Emma Hart – Dirty Looks – Camden Arts Centre, London
As I walked into the upper lobby between exhibition spaces in Camden Arts Centre, the grating noise of a well-known mobile phone ringtone echoed through the space. I shot a withering look at the only other person there – an otherwise very professional-looking invigilator – as I was reminded of the almost irresistible urge that I experience at every Venice biennale to grab Italian teenagers’ beeping and chirruping devices and lob them straight into the Grand Canal.
Having experienced Emma Hart’s work several times before, I should have realised that this peculiarly familiar noise that I had assumed must belong to the only visible inhabitant of the separate ‘real’ world of the lobby, was actually just one of the aural elements of the cacophony coming from her installation in gallery one. In fact, my confusion over the sound’s source was an example of the successful implementation of one of her main artistic aims – to create work that harnesses and highlights the inescapable disorder, continuous potential for embarrassment, and irrationality of everyday life.
A number of variously adorned chipboard structures punctuate the space. Some have drawers that fall open to reveal rosettes made of ceramic tongues, trees displayed on plasma screens that change with the rhythm of the endless coughing noises, and piles of lurid photographs – as if referencing a crazed day at the office. Other, plinth-like pieces hint more at the language of gallery and museum display, still others offer an idiosyncratic nod to the tray collection trolley in every corporate canteen. All these sit atop lengths of grey office carpet, dripping with the results of Hart’s latest experiments with clay during a recent residency at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire.
Hart’s previous practice has always been concerned with pushing the possibilities of lens based media, and this is her first foray into sculpture – a medium which she says she was “too scared” to experiment with before. The roughly rendered multitudes of orange ceramic builders buckets; crudely fashioned impressions of disposable paper cups; broken clay sheets of paper; and the most regularly repeated motif of a grotesquely long, mottled pink tongue straight out of a Jan Svankmajer animation; all afford us a humorous, wonky distorted refraction of her ‘real’ experience working in a call centre in her 20s, as if we are being invited to view and reassess contemporary life through the artist’s own skewed lens. All these imperfect, clearly handmade duplicates feel like something of a two-fingered salute to the encroaching era of the 3D printer, with all its associated philosophical questions.
Reams of repeated photographs of garish flowers (one of many references to what Hart describes as ‘sexy nature’) spurt from a skewwhiff plinth, or are held in rolls by a cog composed of those ever-present tongues. These, and the photographs of frantically scribbled ‘to do’ lists suspended within the half open doors of a deranged filing cabinet, take us a few more steps away from the reality they are reflecting on.
After wandering through the installation for a while, the mish-mash of sounds in Dirty Looks (the artist’s panicked estuary accented voice repeatedly asking and answering short questions in order to select an appropriate picture of a gargoyle… “this one?…no!….this one then?…no, no, no!” ; coughing; more mobile phone tones) actually starts to take on a slightly nausea-inducing rhythm. Hart’s interest in what she calls the ‘performance of rhetoric’ was apparently also inspired by her call centre stint – where scripted conversations framed sections of everyday life in the same way as a photograph frames a particular moment in time.
In fact, Hart has described this show as an extension of her ongoing investigations into the medium of the photograph and its limitations – it may be able to frame the embarrassing, occasionally disturbing mêlée of everyday experience and serve it up in easily digestible, gallery-sized chunks, but this is not enough for her. She wants everyday chaotic mess – the stuff of life as she sees it – to break through the sanitising screen that photography and video can so often provide, rather than being cleaned up and filtered into a neatly consumable, gallery-going experience.
She has waged a similar challenge to the authority of the lens in her previous practice – her (critically well-received) 2011 show at Matt’s Gallery featured a menagerie of video cameras dressed up as a variety of avian characters on hodgepodge tripods, all with little LCD screens showing recordings of simple actions. It also offered a sardonic take on the camera’s supposed ability to digest and make sense of the world, one of the scripted signs announcing that “the past is always in 2D” – a statement that is equally relevant to, and pushed further in, this more recent work. Other earlier pieces also put the camera as an apparatus at the centre of things. Her video piece Lost, for example, shown at Cell project space also in 2011, exploited and reflected on the medium of the handheld HD video camera as it was used as a tool to zoom and macro its way around the artist’s house while she searched for lost belongings in nooks and crannies.
Despite an apparently slapdash approach, this is a carefully considered and extremely well crafted installation. Laure Prouvost and Pipilotti Rist might be considered to be battling similar aesthetic concerns, but Emma Hart has undoubtedly succeeded in taking a uniquely irreverent swipe at contemporary office life, and the role of the lens.