Imagine you’re viewing works by an artist from the former Soviet block. His installations, collages and films are rendered in anguished fin de siècle hues, with hints of drab politburo grey-green distemper. They hint at exile, loneliness and terror. His titles often use the first person ‘I’ or ‘My’, so you assume a biographical standpoint. A recent war (looped on BBC News 24 ), has wracked his country, so you read this into the work.
But somehow his posturing seems unbelievable. The more you look, the harder it is to shake off the sense that he’s simply performing blankly, his expressions of ‘self’ forever enclosed in quote marks. Moreover, like a hall-of-mirrors, the artist neither affirms nor entirely erases this assumed identity. Who, then, is this man in the mirror?
Born in Sochumi, Georgia in 1977 and exiled to Europe aged 15, Andro Wekua mines his own heavily freighted biography to undercut (Western) expectations. Previously, this has veered uncomfortably towards exploitation. In ‘Like a Lily in My Back’, 2003, Wekua references his own father’s funeral.
At Camden Arts Centre, Wekua brings these tactics to the fore. ‘My Bike and Your Swamp’, 2008, is a cavernous installation of an oblong room open at one end revealing a kinky arrangement of cast motorcycle and straddling female mannequin (cast from life, her face is obscured with a gangrenous Edvard Munch-style paint job). She seems more girlish than womanly, and sits openlegged wearing a skimpy t-shirt and no knickers. Illuminated by glaring strip-lights, the room’s fluorescent-yellow walls are adorned with a series of collages made from photographs of the model-making process, and over-painted with hoops of bright, glossy paint. The immediate effect is one of a tacky car showroom meets lap-dancing club. Sphinx-like, she could be empowered or exploited, accusatory or submissive. Wekua cheekily acts the pimp, but the work comes across as a deeply flawed expression of beauty and angst.
More potent is ‘By The Window’, 2008, a digitised 16mm film projected into a niche that’s normally the entrance to the art centre’s education room. In this mesmerising piece, Wekua unleashes a fusillade of lighting effects to animate his by now familiar trope of mannequin and props, turning a static tableau into a startling anti-narrative of gestures, poses and mystery. We see a dark space, a blue vertical light signalling a doorway, a male figure on a chair with feet propped up on a circular table; the décor is somewhere between an interrogation room, an apartment and a theatrical stage set. Nearby, a window-shaped screen flickers with abstract and figurative imagery (solarised waves, sunsets, a hand with index finger raised), unfurling like manifestations of the mannequin’s dream-state.
With its harsh industrial soundtrack and staccato outbursts of light and dark, sometimes revealing a Venus de Milo figure ominously lurking in the left-hand corner, Wekua’s film dallies with dissonance. The overall effect, however, is elegiac and downtempo, underpinned as it is by plangent drones and nostalgic spectres.
Maybe I’m a sucker, but Wekua had me believe this story.
Colin Perry is a writer based in London