Whenever I return home to Birmingham after a few months away, I am always impressed by the amount of quality art displayed across the city. Before I focus in on one specific work in the IKON gallery, I would like to recommend Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Turning To See exhibition curated by artist John Stezaker. This exhibit provides an exploration into the work of the curator through art history (from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud); it is certainly worth a look, especially if your art practice/interests involves themes of portraiture and metamorphosis.
Kan Xuan (b. 1972, China) is currently exhibiting a journey of her video works in Birmingham’s IKON gallery (6th July – 11th September). As is often the case with video art, this exhibition provides an immersive experience, examining and evaluating the every day through the inspective lens of the camera (if we are patient enough to sit, watch, and listen).
Xuan’s work takes to common objects and landscapes trying to, in the artist’s words, “find a way to express an encounter with and perception of a kind of “happening” inside of everyday life”. IKON’s website description assesses the exhibit as “profoundly philosophical about the nature of human life”.
The work I would like to briefly examine is a four channel video installation titled Island (2006-2009). The screens flash up with an image of an object that either costs a pound, a euro, a dollar, or two yuan (each currency given its own video). The cheap objects flash up with the computer-generated vocalization of the currency. The slides are separated by a brief moment of darkness. The rapidity of the succession of images creates a sense of anticipation to see the next object revealed. From hex keys to sweets, Island highlights the novelty of the string of cheap devices marketed to us. The looped videos never actually end, that is not until the gallery closes and the operating system is switched off. There is no pause from the barrage of ‘deals’, the same lifeless audio is rhythmically repeated into meaninglessness.
Consistent with Xuan’s oeuvre, two of her great themes are found in this work: globalization and commercialization. The seeming cultural gulfs between the continents and imperial powers are reduced to absurdity: the same objects, the same opiates, the same ceaseless series of tinny nick-nacks fighting for attention and financial devotion. Pound… pound… pound… Yuan… Yuan… Yuan…
Kan Xuan’s works confront the inanity and insanity of living as a meaning-making individual in a wholly disinterested metropolis and under totalitarian rule. It is a rousing call to march against the numbing effects of a consumer society. As the chasm between the rich and the poor widens, how is one to be reconciled to a severely alienating world of commodities?
The lack of the human figure or form in this video work stresses the cold and mechanical processes behind the manufacture of the ‘one size fits all’ pound-shop articles. In comparison with Xuan’s other works in this exhibition, the video’s processes are altogether quite unnatural, as are the goods depicted. Island narrates the feelings of discord and detach one can come to feel in the city: an ever-present reality in our world of self-checkouts and fingerprint access gyms.