Every five years the British Art Show holds a stethoscope to the beating heart of this country’s contemporary art scene. Alongside the annual Turner Prize, it remains the most reliable gauge of its health, circumventing the London-centric orbit of the art world to survey talent from all corners of the land. Now returning for its ninth edition, the UK’s largest touring exhibition has just opened in Aberdeen, where it will remain for four months before travelling to Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth.
In all its illustrious 40 year history, few iterations will have been preceded by the upheaval of this latest edition. The task of distilling the events of the last five years, let alone the last 18 months, falls to the show’s two curators: Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar, who together met with over 230 artists before whittling the list down to 47. Beginning with the referendum in 2016, moving through looming environmental catastrophe, waves of protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd and culminating with a global pandemic – no pressure, then. The resulting exhibition is a suitably ambitious programme that poses crucial questions around our collective response to these events, while offering new means of resistance.
Though the work of all selected artists will appear in each of the four host cities, the programme has been adapted to address local contexts and regional histories. In Aberdeen, the UK’s primary supplier of granite with long-standing ties to oil and gas, this meant a focus on environmental justice and humanity’s superiority complex over nature. With works by 33 artists, including fifteen never seen in the UK alongside six new commissions and two site-specific works, spanning film, photography, painting, sculpture and performance, the first leg of this four-parter is a strong audio-visual spectacle that covers a lot of ground.
Below we select five of our favourite participating artists from this year’s show who between them embody its dynamic range and sharp satirical bite.
You’ll know you’ve reached Patrick Goddard when you stub your toe on a lead cast of a severed lizard head. The work, which is part of a series of 24 decapitated animal head sculptures, occupies the room’s shadowy floor like the crime scene of a crazed killer (that couldn’t be us, could it?), setting the tone for what follows. London-based artist and filmmaker Goddard excels in this immersive, and at times uncomfortable, form of installation. At his 2019 exhibition at Seventeen for example, he re-layed the gallery’s floor with the same chequered brick layout used by city councils to deter rough sleepers.
That exhibition was, among other things, a satirical rebuke against gentrified areas of east London, but in this show, Goddard takes aim at our warped hierarchical relationship with nature. His new black and white film, Animal Antics (2021), follows a woman and her talking dog at a trip to the zoo where they ruminate on man’s relationship with fellow animals while observing them from the other side of an enclosure. Ironically, it’s the little pooch who expresses greater disdain, spouting off with the same false sense of superiority that defines his human owners.
Patrick Goddard Animal Antics (still) ,2021 Produced by FLAMIN + Film and Video Umbrella, with support from Hayward Gallery Touring and E-WERK, Frieberg © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Seventeen, London
Continuing the exhibition’s interrogation of our relationship with the natural world are Cooking Sections, the Turner Prize-nominated duo of Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe who are asking urgent questions about the environmental impact of our diets. They’re best known for CLIMAVORE, a community-led research project based on the Scottish islands of Skye and Raasay that promotes a new, climate-orientated approach to the food we eat.
Working with local restaurants and food suppliers, the project proposes a reorientation towards foods like oysters, scollops, mussels and native seaweeds – natural filtration devices that help curb the devastating environmental cost of intensive salmon farming in the region. With a single oyster capable of filtering up to 120 liters a day and the marine life of Scottish islands increasingly impacted by pesticides used in salmon farming, it’s a future-proof concept that will hopefully gain widespread traction.
With Aberdeen’s strong ties to the fishing industry (and excellent seafood), Cooking Section’s collaboration with the museum’s restaurant makes perfect sense. Though the menu had not been finalised at the time of opening, the project is expected to be a variation on the CLIMAVORE menu that’s been adapted to local ecosystems and environmental challenges, Aberdeen being on the opposite side of Scotland’s coast to Sky and Raasay. Expect anything from razor clams to oysters, scallops, sea lettuce and dulse.
Cooking Sections CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones, 2017- ongoing. Installation view: Isle of Skye, Scotland © the artist. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Colin Hattersle
Berlin-based British artist Marianna Simnett specialises in work that makes you squirm. Whether it’s her video-based work on blood, veins and bacteria or her current project for which she is collecting roadkill samples via Instagram, she confesses that “Discomfort is my main ingredient.” With these visceral projects, Simnett is trying to access something usually obscured from view: bodies undergoing metamorphoses or churning splanchnic interiors. Her film works are often cut, spliced and edited with surgical dexterity, resulting in multi-channel installations that tell multi-layered stories.
In Aberdeen, the artist has presented a film that acts as a precursor to her recent exhibition Blood in My Milk at Frankfurt’s MMK museum titled The Needle and the Larynx, larynx being the scientific term for a voice box. Feeling squirmish yet? You should be. Across a single fifteen minute close-up shot, the artist is seen undergoing the operation, which artificially reduces the pitch of your voice, at the hands of a surgeon.
Usually done by men whose voices have remained unbroken after puberty, you can’t help but curl your toes at the sight of a Botox-filled syringe being plunged into Simnett’s throat, nor shift awkwardly in your seat when you hear her feeble croaking voice detail the after-effects 48 hours from the operation. Told over a rising cello score and the swarm of a thousand mosquitoes, it’s a gripping audio-visual experience that probes at the oppressive and violent forms of body modification.
Marianna Simnett The Needle and the Larynx (still) ,2016 © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Serpentine Galleries, London
Readers may recognise Joanna Piotrowska from her 2019 exhibition at Tate Britain for which she showed a collection of black and white photographs and 16mm films as part of their excellent Art Now series. The Polish-born photographer is known for her conceptual series that question power structures and attitudes towards the female bodies through staged and unsettling domestic scenes. In her monochrome stills of sitters awkwardly intertwined, Piotrowska plays with the deeply complicated nature of family relationships, presenting choreographed compositions that are suggestive of both intimacy and conflict, familiarity and discomfort.
Presenting both film and photography for the British Art Show, Piotrowska revels in this suspended ambiguity once more, this time however, with a focus on our relationship with animals. In the film Animal Enrichment (2019), two women ‘entertain’ one another with objects designed to alleviate the intense boredom and anxiety of caged farm animals. From the monotonous drone of a ball being bounced off concrete floors to beaded veils that wouldn’t look out of place in a BDSM shop, by taking these objects out of their context Piotrowska poses powerful questions on the humanity of mass farming methods and the twisted nature of its power dynamics.
Joanna Piotrowska Animal Enrichment (still), 2019 © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid, London
As a filmmaker in her own right as well as an artist, with numerous accolades in both fields (a Max Mara prize in 2006 and a handful of impressive premiers at the London Film Festival), the strong visual quality of Margaret Salmon’s work takes its cues from the history of cinema and photography. With influences ranging from French cinéma vérité and American social realist photography, Salmon’s appreciation for the mechanics behind powerful imagery is what sets her work apart. In her 16mm and 35mm films as well as her photography, she uses a synthesis of screens, text and dialogue to explore brilliantly observed snapshots on the things that make us human.
In her film I You Me We Us for example, presented on a pair of stacked monitors in an unassuming corner of the gallery, Salmon explores complex themes of kinship and intimacy through subtle reflections on touch and gesture. The work unveils the energy of affection and all its physical signals: two hands clasped together or words of comfort spoken softlyin a whisper. Shown alongside are a series of photographs taken as part of Salmon’s K is for Kato: Esperanto Photograph series, an exploration of the world’s most widely used international auxiliary language, devised in the late 19th century as a universal means of communication that would foster world peace. Salmon’s photographs see her photograph people, objects, places and plants for every letter of the alphabet, a visual diary of signage that builds on the principles of the original invention.
Margaret Salmon I you me we us, 2018. Installation view: Dundee Contemporary Arts, 2018 © the artist. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ruth Clark
British Art Show 9 is at Aberdeen Art Gallery until 10 October, then touring to Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth.