More of An Avalanche: Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire, UK
This review was commissioned by and first published in MAP Magazine, Issue #43, March 2018
Of all the insults lobbed at left wingers from the right in the last couple of tumultuous years, there’s one that’s burrowed its way especially deep into the cultural lexicon: ‘snowflake’. Have you participated in a women’s march? ‘Feminazi snowflake’. Tweeted about refugee rights? You’re undoubtedly one of those ‘little snowflake social justice warriors’, as Bret Easton Ellis so delicately put it. Born a millennial? Pretty much a guaranteed member of generation snowflake.
It’s a peculiar catch-22 of a pejorative label, rife with contradictions. If you’re offended at being called a snowflake—in other words, at having your feelings and your opinions dismissed entirely out of hand, while also managing to be both a young fogey and ill-equipped for adulthood—you’re simply proving that you are indeed a snowflake. More of An Avalanche, a group exhibition currently at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire, sets about escaping this slur’s frustrating bind in tried and tested fashion—by reclaiming it. The artists here embrace and celebrate those very snowflake-esque qualities—a willingness to protest, unabashed expressions of vulnerability, a sense of empathy towards their fellow humans—that so irk the right.
There’s a broad, edging on nebulous, array of works spread over two spaces. It takes a considerable time to work your way through it all, to really get a handle on the impact of each piece as it operates individually and within this particular context. This is hardly much of an issue given that Wysing’s relatively remote location means most visitors won’t just be popping by, but is worth bearing in mind. Allow well over an hour, not including a revitalising coffee break.
The main reason it takes so long is the sheer variety of tones, media and approaches. The more formally recognisable works —by Issac Julien, Jesse Darling and Juliet Jacques, for example—are interspersed with what the gallery blurb describes as more ‘ephemeral’ pieces. Ranging from S1 Portland/Women’s Beat League’s genre-mashing series of mixes that can be listened to on Wysing’s website as well as in the gallery itself, to Zinzi Minott’s beat-driven film collaboration with DJ and producer Nkisi, and a distributed zine. All these were produced at the centre’s eclectic residencies, study weeks, workshops, events and informal discussions over the course of 2017. These less conventional works are engaging on their own terms, but also add a sense of Relational Aesthetics-inspired energy to the entire show, making it feel pleasingly open-ended and replete with questions.
The more traditional pieces contribute historical context and a different kind of conceptual weight. Although ‘snowflake’ as an insult feels inimitably contemporary, its roots go way back, amply demonstrated in the Newsreel Collective’s drama-documentaries ‘Divide and Rule Never’ (1978) and ‘True Romance Etc.’ (1982). These two films, featuring young Londoners of the time discussing their experiences of racism and sexuality to punk and post-punk soaked soundtracks, reach even further into history, to the role played by colonial Britain’s ‘divide and rule’ policy in propagating white supremacism.
Jumping forward a decade, Isaac Julien’s terrifyingly foresighted visual essay ‘That Rush’ (1995) is an apt throwback to the 90s culture wars, when a typically conservative older generation tried to stem what they saw as the tide of liberalism and secularity sweeping the young. Frenetic footage of US “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh, as he strategically lambasts the left and bemoans the supposed invisibility of white America, is analysed by race theory scholar Patricia Williams. It’s utterly chilling in its prescience, especially for those of us old enough to remember when we thought it couldn’t get any more sinister.
Raju Rage’s new installation ‘Under/Valued Energetic Economy’ is the most explicitly pedagogic piece, and I mean that in the best sense. A printed cloth covers a table strewn with ephemera—polaroids, an Ipad where you can listen to individual experiences of activist struggle, and printed aprons—which reference informal strategies of organising and resistance. Most absorbing, though, is the cloth itself. Rage has created a sort of kitchen table mind map that plots the connections between apparently disparate issues and arenas such as white supremacist patriarchy, capitalism, activism and the arts. It is engrossing and pointed in its tangled provisionality.
Jesse Darling’s ‘Agitprop Poster’ (2014), meanwhile, is a succinct sucker punch on behalf of anyone vilified because of physical or psychological illness. Nearby, Harold Offeh’s ‘Lounging’, a set of images featuring his restagings of a Teddy Pendergast album cover, offers a gently humorous prod at notions of conventional masculinity so alarmingly sacred to many on the right. I was also lucky enough to catch Liv Wynter’s smack-you-round-the-chops monologue-performance, ‘Housefire’, featuring Wynter as a woman whose houses keep burning down. Her tone becomes increasingly desperate as she recalls the trauma of each successive blaze, describing the reactions of her increasingly doubt-filled neighbours as they start to blame her for her own misfortune. The resonances with #metoo and the (almost forgotten?) Grenfell victims are clear and sensitively wrought. In the second space, Carolyn Lazard’s ‘Get Well Soon’ (2015) is a powerful, biopolitical meditation on the state of the American healthcare system, re-framing one patient’s experiences through a kind of hypnagogic computer game, while Juliet Jacques’ elegant reflections that move from the body to the AIDS crisis and the afterlife are memorably manifested in ‘You Will Be Free’ (2017).
As with any show that takes such an overtly left-wing stance, there is a question mark as to whether exhibitions like More Than An Avalanche are really just preaching to the converted: after all, the vast majority of visitors to venues like this are hardly likely to be UKIP voters or Katie Hopkins fans. However, the function of shows like this is less about convincing everyone (an impossible task) and more about the left seeking to understand itself. This is a quietly forceful example of curatorial activism at its most convincing. While it teeters on the edge of being amorphous and too broad in its reach, running through it all is a feeling of faith in the power of strength in numbers, collective action and, above all, a sense of hope for the future borne from the extraordinary resilience of those marginalised voices, artistic and otherwise, who consistently refuse to be silenced. To paraphrase the exhibition blurb, snowflakes might be easy to melt and blow away in the lightest breeze, but they’re also elaborate, geometric structures— only created in bitterly cold conditions—that work together to form scenes of extraordinary beauty.