On Saturday lunchtime I stopped by at the freshly relaunched Trade Gallery to have a look at the first installation in the new downstairs location (formerly, the gallery occupied a tiny white room up a couple of flights of stairs: it’s now larger, much easier to find and a bit smarter than it was, but the ethos of small scale and close attention to detail is clearly unchanged). To set the new Trade on its way, curator Bruce Asbestos has staged a face-off, billed in terms that might suggest a kind of boxing match, between two recent works on video, Richard Paul’s The Stereo Realist (2011) and David Sherry’s Open (2008).
The more recent of the two pieces, Richard Paul’s The Stereo Realist, consists of paired images – seemingly random, but with occasional visual and formal relationships that may or may not be significant – shown as stills on a split screen, while a genteel academic voiceover (with an intonation richly suggestive of an Anglican sermon) reads passages from Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory and others (notably the work of Dave Hickey, according to the gallery information, though he’s not cited by name in the piece itself so far as I recall) on the development of perspective and spatial illusion in the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The tone of The Stereo Realist is academic, but in a manner that pre-dates the theoretical language of much recent writing on art, while the photographs used to illustrate (or more precisely, accompany) these points are designed to be viewed through 3D glasses, creating a neat set of contrasts within the short lecture that gives the piece its basic form. As the voice explains how representation evolved historically, and teases out some of the implications of these phases in relation to wider perceptions of reality at different times, the old-fashioned delivery sits insouchantly alongside the hyper-real 3D images.
The paired images are selected to seem random or barely related, but often appear – on slightly closer inspection – to connect in some way, as when a still life of silver bottles echoes the rock formations of a Monument Valley desert landscape or the red dress of a woman seated in a garden connects with the red background in its companion image of a magpie perched on a mannequin’s hand. In another pairing a camera sits next to a snapshot of a father and son in woodland, while a third implies a parallel between a plastic toy-construction of vaguely floral appearance and the foregrounded flowers of a formal public space in an unspecified city.
There seems to be a curatorial desire to see how the two pieces will affect each other and this might be intended to draw attention to the layout and purpose of the space itself, in addition to the works that happen to be placed there. I’m not sure they do become a kind of single, hybrid piece, as the gallery information suggests (though it should be noted the notes were written long before the renovation was finished, let alone the works installed). Even so, it’s certainly the case that The Stereo Realist offers an intriguing counterpoint to its companion piece, David Sherry’s Open.
Where The Stereo Realist is made up of paired stills, Sherry’s Open offers a montage of moving images showing the ‘open’ signs of the many pizza parlours, chip shops and taxi offices that line the streets of an unspecified city at night. It’s not clear whether they are all shot in the same place (the nature of the images could place them almost anywhere, from relatively small towns to major conurbations) but that lack of fixed local identity is possibly part of the interest: as focal points of globalisation, usually located in the poorer areas of British cities, these are highly suggestive but generally overlooked – almost invisible – places.
The movement within the film footage in Sherry’s piece, low key as it is, contrasts with the absolute stillness in Paul’s, and the subjects diverge in a number of other obvious ways: from Paul’s urbanely delivered philosophy and aesthetics to shots of cab offices and chip shops, and in the upfront technological sophistication of Paul’s 3D to Sherry’s more literal ‘point and shoot’ technique, using static cameras to catch the flickerings and sequencings of illuminated signs and the passing trade that fleetingly crosses the windows in silhouette.
The greatest difference, though, lies in the general tone and texture of the material on show. Where The Stereo Realist offers something of the atmosphere of a c.19th lecture theatre, Open is both more realistic and literal (at least on the surface) and more concerned with a kind of transience: these are the kinds of shop fronts that change quickly, move from place to place; and equally, those ‘open’ signs might also imply their opposite, with closure likely to come at the breaking of day.
The most obvious interaction lies in the way the two soundtracks and voiceovers cut across and bleed into one-another. Where The Stereo Realist is crisply philosophical in its narration and general approach, Open has the feel of an anthropological document, recorded in the manner of a field recording in which a single voice sings and chants the words spelled out on the LEDs and neon-signs in the succession of near-identical windows that make up the visual score: ‘Open, open…oh-pen, oh-pen, oh-pen…24 Hours…Pizzas, Curries…oh-pen, oh-pen, oh-pen…‘.
The repetitions and rhythms seem to echo those heard on 1930s recordings of South Sea Island chants, as though Sherry is aiming to give some of the most mundane and overlooked features of the urban landscape a feeling of ritual significance. Over the short running time, these chants accumulate a hypnotic quality, part concrete poetry, part quasi-magical invocation of ancestral spirits. ‘Open’, or similar injunctions to mysterious powers that might offer revelation and access to other worlds, crop up repeatedly in folktales, though it’s not clear whether this allusion is deliberately or more fortuitously encoded in the work.
Whether intentional or not, the presence of this potential dimension of meaning gives the two pieces an opposed quality, as the interference between the two sets of images and voices creates an arena where incompatible modes of knowledge compete for dominance: the magical and scientific, the logical and ritualistic, encountering one another in the air around us. There are shared notes and counterpoints, dissonance and tonal conflict. The end result is an intriguing dynamic, as two works with little obvious relation to one another, deploying languages that seem mutually exclusive, are obliged to find a way of sharing the same location.