Benedict Drew – Heads May Roll – Matt’s Gallery, London

The art school authority figure I remember with the most abject terror is an AV technician and former TV cameraman who I shall call Bob. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Bob loathedart students, and half the time you couldn’t really blame him. A lot of us took very little care of his precious equipment, so cameras worth more than two London-weighted student loan instalments would be returned late, covered in unidentifiable gunk stuck on like molten steel; state-of-the-art tripods designed for use in war zones would somehow come back hopelessly on the wonk after a first year from Surrey tried to film some ‘real Londoners’ on the Walworth Road; or a microphone might be sheepishly presented to him singed and burnt after a completely inexperienced boom operator held it too close to a fire “…to record the noise…” (that last one may have had something to do with me.)

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I can’t imagine what Bob would have made of Heads May Roll – British artist Benedict Drew’s current installation at Matt’s Gallery. On the one hand this relentless onslaught of flickering screens, juddering sounds and flashing messages, all installed within the most comically ad hoc of sci-fi sets, embodies everything our dear technician detested about artists ‘messing around’ with audiovisual technologies. Conversely though, this is a practitioner who prods and pushes the most contemporary of media in such visceral and engaging directions that I think he would have earned Bob’s grudging respect.

This is Drew’s first solo commission for a gallery that occupies a unique position in the London art scene, being dually publicly funded and commercial. Matt’s gallery was opened by artist Robin Klassnik in 1979 before moving to its current premises in 1993, and every project at the Mile End space is the product of an extended process of exchange and debate between Klassnik, gallery staff and the exhibiting artist, thus placing huge emphasis on individual artistic process rather than simply privileging the final, completed piece. These unorthodox methods tend to produce the kind of conceptually rigorous work that’s genuinely driven by solidly artistic rather than purely commercial merit, and Drew’s first outing here as one of their represented artists is no exception.

Open the door to the first part of the space and you’re immediately confronted with a blindingly white room à la THX 1138, containing only an LCD screen and a wall of headphone sets. Put one of these on and you’re thrust into an ear-piercing, electronic soundscape of alarms, arrhythmic beats and synthesised voices. The images on the screen – a disembodied hand that seems to tap along to the manic soundtrack as it rapidly judders back and forth; a melting ice cream; hairy human skin lit to look a bit like something from a 70s recipe book; substances that could be pink ice and dripping resinous goo – are interspersed with ‘instructional’ messages in brutally clear, neon fonts: ‘Let’s imagine, for a moment, out there is gone and there is only here…there is only here.’ It makes you feel increasingly anxious and disorientated; this is the artist’s own sculptural rendition of the sensation of inhabiting, and being subliminally influenced by, the contemporary digital world. Any otherwise intelligent person who’s ever been sucked into scrolling inanely through online videos of cats, or spending untold hours on social media on their phone before realising that you’ll never get those hours back, will start to feel disconcertingly rumbled at this point.

Flashing, coloured LEDs lead us through a tunnel constructed from silver foil, while piles of varied retro speakers blare out crackles and ‘space’ noises (Drew’s other concurrent and related practice is, unsurprisingly, as an electronic musician). From the whitest of white surroundings and impeccably crisp HD imagery in the previous room, we’re now walking through a comically Buck Rogers-esque sci-fi set that is hopelessly reminiscent of past visions of the future. The artist is skilfully playing with us – sucking us into a head-blurring array of images before spitting us out into an environment that forces us to immediately reframe and critique what we’ve just been watching. Does your head hurt yet?

Two stage-like wooden structures with projected panoramic backdrops occupy the final space, punctuated with miniature projectors embedded in piles of coloured sand; microphones half sunk into piles of clay; televisions showing a hand blithely squeezing and moulding a piece of clay, and with piles of neon-lit expanding foam half hidden underneath them like slightly cruddy UFOs. There’s an intentionally sloppy materiality to the sculptural elements here that contrasts pleasingly with, and spills over into, the seductively high production value of the video ones, where viscous liquid slowly seeps over a motorbike helmet and close-up shots of hands fiddle about with circuit boards.

On the way out, a roughly cut out ‘window’ made of red Perspex gives us a framed, carefully filtered glimpse through the wall of Drew’s constructed world onto the mid 90s flats opposite the gallery – yet another lens with which he is making us look again and re-digest the stuff of our everyday experience.

Benedict Drew is certainly far from the only artist to be examining the borders between technology, reality and physicality in contemporary practice. HD slickness combined with intensely visceral sculptural and installation seem to be a particularly flavoursome theme in a number of recent shows, but few have been pulled off with such comic yet mind-bogglingly effective punch that even a curmudgeonly technician might admire. Just take my advice and go easy on the caffeine beforehand…

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