Ian Giles: Common Room – The Java Project, Brooklyn

This review was commissioned by and first published on Temporary Art Review 

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Anyone with a modicum of interest in the American modernists will be aware of their fondness for gathering in particular urban spaces – cafés, bookstores, libraries – that managed to engender a dual sense of solitude and togetherness that they found incomparably productive. In his 1965 memoir of his early career in Paris, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway described his experiences as a young writer in early twentieth century Paris: “The people I liked and had not met,” he said, “…went to the big cafes because they were lost in them and no one noticed them and they could be alone in them and be together.”

In his current show at The Java Project in Brooklyn, New York-based British artist Ian Giles pushes this idea into idiosyncratic, layered terrain that is very much of today. Through a new body of work in two distinct parts: one consisting of a video essay, installation and series of displayed posters; the other a series of organized events and performances (a movie club, artists’ critiques, interactive clay meditation classes), Giles has created a body of work that interrogates the space between the public and the private, the personal and the communal.

The sources he’s drawn on to create his freshly commissioned video essay, Essential Rhythms, are rich and intense in their cultural variety – the experience of a donation-based yoga class common to NYC, a fictional account of the aftermath of a fire at a British community centre that could easily have been lifted from a BBC Radio Four afternoon play, quotes from the organiser of a sober dance party and Giles’s selected words as sung by an Edinburgh artists’ choir. All these and more provide the soundtrack to a series of slow pans around the work of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903 – 75). Quotes from the seminal artist about her highly personal approach to her practice added to the cerebral mix. Giles has researched Hepworth – a hugely influential figure in the UK whose work inhabits collections worldwide – thoroughly, and you can feel the depth of his investigations as the video work’s pace builds.

It might sound overly complex, but the joy here is in each viewer’s sewing together of these apparently scripted quotes read by voices in various accents, and the nature of the sense we make of them when combined with images of gesticulating bodies mid-discussion or a patiently examined hole in a sculptural form. Human energy, it seems, is as vital a material to Giles as stone or wood were to Barbara Hepworth.

It’s the space itself that provides the most obvious manifestation of the common room in the exhibition’s title. The Java Project is a strangely designed affair – a glass-fronted room housed within the Java Artists’ Studio complex in Greenpoint that already has more than a whiff of the community meeting room about it. The artist has enhanced this oddness to his own ends: adding grey, institutional carpet and beige fold-up chairs – using this setting as an activating element that performs as loudly as the event posters that dot it and the video essay it houses. Most striking of all, a semi-transparent curtain decorated with a breezeblock pattern hangs over the whole length of the protruding frontage, a homage to the breezeblock of the Rietveld Pavilion at the Kröller Müller Museum in the Netherlands that contains a large collection of Hepworth’s sculptures.

The posters advertising the event element of “Common Room” are designed to feel like perfunctory distillations of the events themselves. Inspired by homemade versions that advertise community activities, they are affixed within the glass room to face those passing outside en route to their own studios. Giles has built a firm reputation for constructing events and performances that reflect on the nature of organized human interaction – here they provide another activating element to add to the exhibition’s mix. I attended an intimate, MFA-style artists’ crit, an especially appropriate form given the show’s setting within a studio complex. Loosely mediated by Giles and attended by artists, filmmakers, writers and theatre practitioners, it offered a peek into these practitioners’ processes that, just like the exhibition itself, opened questions rather than explicitly answering them.

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