Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


KALEIDOSCOPE: The Vanished Reality at Modern Art Oxford

The Vanished Reality, The Piper Gallery, Modern Art Oxford. Photo Credit: Ben Westoby.

Join us as we stare into Modern Art Oxford’s KALEIDOSCOPE and investigate their latest exhibition The Vanished Reality.

Visitors to The Vanished Reality are confronted with an immediate puzzle. In front of them is Maria Loboda’s To Separate the Sacred from the Profane – a sixteen-foot loop of reeds and plywood stretching from floor to ceiling, looming over any who dare enter. The structure takes inspiration from the Japanese tradition of “chinowa”, a ringed entrance to temple sites through which worshippers must progress, signifying their transition to hallowed ground. Modern Art Oxford also invites its guests to step between Loboda’s creation. To coy English sensibilities, however, this seems awkward, almost profane – we couldn’t possibly assault a work of art in such a way! It’s a fascinating dilemma – what is and isn’t sacred here? – and one that Vanished Reality revels in continually inducing.
The Vanished Reality comes as the final installment of Modern Art Oxford’s KALEIDOSCOPE series, a year-long sequence of shows and performances celebrating the gallery’s 50th anniversary. The exhibition brings together ­­­­a wide body of work, placing pieces from widely-known artists like Yoko Ono and Marcel Broodthaers alongside relative new-comers such as Hardeep Pandhal. In addition, former projects—Kerry James Marshall’s At The End Of The Wee Hours and Darcey Lange’s Studies of Teaching Four Oxfordshire School—return, commemorating the gallery’s rich history. The result is a fascinatingly eclectic ensemble, presenting sculptures, film art, photo collages and, yes, large reed circles. The true intrigue, however, is in the thinking behind the visuals.

Maria Loboda, To Separate the Sacred from the Profane, The Vanished Reality, Modern Art Oxford. Photo Credit: Ben Westoby.
Modern Art Oxford has always promoted thought-provoking material and The Vanished Reality is a particularly entertaining exercise in mental aerobics. The exhibition is intended to twists the audience’s viewing perspective. “The ten artists” reads the introductory panel, “have been brought together because each questions the idea that there is a moral neutrality in cultural framing and art production.” Each piece draws attention to the terms of its own presentation. The artworks’ manner of display, therefore, is as important as its content: the frame, ironically, becomes the centre of attention.
It’s an intriguing, if at times confounding, approach to viewing. Iman Issa’s Heritage Studies provides a charming example. A selection of faux art-labels line the upper gallery’s far wall. The written exerts present hilariously nonsensical descriptions of non-existent art. “The hall overlooked the sacred lake” one proclaims, “but is believed to have been merely symbolic, never used for observation or any other purpose.” What?! Confusion is not helped by Issa’s collection of bizarre objects strewn across the exhibition’s floor, supposedly gathered from far-flung museums. The items have the trappings of seriousness, but no substance. The emperor intentionally has no clothes, and is making a point of it! 
Similarly reflexive points are made by Marcel Broodthaer’s ABC-ABC Images and Pandhal’s deliciously anarchic Career Suicide. But if the exhibition questions the manner in which art is displayed, how does Modern Art Oxford choose to display KALEIDOSCOPE’s prized dénouement?

Yoko Ono, Painting To Exist Only When It’s Copied Or Photographed, 1964. © Yoko Ono
A series of narratives run through The Vanished Reality. Even before Loboda’s imposing circle, the gallery presents Yoko Ono’s diminutive Painting to Exist Only When It’s Photographed. The piece comprises of a wall-mounted notepad—a few pages ripped out—each note in print demanding: “Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.”
It’s a pretty brazen opening gambit. Do we take photos now, or not take photos? The art piece has reached out and construed the terms of its own reception. Yet come the end of the exhibition, these concerns are flipped on their head. Louise Lawler’s No Drones and Katja Novitskova’s Approximation series occupy the Piper Gallery: the former, a wall-mounted printed vinyl tracing of Lawler’s renowned earlier works; the latter, blow-up and pixilated images of rare animals, normally only viewable through TV or the internet.

The Piper Gallery, The Vanished Reality, Modern Art Oxford. Photo credit: Ben Westoby.
The combination is ridiculously photogenic. You can hardly enter the room without wanting to take a picture. One suspects this is entirely the point. Novitskova’s piece probes our own reliance on digital images – “how this new media actively redefines the world and culture”. It seems only fitting Instagram should become a principal site for observing her work.
But what to make of No Drones? Lawler’s beautiful creation also appears to be crying out for a photo. The tracings refashion the New York artist’s earlier photography series which captured famous artworks—including a Pollock drip painting and Damien Hirst’s acclaimed “Away from the Flock”—in residence in their collector’s homes. No Drones then is a tracing of a photo of (often only part of) an artwork. Take a picture in the Piper Gallery and you have – take a deep breath – a photo of a tracing of a photo of an artwork. It’s a (fittingly) kaleidoscopic mise-en-abyme, with whatever original that once existed now slowly evaporating from view. There’s a good chance Modern Art Oxford’s 100th anniversary will contain a collage of visitors’ selfies in and around Lawler’s alluring work. 
KALEIDOSCOPE has been a chance for Modern Art Oxford to reflect on their rich past. The series, however, has also provided the unique venue with an opportunity to display their inventive present. The exhibitions have actively tried to present their creative process – show their working almost – opening up galleries to the public during construction periods. The Vanished Reality, therefore, could not be a more fitting conclusion. This tantalizing collection is bursting with self-aware commentary. Everywhere you look there is a reflexive point to be found. Read all the labels (even the nonsensical ones): the delight here is in the detail.

The Vanished Reality is a free exhibition and runs from 11 November - 31 December. Modern Art Oxford can be found at 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, OX1 1BP. For more information, visit their website.