Stuart Brisley: Crossings

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Stuart Brisley: Crossings John Hansard Gallery Southampton February 12 to April 5

Over a career of almost half a century Stuart Brisley has come to the conclusion, as stated in his recent novel Beyond Reason, Ordure, 2003, that 'what goes down comes up'. Although often hailed as the 'godfather of British performance art', Brisley is a more complex figure, whose practice extends to painting, community projects and pseudo-curatorial installations. Uniting all these working methods is a concern for things that have fallen down (detritus on the streets, human excrement), or have been otherwise marginalised (miners, bin men). 'Crossings' is no exception. Here he explores the return of the repressed and suppressed through the motif of two famous maritime disasters, RMS Titanic in 1912 and the passenger ferry MV Estonia in 1994.

Nowhere is this 'return' more explicit than in the case of the Titanic, whose very name has become shorthand for hubris and blind overconfidence in technology. Brisley's installation and soundwork, Touching Black Ice, 2008, consists of an otherwise pitch-black room in which a small sailing boat sits atop a plinth, prow pointing towards a penumbral, purplish light shining like a dim moon on oily water. Its simple, efficient construction contrasts with the imagined bulk of the Titanic crunching into the seabed below; its loneliness and inadequate lifesaving capacity contrasts with an imagined seascape of dead bodies bobbing in frozen waters. There is another return here too: this exhibition is located in Southampton, the city that launched the Titanic. Significantly, the dinghy itself is on loan from a local shipbuilders' yard, which--to some extent--rescues the memory of the event from the generalised mawkishness of James Cameron's movie Titanic, 1997, and puts it into a local, more suggestive context.

If Touching Black Ice refuses to reduce memory to ill-fitting metaphor, it also refuses hypermediation, tracing instead an index of actual things. An eerie soundtrack, pumped in through wall-mounted speakers, marks out a litany of presences: bodies of water, bodies of ships, human bodies. Swelling waves wash forward and recede gently, intermingling with bleeping Morse code signals; clinker boards creak and hull metal groans. Brisley's measured voice emerges from the tangle of sounds to provide death-count statistics and a nautically precise breakdown of events. At times, these descriptions transport us to the event itself; we are inside the ship, in steerage, the lowest class accommodation, scrabbling to open locked doors. …

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