AN review of Damir Ocko's recent exhibition, by Reuben Henry.
Castle & Elephant, Coventry
28 May - 19 June
Reviewed by: Reuben Henry
The gallery’s two floors each contain a video work by Očko that muse on the history and attributes of sound, each apparently using the absence of one of the senses to present the viewer with an altered perspective on the works’ subject. One depicts a theatre in which three songs are ‘sung’ in sign language, while the other depicts a fictional utopian cult living in a frightening zombie-like ecstasy without the use of their eyes: two opposing premises where sound is either absent or ever-more present for its subjects.
The Age of Happiness (2009), in which its performers are all blindfolded, takes reference from an unrealised performance by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, which was to take place in the Himalayas and transform its spectators into higher beings. The apparent sincere belief in the success of this madcap utopian scheme has functioned as inspiration for Očko, but when he quotes Scriabin’s line “there will be no spectators, only participants”, I think not of relational aesthetics, but of cults like the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, in which 909 inhabitants were duped into mass suicide. This ‘cultishness’ comes through in the video, with its ‘participants’ devoid of any marked individualism and remaining blindfolded by choice, and who are drawn into a visually magical scenario, which is matched by an eerie abstract soundscape. Očko claims that the Utopian vision of Scriabin is comparable to the shortcomings of today’s society, by which I can only guess he means
that today’s society lacks vision for what might be achieved, a suggestion that Očko is as Dystopian as Scriabin was Utopian.
The Age of Happiness opens with its blindfolded participants experiencing an awakening of sorts, wandering self-assuredly through snowy woodland while performing an act of active listening. Perhaps through being pre-informed of Očko’s interest in sound and the myriad references he uses in creating the soundscape, I find myself empathising with the character’s blindness and concentrating on the audio, as if the pleasant and at times nostalgic visuals of the film are intended to be blotted out by the viewer. Considering the pretext of an emphasis on sound I was surprised by the low level of the volume, the soundtrack resisting its dramatic potential, but forcing a sharpening of my listening. The reclaimed shop space of Castle & Elephant however is no museum black box, and my concentration was infused in the parallel world of the busy arcade outside. I expect any viewer is virtually forbidden from ignoring the intermingling of the two worlds of the gallery and what lives outside, and I cannot shake this factor away from my appreciation of the context of the exhibition; knowing that I was both seeing and hearing a whole world to which the cult followers on screen were oblivious, and highlighting the gap between two worlds separated by the gallery door.
Preceding entry to The Moon shall never take my Voice (2010), three song texts based on stories about people who have had a relationship to silence are presented, including John Cage and Neil Armstrong (in a fictitious interview about his visit to the moon). The video itself depicts a lady silently ‘singing’ these texts in sign language, with each of her movements filled in with sound effects that we presume she cannot hear. As the ‘singer’ touches her throat to the timely twang of a piano key, I am overwhelmed by the slapstick nature of the intervention, as if she is a martial arts actor having a terrible joke played on her by the post-production sound-effect makers. The synthesis of a historical appreciation of silence and the forced silence of deafness I find an intelligent intervention, yet the third step of reinterpreting the narrative and actions (of silence) that the ‘singer’ presents back into sound seems to contradict the otherwise tentativeness nature of both of the works in the show.
While the works are visually very different, they succinctly share a proposition that restraining one sense can force a new perspective. This is certainly achieved most delicately and abstractly in The Age of Happiness, and delivers a challenge that I as the viewer need to put a leash on my senses so that I might see the works in the way that they are cunningly intended.
Springhill Institute is an artist-led space that opened in Birmingham in 2003 and is run by artists Reuben Henry and Karin Kihlberg. Being a combination of gallery, studio and living areas, it explores the idea of arts organisation in its wider sense and questions the possibilities of what an institution can be. It concentrates on the production of projects, events, critical discourse and showcases, rather than exhibitions.