Driving School: David Bellingham
Main Gallery, Phoenix Brighton
19 January to 24 February 2019
In the beginning was the Word… or was it the image or the object that enabled communication for the antecedents of Homo erectus? In terms of the evolution, invention and development of human communication (through shared language systems), how were thoughts as exclusively non-material manifestations related to things (signs and symbols) in the world? A sign cannot be a signifier devoid of meaning but it takes many forms. What role does art have in a world full of increasingly reactionary, fixed views and the post-modern impulse to mix things up? David Bellingham’s ‘Driving School’ prompts these thoughts – these ruminations.
Curated by David Shrigley, an element of wit and absurdity – with a dash of idiosyncratic character – might have been expected. For Shrigley fans, ‘Driving School’ will not disappoint as Bellingham’s visual/text/object works challenge and coax the observer’s intellect and sense of humour alike. The work is both fun and droll.
That Shrigley chose an artist who is not so well known is refreshing too. The exhibition title suggests that the viewer will be attending some kind of compulsory educational experience and the press release prepared visitors by stating that:
“Driving School offers lessons in unlearning and relearning, undoing and redoing and unmaking and remaking. To unlearn something is to take it apart, to relearn it is to put it back together examined and refreshed.”
The works in ‘Driving School’, currently installed at Phoenix Brighton, pose many questions based on what is perceived as well as read. The newly refurbished gallery is transformed into a learning zone wherein the dynamic learning situation generates questioning from the viewer (the student), which the artwork (the teacher) facilitates. The installation (the lesson plan in action) of various works lets go of total control (didacticism) to allow for debate (welcoming the student voice). The goal here is not to obtain a diploma, but to carry on thinking and looking as reward in itself.
Of course, we know that the standardisation of the conventional driving school must be instructive, objective and specific, leading to fixed outcomes of shared, collective knowledge without room for modification of the rules. But this is an art exhibition and an implied post-academy visual arts curriculum asserts its strengths on antithesis and fluid thinking. All that is fixed, flows. Absurdity is celebrated where certainty and bafflement are equal partners for our binary thinking habits. Bellingham conjoins word, image and object as one. The viewer can take the works at face value or extrapolate at will. To varying degrees there is paradox in all of the works displayed, but all is concrete and tangible despite the conceptual framework that might define this visual field of enquiry.
As the viewer enters the exhibition the first work encountered is ‘MATTER IN MOTION’, a wall text/drawing. It might be a super-enlarged photocopy of a sophisticated doodle. The work (as image) is made from thousands of near identical marks. It’s more than a doodle of course. The work is planned for this specific wall space as the whole wall is filled as a singular composition. Initially, the white letter-forms stand out against the background. But do the letters depict negative space, the space between or behind forms, or are the letters the foregrounded forms? Furthermore, is the phrase an object of sorts? Are the three words no more than 14 letters? Or should the drawn linear elements (albeit just the one sort) constitute a pictorial image? But this is a picture, of sorts, formed as an installation-type artwork on a wall. We simultaneously ‘read’ the words as image. The placement of the letters suggests time and motion too as the letters could be forming or displacing and deconstructing the words. The message is fixed on the wall but the implication is one of movement as the mind reacts to the visual dynamics.
In ‘Driving School’ contradiction is an essential characteristic. The Hegelian interpretive method (thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis) enshrines contradiction as an essential model of thought and debate. But synthesis (in the form of these conceptual artworks) might remain consistently contradictory. For example, ‘A circle in the mind prompted by a circle on the wall’ prompts the chicken-egg conundrum – which came first? Is the ‘artwork’ in the viewer’s mind and on the wall simultaneously? Admittedly the art-object was on the wall before entering the gallery, but the viewer attends pre-programmed with the notion of a circle already formed in the mind. Where did the circle originate and is the idea of a circle innate? (And was it a perfect circle? Plato’s theory of forms/ideas tells us there is no such thing…)
If this is too serious and weighty some humour to lighten the mood is welcome. Many viewers smile on encountering a grouping of five apparent road signs. There’s ‘NOT MUCH’except ‘DIGRESSION DISTRACTION DIVERSION’in ‘A PLACE AMONG PLACES’and ‘A MOMENT AMONG MOMENTS’with ‘A SIGN AMONG SIGNS’. In poetic mode you can order the instructions in any order you wish and as the temporary road sign is a moveable object it might be permissible to engage physically with the work.
Or you can escape up a ladder into the roof space and beyond. For in the beginning was the Imagination…
Homework (Links and further reading):
Phoenix Brighton – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/driving-school/
David Bellingham – http://www.davidbellingham.com
David Bellingham interview with Lisa Otty – http://www.davidbellingham.com/texts/pdfs/For_Wall.pdf
Make your own, many signs available here – https://www.uksafetystore.com
EDITION 1 (19 January to 17 February)
Also on display in the Window Gallery space at Phoenix Brighton is ‘Edition 1’ an initiative to promote the resident artists from the Phoenix studios.
Buy works here: https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/all-shops/edition-1-shop/