By Gareth Evans
Several years ago I found myself in the Bloomberg Space next to London’s Finsbury Square. It was the first time I’d been to the gallery, situated in the entrance hall and on the balcony of a vast interior well that dropped the length of the media and news conglomerate’s UK headquarters. Certainly, it was a distinctive location for such a cultural venture, with the usual blank cube vigorously informed by its context and container.
Since then, of course, attention has been given to the surrounding area for all the reasons we know, with one immediately local being the ongoing presence of the only remaining Occupy site in the City of London. We also find ourselves in the most explicit ‘bread and circuses’ moment of the capital for decades, a time that includes Tate Modern’s hosting of a Damien Hirst retrospective, memorably described by Hari Kunzru as evidence of an art become capital, no longer able to claim for itself a space of purpose beyond its financial value. Sure, for quite some time art has been one of the few commodity markets retaining and increasing its returns, but this is something different. This is art made of and for its potential towards profit. So it goes…
So it goes, indeed. What was clear on that visit, however, was the worth of the Bloomberg Space ‘Comma’ series, original commissions across all media for the venue, with a substantial financial commitment and a valuable range of emergent and established artists. I was there to see Naheed Raza’s film work Sand. A looped 16mm installation in the main room, it compelled at once, with its scale-deceptive immersion in shifting dunes and rivers of silica, the ebb and flow of granular tides.
This is a sensory piece, keenly aware of the tactile and of the almost-silk of the sand’s smooth passage. Inevitable, then, that it was made on celluloid. The whirr of the projector and the granularity of the film stock become explicit participants in the orchestration of the desert. Similarly, it’s not surprising that Raza studied medicine and natural sciences before turning to art, and, equally, that she also works sculpturally. A faceted awareness of the materiality of things, of their structures and processes, keenly informs her visual practice. She can, literally, imagine the chambers and arcades beneath the skin of her subjects, in ways that create a useful parallel with the layering of intent within an artwork.
If all artefacts – even Hirst’s production-line latest – aspire to embody an ultimately ungraspable, intangible meaning, a series of ideas, emotions, proposals – within their actually existing fabric, then a correlative is set between the matter and metaphor of a work. So, the cellular thingness of a thing and, differently, its ‘essence’ (large and loaded terms, needless to say) become productively intrigued. Conceptually, the fact of DNA’s spiral quality seems a given (once discovered), but surely the helix is threading finally with an unknown, intangible other – that might be called spirit, soul, G-d or the means towards consciousness, towards life, nowhere better formulated than in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
Such thoughts are clearly in the air. The Wellcome Collection and Somerset House’s new gallery, The Inigo Rooms, both explore this space between form and content, flesh and function. And Raza herself, in TNK, takes her investigations directly to the body with Frozen in Time and its Cryonic persuaders. This is not the space to raise any more than the most obvious questions about what surely can be described as flaws in thinking around the belief that preservation of the physical form, ‘head only’ or ‘full body’, is a viable means towards ceaseless life. Whether around issues of energy stability, future signage, installation security or social / ecological collapse, let alone the ‘age’ of revival, loss of one’s culture, community and shared belief systems, and the very principle of what constitutes life, its worth and meaning, the project seems to this observer to be profoundly misdirected.
If we are being encouraged, by the film but more fundamentally, by the existence of Cryonics at all, to think about what constitutes humanity, then surely both leading definitions should be weighed. Cryonics asks us to reflect at the deepest level on our relationship with the matter and metaphor of ourselves, with the locus of our identity as more or less singular entities, and our consequent place in larger environments.
That said, rather than speculate on how we might endure in a time-displaced, technologically-heavy future (intellectual strategies all too present in our current species failure to engage with our own ecologically self-destructive behaviours), we could ask instead, what constitutes our humanity now, our ethical priorities, our empathy while we are certainly alive? Instead of becoming ourselves again, elsewhere, later, in possible other carriers, we could seek to become ourselves now, here, fully (lifelong work), in our own skin by meeting the ‘other’, the bag lady, the wheelchair-bound, the migrant, whomever and wherever they might be, in their own skin and their own terms; helping to craft a conscious, collective humanity – with the others that complete us – in the present of our own being.
However, Raza wisely presents the whole business in its own perception, taking in the facts of the Michigan facility – an industrial operation, liquid nitrogen, caretakers and all – and placing these alongside interviews with key players in the scheme. Her filmic looking skilfully allows the viewer much space for their own take and yet, in dealing with the process by which Cryonic devotees seek to continue themselves – and so deny the process of life and death – one can’t help thinking of exactly its opposite, the entropic finality of at least our current vessels. (This is neatly counterpointed by the fact that Raza’s piece here is in-process, with confirmation now that it will be completed, finished, given her receipt of one of the two TNK production awards).
Whatever might persist after mortal re-incorporation into the humus, the air, the cosmos, it’s hard to think of a more optimistic expression of the hope that the majority of humanity surely has, that something endures, than Nabokov’s wonderful phrase (thank you, Robert Macfarlane) from his novel Transparent Things concerning the ‘dream life of debris’. If we are all destined for detritus, at least for some station of the journey, then imagining our reverie while there is a lyrically enticing conception.
So it goes, and it all goes. That’s not news. Which brings me back to Bloomberg, and the prompt for this piece’s opener. Viewing Raza’s Sand, I enjoyed it enormously, its art and its artisanship, its world and its sense of becoming particular; but one of its readings completely escaped me then. A film about sand, about the mountain ground down to desert, about the physically dominant reduced to a common grain: how clear and successful a vision of capital and corporations is that? And to show it in one of the city’s palaces of power. Matter and metaphor, means and message. In sand is our unity (this is what democracy looks like). People have noted that we are living in a Nero moment, the decadent phase before collapse. But there’s always a period after (let’s call it Ozymandian), that lasts much, much longer…