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Tuesday 13 March 2012

The Figure in Space | Alice Channer: Body In Space and Edward Thomasson: Inside | South London Gallery | London

Text by Travis Riley

Having been given the opportunity to exhibit at South London Gallery, Alice Channer took the bold step of creating an entirely new set of works to fill the impressive gallery space. The resulting exhibition, Out of Body, consists only of works made this year, and in many respects, appears to be as much a single installation as ten smaller constituent works.

Measuring the full ten metres from floor to sky-lit ceiling, Channer has hung three images of classical British Museum sculptures, printed on metre-wide strips of heavy, white fabric, entitled Cold Metal Body, Warm Metal Body, and Large Metal Body. The images are digitally stretched, and their proportions considerably distorted. In its overextended form the printed stone seems to pour from the ceiling, pooling on the floor where the fabric comes to rest. The scale of the works allows them to take on their own dizzying gravity as the spectator faces them. The statues depicted are all without head or limbs, essentially bodiless, however the implication of form beneath the remaining drapes of fabric is enough to give an immediately human impression. These banners of bodily space without form are emblematic of the other works on show.

Just as the banners fill the vast, vertical space in the gallery, the installation of pieces Reptiles and Amphibians, seems designed to fill the considerable floor-space. The titles are easy to locate in the works, which are mainly composed of smooth curves of polished stainless steel positioned to imply a reptilian gate. Amphibians comes complete with a ragged tail and lolling tongue, both made from aluminium cast Topshop leggings. The leggings are dotted about both of the works, cast in order to replicate the curves of the steel, but positioned in parallel, the materials are always spaced and never touching.

The walls of the gallery are filled with similar intent. Eyes, takes up the entirety of the left wall, and Lungs the majority of the right. The works consist of thin, looped aluminium frames covered by a thin layer of spandex. Each frame is hung separately, such that they can be horizontally spaced across the length of the room. Affixed by a flat spine, the frames curve outwards from the wall in an angular, imperfect semi-circular form. Each has a distinct shape, and viewed along the gallery wall there is a sense of sequence and accumulation; every form becomes superimposed into the next. In Eyes the sequence is sporadic, the distance between the frames and variation in form, frenetic. Conversely, Lungs has a rhythm. The impression of breathing, the heaving of a chest, is unavoidable. The spandex layer provides the skin, sometimes taught, sometimes bunched up by the motion of the frame. Between the two lungs is Arms. Two aluminium cast cuffs poking from the wall. These bring the exhibition full circle. The gauntlets are much less about their own physical frame, more about the space they contain, a space filled by an imagined human form.

On the first floor of the gallery is a second exhibition, which provides a remarkable, if coincidental, counterpoint to Alice Channer’s. Both are about the human body and space, but whilst Channer generates a general human image without body, Edward Thomasson’s exhibition, Inside, generates a vision of the person trapped inside the body and the body trapped in the world. His video (also titled Inside (2012)) consists of three cross-edited scenarios. An acupuncturist delivers a simple treatment, female prisoners receive art-therapy, and a woman and man sing a song called "Not Safe Inside". The scenarios seem disjunct, yet somehow are effortlessly viewed as a whole. The video is narrated by one of the prisoners, who explains a difficulty in expressing feelings, and she, along with the music, provides an informal backing track to the overarching series of events. The web of reference in the video is so well spun, that even as we follow the camera inside the singer’s throat, the whole scenario remains plausible and indefinably rational. The final, self-reflexive narratorial statement, spoken as the prisoner stares toward the camera, mouth-unmoving, awakes you from the sequence, but leaves the debate about personal and private, physical and metaphysical space, ringing in your ears. “You’re inside my head, after all.”

In both exhibitions there is a focus on space. In Thomasson’s, space is constrictive. Physical space contains the prisoners, and emotional space is equally suppressed. In Channer’s, form (human or animal) is in the spaces within and between works. Her sculptural pieces are predominantly made up of flat surfaces. Space is found and trapped by folding, stretching, and shaping these surfaces around it. The negative space is not empty. The viewer is left to find the missing figurative element of each sculpture projected into it. On the reverse of each of the three banners is a small gesture that alludes to actual, undistorted human scale, such as a direct print of Channer’s arm and hand. The images are separated by less than a centimetre, yet cannot be viewed simultaneously. The sculptures are figurative; the figure is deliberately fragmented, but fully represented.

Alice Channer: Out of Body and Edward Thomasson: Inside, 02/08/2012 - 13/05/2012, South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Road, London, SE5 8UH. www.southlondongallery.org

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Installation view from Alice Channer: Out of Body at the South London Gallery, 2012.
Photo: Andy Keate.
Image courtesy the artist and the South London Gallery.

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