O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis’d to the studious artisan!
Faustus, the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s play; the ever aspiring scientist who sought mastery over nature through intellectual means, would probably have enjoyed Antler’s latest exhibition! Its starting point is ‘human technology and its encroachment on the environment.’ Held at Purifier House, just off from Bristol’s harbourside, three artists, Jemma Appleby, Karin Krommes and Geoff Diego Litherland contrast traditional, ‘romantic landscapes’ with technology, modernist architecture and human desire.
Just like the art within it, Purifier House and Antler’s exhibition promises refuge; a beautiful, solid stone building on the water. What the viewer gets is anything but – you’re forced to re-think societies and your own relationship with the world around us, and just how far our advancement should take us. ‘Progress’, in terms of knowledge, technology and mastery over the natural world has been traditionally lauded as the ultimate goal of our endeavours, but should it be?
These questions may seem new, but have been debated ever since the seventeenth century, with the explosion of the natural sciences and texts such as Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620). The ultimate goal, Bacon told the King (James I), was nothing less than ‘to enlarge the bounds of reason and to endow man’s estate with new value.’ Endowing ‘our estate with new value’ meant control – mastery, and this mission is still being played out today.
What has changed, and beautifully reflected in this exhibition – is the optimism in the power and capabilities of human reasoning. With our successes, a new uncertainty is evidenced.
The three artists unflinchingly represent our all-encompassing effect on the world around us – thought-provokingly, but without moralising. Karin Krommes specifically depicts our own creations, be that remote control warfare machines and surveillance devices, set against magnificent mountains and landscapes. The artist seeks to show, that as our technological achievements become ever more impressive, complex and widespread, our control over their impact on our lives lessens.
This sense of contradiction; simultaneous technological advancement and (moral?) regression is furthered by Geoff Diego Litherland. He utilises a traditional painterly medium, combined with science fiction abstraction to further question our hitherto unassailed relationship with nature. Litherland works seem otherworldly, yet all seem, strangely – instantly recognisable. This is perhaps because of the format; they are after all, conventional landscape paintings. We are seeing what we want to – the familiar and the unproblematic, when on closer inspection it simply isn’t there.
My personal favourite was Jemma Appleby. Her work brings all these themes together in a less overtly ‘science fiction’ manner, but highlights the incongruity of this exhibition most successfully. Appleby, in a photographic manner, presents us with forests; bastions of solitude and calmness, spaces in which to think and to question. As you get further and further into the solitude of the forest though, things get trickier to comprehend. It’s at this point, that Appleby’s structures appear out of the darkness, places of shelter and protection; familiarity, that the traveller is so desperately seeking. On closer inspection though, they are physically impossible (taking inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses). Like Krommes and Litherland’s work – an irreconcilable contradiction is set up. I was also reminded of some other artist’s; The Bloor Brother’s, who take the failed project of twentieth century modernism, its utopian yearnings for a better, never-quite-present future and turn it into their own, highly ‘present’ installations. (See previous post: Success in Failure). Similarly, Exploration, taken as a whole, negates this previous confidence and affirmation of human being’s power to create, improve and reshape their environment. For better or worse? You decide.
Antlers is a commercial art gallery with a difference. They keep things moving – producing temporary exhibitions all over the city, from the (current) purifier house, to Christmas Steps, Temple Quay, Quakers Friars and Whiteladies Road. They seek to support a small group of contemporary artists, maintaining a sense of continuity through their themes; narrative, space and the natural world.
Exploration is on until 8th June.
For more information, see: Antlers Gallery
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