The Negligent Eye at the Bluecoat

Marilene Oliver, Family Portrait (Mum and Dad), 2003

Words by Breda Whyte

This exhibition has been developed and curated by Jo Stockham, The Royal College of Art’s Head of Printmaking, in collaboration with the Bluecoat, and features work from the following artists: Cory Arcangel, Christiane Baumgartner, Thomas Bewick, Jyll Bradley, Maurice Carlin, Helen Chadwick, Susan Collins, Conroy/Sanderson, Nicky Coutts, Elizabeth Gossling, Beatrice Haines, Juneau Projects, Laura Maloney, Bob Matthews, London Fieldworks (with the participation of Gustav Metzger), Marilène Oliver, Flora Parrott, South Atlantic Souvenirs, Imogen Stidworthy, Jo Stockham, Wolfgang Tillmans, Alessa Tinne, Michael Wegerer, Rachel Whiteread, Jane and Louise Wilson.

At the core of this exhibition is the use of digital imaging and technology, including work created using hand-held and medical scanners. The exhibition offers a great deal to think about, and as a fan of science fiction, I could clearly detect a lot of science fiction influences in many of the pieces.

There is a magnificent frustration in the Conroy/Sanderson piece Fabrication 2000, Reworked 2014, where three unfinished portraits with just the tops of their heads sketched in, hang in a darkened room. A line of bright, white light rolls down the front of each of the canvases in sync, projected from machines opposite them, as if each portrait is being scanned. This makes the viewer anticipate the reveal of each face,  and accompanying the piece are sound effects mimicking lifts operating, which add to the sense of expectation – but what we are waiting for never happens. While no more of the portraits are revealed, however, the tops of each head still give the sense of these being individuals.

London Fieldworks with the participation of Gustav Metzgers’ Null Object is a collaboration which links a computer brain interface with industrial, robotic technology. The programme uses data gathered from several hundred EEG (Electroencephalography) recordings from numerous participants, as well as from the artist himself, who was given the task of thinking about nothing while having his EEG. A video playing in the gallery space depicts Metzger undergoing his EEG, interspersed with computer graphics. These graphics represent the information being fed from his brain, which are then communicated to computer which builds a tactile replica of his non-thought pattern. The stone sculpture was created by a robotic manufacturing process, and is pitted with a large void which reflects the data generated from the EEG. This same information was fed through a 3D printer, which generated copies of the sculpture. The output from the 3D printer is small and delicate, providing a great contrast to the solidity and bulk of the actual Portland Stone piece.

The creation of this work is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano, a thought provoking book which talks about a world in which robots carry out labour. Engineers are the most important workers, and they work to create robots that are able to do all the work that humans used to. In this world there is no hunger, no health care shortages, no accommodation shortages; but it is a world without creative expression.

Marilene Oliver’s Family Portrait (Mum and Dad), 2003 is beautiful and clever, and is comprised of screen printed acrylic sheets supported on bronze rods. This piece appears to be nothing more then a stack of slides, each printed on just one surface, and yet these slides combine together to create a full length human image. There is something wonderful in the way the figure is revealed as one walks around the structure.  It is a reminder that we are made up of cells which form the whole.  For me, it is a positive and life-affirming piece, but could also be a comment on how science and the medical world see the individual. The piece seems reminiscent of an era when human cadavers were put on display in museums, encased in formaldehyde, but creates this impression of a memory in a beautiful, poetic and understated way.

Oliver creates distortions of the human body by utilising technologies used for medical scanning and cuts and pastes this data to form her plastic pieces. There is something both horrific and beautiful in this piece; it looks like a suspended economic solution for the most efficient creation for harvesting body parts, as depicted in the film The Island. It questions identity and individualism, and there is also something about control versus helplessness in this piece that is disturbing, and again thought provoking.

Rick Walker/Steve Hardstaf, Individuality

Individuality, a framed postcard from South Atlantic Souvenirs by Rick Walker/Steve Hardstaf is a simple yet horrifying photograph of a group of soldiers with crew cuts all “branded” with barcodes on their necks. This turns the individuals into commodities, and implies that all that we need to know can be put on a barcode, which serves the purpose to help make shopping and pricing easier in stores.  It implies ownership, control and herding.  On a practical and more sinister level it could actually make identification easier if this was implemented on these soldiers.

This is an exhibition that at times challenges and at others disturbs, but it stimulates, poses great questions and creates a curiosity of how far the notion and various forms of scanning, and medical technologies can be pushed in the creation of art.

The Negligent Eye has now finished at the Bluecoat. The next exhibition will be James McNeill Whistler, as part of Liverpool Biennial 2014.