‘Graduate Artists in Residence 2015, Mani Kambo & Hope Stebbing, The Moon & Sixpence’,
Mani Kambo & Hope Stebbing’s new commission The Moon & Sixpence is the culmination of their joint Northumbria Graduate Artists Residency. Taking place at Tyneside Cinema between Autumn 2015 and Spring 2016, the collaboration has seen the two artists combine their two respective practices of video and sculpture, to create an incisive commentary on the built environment. The work prompts us to reflect on how it affects us and how we influence it.
The title of Kambo & Stebbing’s work simultaneously conjures the cosmic and the banal. Two stratospherically dislocated objects that can only ever be seen in isolation, as in searching for one we can’t help but miss the other. The novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham tells the story of a respectable stockbroker’s abandonment of a stable life in order to satisfy his compulsion to become an artist. However, Kambo & Stebbing do not seek to introduce a narrative of ‘art for art’s sake’. Their title is borrowed from a pub.
Both artists express an interest in ritual’s contemporary forms. The rituals of everyday interactions, the rituals of navigating urban space and the cycles of urban decay, then regeneration. These rituals contain their own social implications, objects and consistencies. This multifaceted language is skilfully extracted in the delivery of the artists’ work but it remains grounded and located within the eponymous pub.
The pub can be found in Gateshead and is as familiar and unspectacular as almost any other pub you might find in UK. It stands on the corner of red bricked Victorian terraces and facing out towards a 1970s retail strip with flats above. The various attempts at renewal are visible, as are the failures. The Moon & Sixpence has every one of its openings shuttered by uniform metal plates with only drilled apertures providing some reprieve to the enclosure. These metal screens become a central aspect of the exhibition and the plurality of their objecthood and application provide a conceptual framework for the artists’ work. Stebbing describes the use of this material in the following way:
Perforated sheet metal is used in our surroundings for various reasons. Simultaneously an emblem of decay and regeneration, used to shutter and exclude, it is also used to support, provide comfort and relief. Its varied connotations invite the viewer to make there own judgement.
Within The Gallery at Tyneside Cinema this material is deployed as a series of screens (the material was bought from a local building merchants, this provenance is an acknowledgement of industries that sustained the area for so long). They simultaneously evoke the notion and application of a ‘screen’ in an art context and within an architectural one. Three of the metal perforated screens are placed within The Gallery, each one with an increasingly higher support frame and with larger holes. A single channel projection is directed onto the first screen with each subsequent surface capturing a slightly corrupted, filtered and affected version of the original image. Here these screens act in numerous ways: they capture the image but in doing so distort it. They also act as a physical barrier within the space but are still porous, allowing the image to sit on front and back. The appearance of uniformity in the objects is also illusory. The subtle shifts in size are intensified by the image passing through each screen. With this installation Kambo & Stebbing carefully utilise the proportions of the gallery space, the objects that inhabit it and the projected image activating the space.
There is an acute understanding of the notion of the screen in the exhibition. Being an artwork, displayed within a cinema and using building materials, there are colliding notions of the form and function. Kambo acknowledges that typically “the viewer doesn’t consciously acknowledge the screen”, assuming the projection is what lends an image its solidity. How the audience perceives these objects is an important operation with this work – depending on how the space is navigated the screens take on different characteristics and serve different purposes.
Conceptualising art works in terms of surface, openings and as a screen has precedent. In 1864, Emile Zola wrote that:
Every artwork is a window opening out onto creation. Stretched taut in the window frame is a sort of transparent screen, through which one can see objects that appear more or less distorted because they undergo more or less palpable alterations in their lines and colours.
The duality of the screen in being transparent and opaque, a window and also a shielding surface is clearly articulated in Kambo & Stebbing’s work. Significantly, Zola’s screen theory formed much of the basis of early critical understandings of Surrealism. The relevance of Surrealism in the context of this exhibition is the treatment and exploration of the cinematic experience. The Gallery at Tyneside Cinema and its Graduate Artist in Residence programme is focussed on screen based contemporary art. The success of the programme is in its expansive conception of what screen-based work can be and the various histories that inform work being produced now. An early surrealist activity was to visit cinema screenings after the start time and stay until boredom compelled the participant to leave. Then, it was a case of entering another screen and repeating the process. The exhibition nods to the power of cinema to both transfix and agitate. The projection that forms part of the installation locks on to images then seemingly rushes away with haste, mimicking the sometimes absorbed and sometimes restless viewer.
The four-minute film the artists made for this exhibition continues play with the materials and sites of regeneration. The artists manipulate building materials to create abstracted images and patterns that construct an intangible interior within the gallery. Using an overhead projector and coloured acetates, the materials oscillate between recognisable objects and decorative patterns. The colour palette used reflects the bold blues and yellows of building sites, whilst other images relate to localities associated with regeneration.
The film accelerates and decelerates alluding to the ways in which we navigate our environment. Some images linger on screen long enough to be made sense of, whilst others briefly pulsate and disappear. This pacing adds dynamism to the work that plays off the static, imposing metal sculptures in the exhibition space. A scattered composition sits on the various surfaces for a moment before shifting rapid shots mimics the visual intensity of urban environments. However, the absence of sound in the work prevents it from ever being oppressive or overwhelming. Rather than acting as a simulation, the work functions as a study. Taking materials, palettes and patterns of the built environment and redeploying it as something more than the sum of its functional parts. The current practice of artists such as David Maljkovic and Michael Dean shows a similar interest to Kambo & Stebbing. They share an approach that uncovers the material language, ritual and spatial qualities of a location and this leads to a greater comprehension of the built environment.
The subtle narratives wound in to The Moon & Sixpence are prompted by the particulars of the North East of England, but these themes are recognisable across the UK. Regeneration has become a divisive issue that has highlighted the conflicting interests of the stakeholders in this process. Gateshead could be seen as an apt case study for these tensions. The industrialised riverbanks have been repurposed as a significant cultural centre with a local and international outlook. Starchitects design these buildings and they have become totems for the trust in cultural agency in the new millennium. But moving away from the river regeneration quickly turns into redevelopment.
In his book The New Ruins of Great Britain Owen Hatherley describes the early 2000s flats behind BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art as ‘arrogantly towering over the flour mill’s already domineering mass’. A few architectural features nod to the industrial heritage of the site, but ultimately they are a symbol of the hollow culture of redevelopment that privileges profitability over the wider cohesion and functionality of the urban environment. Further into Gateshead a large development on the former site of the iconic Get Carter car part, exposes the culture of redevelopment as a complete artifice
The suggestion of social mobility, civic cohesion and economic stability contained within the seductive language of redevelopment is enhanced by its aesthetics. Flourishes of colour, material and verticality speak of excess. The site, Trinity Square in Gateshead, is quite literally stratified into semi-private space. Verdant balconies are visible from street level, but wholly inaccessible. Hatherley also observed that on the Tesco branded hoardings surrounding the car park prior to its demolition was an anonymous quote saying ‘I love the new Trinity Square’. Navigating the multi use site now it is hard to imagine anyone loving it. In providing retail space and student accommodation it foregoes civic identity and any sense of location. When the hulking Brutalist car park designed by Rodney Gordon disappeared it was claimed that Gateshead had lost its front teeth. What remains now is a pair of glossy dentures; uniform, just functional and entirely false.
The coloured facades that clad the building could be seen as analogous to the screens Kambo & Stebbing employ in their work. However, there is a key difference, whereas the screens remain porous regardless of their deployment, the facades of developed sites are only intended to mask and distract. They embody the falseness of this brand of redevelopment and signify a concentration of the artifice. They form a shell hiding the intention and motivation of a site, whilst trying to provide an optimistic hue for stimulus. In this duplicity there lies the crucial social and political implication of the process and rituals associated with urban redevelopment; displacement, stratification and surplus private wealth.
The Moon and Sixpence is compelling as a piece of work as it reconfigures the materials, palettes and locations of regeneration, creating a transfixing spectacle. In this act there is optimism. It implied that despite the homogenous visual character of the built environment there is still a latent capacity for it to be stimulating, engaging and democratic. Kambo and Stebbing demonstate that through decoding the language of regeneration there is the potential to activate non-places.