of the art (Ryan is, in fact, a qualified bricklayer). Around and on top of it are found pieces of wood which have been carefully placed. They may be there as the start of marking out a new structure, or simply done for its aesthetic value. Again, form and function become inter-changeable. The placement of the wood leads the eye to consider the bricks from an aesthetic point of view, while the brick wall, with its not quite perfect construction, undermines the whole structure both physically and ontologically. The piece itself is balanced between an imaginary narrative and a formal consideration of the materials themselves.
Throughout the exhibition objects are separated from what they normally are or do. They take on new roles through playful and delicate repositioning. Some works forefront and reference specific perspectives on how we have perceived the future. In others they take on new functions within imaginary dystopian scenarios. In a third technique, the objects themselves take centre stage through their formal arrangement and titling. In all cases, language (in the widest sense of the word) is detached from its fixed points of reference and floats in new directions. This can be unnerving and exciting, a reminder that our view of the future is a continually changing thing,  shaped as much by our hopes and fears as the facts rooted in the present or past. This is in direct and ironic contrast to so many of the objects themselves, for which gravity is the only thing holding them in place.

By Alex Hardy