Reimbursing the optimistic racist

At Home with Vanley Burke
Ikon gallery,
22 July — 27 September 2015

How do we begin to discuss the black experience in Britain? Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a suitable, non-judgemental entry point. Does the discussion begin with racism? Or migration and the loss of homes in countries left behind?  And so, we can sweep it aside and deal with it as an historical experience, father than contemporary one. Besides, aren’t other nations doing racism far better than we ever could hope to do? We can point and judge them while blanking out our own concerns.

Vanley Burke installation view at Ikon. July 2015
Vanley Burke installation view at Ikon. July 2015

Perhaps this is a side-effect of the American issues around racism occupying so much of our media awareness? We’re distracted and led to assume that modern day racism is a by-product of the ‘otherness’ we assign to American culture? Something in the post-empire arrogance of Britain that we can look across the water, feeling bemused at those oddities in such a familiar/foreign culture? It allows us to consider modern black culture and racism as something that happens to other people. Maybe the focus has shifted towards radicalism. Racism is always the outburst of confusion when dealing with otherness. And radicalism lends itself so well to that, as it stands outside of nearly all of our social constructs and we can all find something worth despising to justify this new, background hum of racism.

So what’s does Vanley Burke’s ethnographic exploration of British culture at the intersection of Black culture offer? If you want to make work that appeals to everyone, make work that is as personal as possible. It reminds you that we aren’t the unique snowflakes we’d like to be. It also brings a deeper connection between the artist and the observer of the work. By allowing the personal space of his Nechells flat in Birmingham to come into the public space of the gallery, Vanley Burke shares his personal obsessions and observations of several decades of Black/British history.

Burke’s obsessions in this public space, allow for varied responses amongst all the Saturday visitors when I was in the space. In particular a group of middle aged black women and their children. “Your Nan had a radio like that.” Or “look at all those 45s, like grandad’s.”

Vanley Burke installation view at Ikon. July 2015
Vanley Burke installation view at Ikon. July 2015

One of the most interesting things about the exhibition is how very British it feels now, in 2015. Everything belongs to an era when black culture (Burke makes no differentiation between different origins of black migrants, as he wants to only deal with their arrival in this country), rubbed shoulders with British 70s and 80s, feeling at odds, yet in hindsight really sets the aesthetic parameters of that time.

It’s important to understand the context of Burke’s work, and to realise that he was documenting from within the culture he was a part of, rather than being an outsider. His experiences and his work is the natural extension of his own attempts to integrate cultures.

The problem of course, is that there are still moments of racist attrition. Points when the two cultures don’t work with each other. He has photographed anti-racist marches. And of course, the Handsworth riots of 1985. The photographs of children playing aren’t of mixed colours playing together, they’re black children. Burke isn’t a Benetton photographer, after all. He’s exploring reality and allowing the work to exist and let historians decide what the work means.

In presenting Vanley Burke’s work and his own immersion in ‘our’ culture ( which is in fact, a shared blending of many cultures) Ikon gallery reimburses the optimistic racist who might hope for a differentiation of the cultures and a sign-post to alienation and eventual expulsion of the other. The kind that helps recruit each new generation to the shoring up of narrow, irrational viewpoints. At Home With Vanley Burke signposts the differences, while reminding us that we’re all trying to find a way to mix what we already know and understand about our world with the new and foreboding future.

Lee Bul at Ikon

Living in space? Hoverboards? Robot housekeepers? They can all go fuck themselves. The future is now and it’s throbbing centre is the crashing of visual cultures from comic shop to art gallery. I’d rather live in a time when you can move from Nostalgia and Comics store to Ikon gallery and experience the same questioning of contemporary society, than live in the past, when those two might have existed in separate worlds, never to meet. Oh, the future of now.

Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005)
Mon grand récit: Weep into stones…

The recent exhibition of the work of Korean artist Lee Bul at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery from 10 September — 9 November 2014, brought together a broad stroke of her work, tracing several concerns that appear to have emerged over time. It’s a sci-fi future-past that she explores, with the cybernetic enhancement of the human experience, whether directly through physical enhancement (she favours the donning of costumes, as opposed to the life-altering slice and tuck of Stelarc, for example) or through a consideration of the built environment. I found the references too sci-fi rich in the work, or maybe it is too ‘of the now’ to understand what the work is really saying about contemporary life, and to separate it from those references.

Sketch by Lee Bul
Sketch by Lee Bul

As a retrospective, the exhibition covers some real detail. You can trace the nodes along the journey from her earlier performance (where Bul wore the cyber-enhancement costumes) to the more recent cityscape sculptures. We get to see the concept art and the sketches, much as one would with a science-fiction movie, but I wasn’t able to find any documentary footage of her wearing the suits, which seemed a shame. Maybe they disappoint in the execution? The sketches meanwhile, are rich in potential.

All in though, to move from reading Judge Dredd to then see Lee Bul at Ikon is to be confronted with a view of the contemporary cityscape that must be true, just because they echo each other so closely, one might think. There were plenty of opportunities to reflect as the exhibition was packed with works. Somewhere, there are a lot of empty packing cases sitting ready for repackaging. In the exhibition write up, the curators suggest:

The sculptures reflect utopian architectural schemes of the early 20th century as well as architectural images of totalitarianism from Lee Bul’s experiences of military Korea.

Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005
Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005

Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005 is Adventure Time meets Sandman via Gulliver’s travels. Beautiful rich pinky flesh colours dripping across an imagined city. While elsewhere, there are scaffolding-encrusted works, hinting at a a city being broken down (to move to better climate?).

If Bul’s work seems like a beautifully wrapped gift from the future-past, to the now, then it’s a delicate glass ornament, broken in transit across time. Hinting at what could have been a breakthrough, but is more likely to cut you now.

Ikon exhibition catalogue (PDF)