The End Is Nigh! Apocalyptic Visions In East London

A recent trip along the Regent's Canal to two of East London's best contemporary art spaces led me into two dark, apocalyptic video installations filled with the terrors of imminent catastrophe: Jennet Thomas's All Suffering SOON TO END! at Matt's Gallery (currently in its final week) and Melanie Gilligan's Popular Unrest at The Chisenhale.

Jennet Thomas All Suffering SOON TO END!
Matt's Gallery
42–44 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR
April 14th - June 6th 2010
Wednesday - Sunday 12 - 6 pm
Screenings begin on the hour and at 30 minutes past

Jennet Thomas's All Suffering SOON TO END! is a two-part installation based around the end-of-world predictions disseminated in an evangelical Christian pamphlet delivered to the artist. Extrapolating from the Revelations-esque Last Days prophecies, Thomas has created a menacing character in the form of The Purple Preacher - a combination of an imagined embodiment of the writer of the pamphlet and the Marvel Comics villain, The Purple Man, a character who possesses the ability to control enemies through incredible powers of persuasion.

The 30 minute video features The Preacher paying a visit to an elderly couple and detailing the evidence that our increasingly secular world has lead to an enormous increase in the amount of suffering experienced by humankind, that we have angered God by ignoring Him and that he is punishing us for this. But do not worry - for all this suffering is to end very soon, thanks to His salvation. Following this, a car journey and a rather unnerving trip to a model village with a stern Green Nun character, and a few poorly performed musical numbers act as features of The Preacher's evangelical repertoire, before life-sized living dolls of Adam and Eve wreak havoc in the pensioners' home and attempt to recruit school children to the cause.

Strangely (probably unintentionally?) reminiscent of absurdist left-field comedy sketch shows such as Big Train and Chris Morris's Jam, the video is blackly comic and by turns quite unsettling and somewhat endearing. Spliced with flashes of destruction and doom, the video meanders through repeated scenes of the purple figure preaching his message, edited to a soundtrack of pulsing glitches, ambient electronics and reverberating dialogue. Images of a hypnotic TV screen featuring an animated motif reminiscent of both a cross and that biblical root of sin, the Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil. The image becomes central to the work's visual language when it recurs in filled-out sound-emitting three-dimensional form as the centre-pieces of the adjoining installation.

The film is compelling and at its heart thoroughly enjoyable, creating a comical parody of these doom and gloom religious ramblings. It manages to do what good satire does best, and subverts what is actually in real life a scary and sinister practice (frightening the elderly and indoctrinating the young) into a ridiculous and bizarre farce.

Melanie Gilligan Popular Unrest
Chisenhale Gallery
64 Chisenhale Road, London, E3 5QZ
7th May - 20th June 2010
Wednesday to Sunday 1 – 6pm
Thursday 3rd June until 9pm

Melanie Gilligan's Popular Unrest is a 5 part film-installation with a total running time of 75 minutes. Spread across 5 flat-screen monitors divided by office screens, visitors are presented with wireless headphones and may move between the various episodes playing in sync, tuning in to the sound from each as they go.

Taking on the form of an episodic drama the series tells the tale of a not-too-distant future in which a digitised system known as The Spirit monitors and manages human life the world over. As the plot unravels we learn of a mysterious spate of killings being carried out across London by a seemingly super-natural force, and of a bizarre phenomenon arising across the country in which groups of people are mysteriously drawn together by an uncontrollable urge to be with one another. I won't say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling the suspense of the work for you if you see it yourself.

Reference points claimed in the accompanying literature fail to gel with me - claims of allusions to David Cronenberg's Body Horror films don't wash; while the first death we see is remarkably violent and genuinely quite shocking I'm wondering if they blew the budget on it. The remainder of the film's fatalities seem to be made up by repeatedly using one technique (knife stabbed through clothing into dummy/blood bag) to unconvincing effect. Again, the claim of taking cues from American crime dramas such as CSI, Dexter and Bones doesn't really work for me, the final effect, I must say, is more like the BBC's poor cousin of these (think more Spooks than HBO). I can't help wondering, however, if these reference points were Gilligan's own, or were added by the gallery as their reading of the work.

While I understand that realism is not the aim here, and this exhibition was clearly not produced on a Hollywood budget that ran into the millions of pounds, the work requires a certain suspension of disbelief in order to achieve some of the effects it seems to be trying to get to. The wooden acting doesn’t help, and blatant staging of the filming in the gallery (complete with Florian Hecker’s speakers from the last show) doesn’t either, and comes across as poorly done rather than knowingly flat.

I remember an interview with Paul McCarthy which I saw online (maybe this one?) in which he discussed the increasing scale of his installations and the enormous budgets he is able to command for their production. To paraphrase, he argues that if you really want to critique Hollywood and Disney, you need to work at their level. I’m wondering if Gilligan bit off a little more than she could chew with this piece, if the ideas she wanted to get at might have required a bigger budget to execute well. I was left feeling that work failed to establish a strong sense of critical distance from the medium it emulated. A fairly interesting (and compelling) narrative it was, a thought provoking and artistic exercise? I'm not so sure.

While the similarities between the two exhibitions are really fairly few - both are video installations, both deal with a prevailing sense of impending catastrophe present within contemporary society, and both seem to be more inspired by televisual language and devices than those of the cinema or video art - it is interesting that two galleries located in such close proximity should have concurrent shows exploring this terrain in this medium. If art is indeed a mirror to the world, then looking at these pieces you might think we are living in bleak and frighten(ing? ed?) times. Let's take the cue from Jennet Thomas and laugh at how ridiculously over the top all the doom, gloom and worry really can be.
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