Two of London’s best new exhibitions
By Max Lunn
As viewers once again populate museums and galleries, it’s worth looking beyond the blockbusters to some of the smaller exhibitions further afield. Pace Gallery’s exhibition Bloom – which showcases Trevor Paglen’s new work – and The Drawing Room’s exhibition Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium have both recently opened and are worth visiting.
The commercial, New York-based Pace Gallery counts some of the foremost contemporary image makers amongst its ever-expanding roster. Trevor Paglen is one such name and had his first exhibition with the gallery’s Geneva outpost last year. This exhibition is his latest since the well-received Barbican installation ‘From Apple to Anomaly’.
Upon entering Bloom, the staff inform you that you will be live-streamed as part of Octopus, a new installation made up of a network of cameras in the gallery connected to a live web portal. Londoners are reportedly the most surveilled population outside of China – with one camera for every fourteen residents – and so this polite notice has the unintended effect of making you wonder how many times that day you’ve been recorded.
This sudden awareness of the invisible systems of surveillance, big data and AI that increasingly structure our realities in gradually more obscure ways informs the overall tone of the exhibition, which broadly attempts to explore these phenomena in an aesthetic manner. Paglen’s strength as an artist is to make visible the things and ideas that are often invisible and incomprehensible in the modern world.
The best works in the show are those which use the data of computer training sets (which are themselves used for creating AIs) as their source material and then both humanise and abstract this data to create affecting and often humorous encounters. ImageNet Roulette is an interactive work which classifies viewers’ identities by projecting an image of each person when they stand in front of its screen. After processing the image, the screen assigns you with various one-word descriptions.
The work employs one of the most widely-used datasets used for training and evaluating computer vision systems and the resulting descriptions swing between racist, humorous and simply absurd. Even behind a mask, a mixed-race friend was variously labelled
a pharaoh, Bedouin and sphinx.
Airlines and Sentiments and The Disasters continue these bizarre and occasionally unsettling encounters with data sets, which this time uses a collection of tweets that are used to help artificial intelligence systems categorise the emotional tone of the authors and learn about online threats. The tweet: ‘#Loveisland, HE HAS A * HEART AND A LITTLE RAINBOW EMBROIDED ON HIS PANTS I’M GOING TO COMMIT ARSON’ appears in The Disasters with the categorisation ‘[arson]’.
Bloom sees Paglen engage with art and art history in a way he previously hasn’t bothered to. The exhibition supposedly recalls and updates the ‘Vanitas’ trope with Paglen’s digitally-rendered flowers and skull, as well as investigating new symbols of mortality in the digital era. Paglen is part of the art world not because he’s interested in being an artist per se, but because art and aesthetics provide the most useful arena in which to carry out and display his visual and multi-disciplinary investigations.
This dialogue with art history, therefore, feels unnecessary and a little dull. The dominating series of large-scale photographs that depict flower formations made by algorithms, for example, fail to create the same viewing encounters as the previously discussed works.
It’s difficult being one of the most ‘significant’ artists of the day: we expect Paglen to produce works that explain the complexities of the world around us with a simple clarity and in a way that advances the aesthetic. This is evident in a few works in the exhibition but Paglen misses the mark with a lot of his new work.
You can book tickets here.
Not Without My Ghosts
The intimate and quiet galleries of The Drawing Room provide a very different viewing experience to Pace. Not Without my Ghosts includes works from 26 artists from the nineteenth century to the present day who collectively explore the changing historical and aesthetic terms of artistic engagement with mediumship.
Starting with some of Blake’s sketched visions, the exhibition then moves to the Victorian spirit artists, some surrealist experiments with automatic drawing and finishes with contemporary artists exploring the power of the unseen.
The stand-out works come from the Victorian spirit artists, the majority of whom were women. Georgiana Houghton and Barbara Honywood form the focus in this exhibition and their renderings of spirits are remarkable for their abstract qualities: both artists are
now recognised for their role in the early development of abstract painterly forms.
The central tenet of the exhibition is the process of drawing: the speed and relative freedom of the medium encouraged artists to sketch and scrawl out visions at the moment of inspiration. There’s an evocative hastiness to many of these drawings and the mutual urge to communicate is felt across the eclectic array of works.
You can book tickets here.
Bloom is open until 10th November and Not Without My Ghosts is on until 1st November.