Having been so widely exhibited within the last year at high profile locations including the British Film Institute, BBC Television Centre, Kate MacGarry, and now this large-scale show at Camden Arts Centre, Ben Rivers is using the environmental crisis in which we find ourselves as the conduit for his poignant, and often very personal, films, which often pose the artist as something of an activist. Taking up a vast space within Camden Arts Centre, which resembles the mysticality of a forest, the solo show ‘Earth Needs More Magicians’, is comprised of four 16mm films documenting people and cultures withdrawn, either socially or geographically, from capitalist, technology-driven lifestyles. The effects of the anthropocene epoch on their quotidian existence are also drawn upon, but in a way that is not confrontational, nor over-dramatised. In the context of each video being shown in the dense, chaotic environment of North London, we are provided with a point of reference from which to truly immerse oneself in Rivers’ work.
The physical settings of the films are almost as effective as their content. Screens and viewing space in each gallery segment are vast and impressive, through fixing the viewer in one place while emphasising the minute scale of the individual with the use of huge divided rooms. For the screening of ‘Ah, Liberty!’, a black and white collection of footage of a family, uprooting into a simple and isolated life in rural surroundings, the viewer is made very aware of his or her distance from the subject matter, as the large space and the cardboard egg box-like walls highlight our reliance on production.
However it is when Rivers translates his own ideas from his fieldwork and creative practice to curatorial, which will pique the interest of the city inhabitant, as the supporting exhibition, Edgelands, hopes to document ideas and aesthetics within the urban landscape, both reassuring and troubling. Assuming the role of curator, the artist displays works which have influenced his own practice and style of moving image fictocriticism, as well as those which have followed. The non-existent chronology given to classify these pieces is beneficial to both curator and viewer alike, as this allows Rivers to express the urban landscape from different geographical and historical spheres.
With the first step into the exhibition space, the viewer is greeted by Jeremy Butler’s 2015 mixed media piece, ‘Undiscovered Country or How I found myself hiding in backwaters’. Instantly the viewer is made aware of the diversity in content and message in Edgelands. Butler’s work is both bold and darkly familiar; the canvas is filled with what appears to be urban detritus. This is no dystopian depiction, instead presenting a physicality which makes the viewer feel as if they have personally caused the chaos. The artist’s decision to use a canvas base and have all the individual elements contained within it is indeed effective, as we are awoken as to the ways in which contemporary art can shape and alter our viewpoints on very real global issues, including the anthropocene.
Intriguingly the setup of the exhibition space itself will not be alien to visitors of the National Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the like, as the understated elegance is a pleasing contrast to the dynamic, challenging spaces in which Rivers’ videos are shown. Against the deep navy blue walls, the palette of each piece seems to interact with its surroundings in different ways. Prunella Clough’s 1956 ‘River Landscape’ defies exactly what one would expect from its title. As opposed to the romanticised natural environment of traditional river landscape painting, this oil on canvas work alludes more to the machine age, where deep greys and desolate line work dominate the image. Using such an ambiguous technique successfully creates a distance, which is distinctly uncomfortable, between viewer, artwork and message. Thus, this delivers the gallery’s promise on covering material concerning how the modernist dream of a prosperous metropolis has failed people and environments in a multitude of ways. Including works from reputable names from modern and contemporary art and discourse including Max Ernst, Keith Arnatt and Robert Smithson, Edgelands truly is a comprehensive survey on disillusion and alienation from the present world, with a refreshing lack of egoism and individualist doctrine.
By Issey Scott
Edgelands at Camden Arts Centre, London, NW3 6DG, until 29th November 2015.