On descending to the basement level of Summerhall a certain sense of unease seems to permeate the space. The ceilings are low, the rooms windowless and on a sunny July day there is a cold, damp feeling that hangs in the air. The recent exhibition by musician and artist Fritz Welch in this space, known as the Machine Shop—owing its former life as a metal working space in the veterinary college the building once housed—played on this atmosphere and its economic and political position within a privately run arts centre, in a city where any exhibition or performance space comes at a premium.
Bundles of office and domestic furniture occupy the space, looking as if a human/dung beetle hybrid has rolled them into conglomerations. These serve varying functions: some as projection screens playing host to documentation of past performances, while others have become canvases for graffiti style tags, performatively splattered by the process of blowing indian ink through an atomiser. There are collections of dated plastic toys, Halloween accessories and joke shop finds, some arranged in an over-crowded glass vitrine. Drawings are spread around the space in pencil, pen, paint and marker. Their subjects range from elaborate geometric calligraphy illustrating counter cultural political chants, to grotesque biological forms, to a drawing of a diminutive spider asking for a place to crash. The shrink wrap which binds some of these items together gives the sense of an ectoplasmic residue.
One of the first works encountered is a low, rectangular assemblage, lying flat on the ground in the middle of a hallway roughly the shape of a coffin, stasis chamber, or pupa. A transparent orange plastic toy chest-burster from the film Alien placed prominently on top (along with a Chinese finger trap on a warty green rubber witch’s hand) provides an effective jumping off point for the show’s concerns.
There is horror here, a sense that something has made its nest and shed its skin, it’s popping out to the shops just now, but might be back at any second. A release to this suspense was provided in the form of A DANK HANGOUT FOR U.F.O. ENTHUSIASTS, a one-off three-hour performance in the space by Welch, joined by performance group STASIS clad in hot pink swimming caps, goggles and Marigolds and experimental musicians Adam Campbell, Tina Krekels, Daniel Padden and Malcy Duff. The absurdist, improvised event went through peaks and troughs of noise and activity as the performers riffed off each other. Here the assemblages took on another function as percussion instruments and tables for electronic music equipment.
The exhibition is accompanied by a striking poster designed by Matthew Walkerdine, the reverse side of which contains a series of texts by unattributed authors, along with collages, drawings and photographs. It begins with an exhibition press release parody, and the central text invokes a blitz of underground music shout outs, references to conspiracy theories, Lovecraftian madness and so much information that it all starts to feel like white noise. Welch, a veteran of the New York noise music and art scenes, includes personal anecdotes from this time, one particularly Beckettian passage states ‘So what if it looks a little wonky and lopsided or what if it doesn’t make the people sigh? Failure is a sham.’
Dissatisfaction builds over the course of the zine and exhibition: at the role that the artist is expected to perform, such as being commercially successful or socially engaged, and at the spaces and institutions in which to perform them. Alternative theories are tested but fail too: another sculpture takes the form of a geometric structure made of bamboo and corks glued together like a shoddy science fair project, illustrating chemical bonds or a DNA strand unravelling. This is, perhaps, an attempt to transcend a raw deal, wanting out of an unfair game, or seeking to rewrite the laws of nature. A restart seems necessary from the most basic building blocks.
The show is produced by Holly Knox Yeoman, the former curator of Visual Art at Summerhall returning for this show as an independent curator, using her first project with Welch—the Crack Squad of Situ residency at University of Glasgow’s History of Art Department in August 2017—as impetus. Another very specific and contested space, the department’s context of academic research became a driving force in the project, creating a format which supported artists and experimentation. Knox Yeoman’s own practice-based research often addresses institutional art environments in which the presence of contemporary local artists is absent. This idea—of retaliating against canonised ‘art’ as a metaphor for dealing with dominant social ideologies and the mire of everyday life—also resonated with Welch.
As with the Alien chest-burster, both Knox Yeoman and Welch’s practices are mobile, but hosted in bodies which they exceed and then rupture in dramatic fashion. CRYSTALLINE CHRYSALIS CRISIS presented a dissident take-over, enabled by offerings of time and friendship, in the face of an ever increasingly over professionalised, over institutionalised and underpaid sector. It activated both the curator and artist’s shared interests in collaborative approaches to create change and raise ideas of agency.
CRYSTALLINE CHRYSALIS CRISIS took place at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 2 June - 13 July. A night of performance, A DANK HANGOUT FOR U.F.O. ENTHUSIASTS with STASIS, Tina Krekels, Adam Campbell, Daniel Padden and Macy Duff took place on 26 June.
David Upton is an Irish freelance curator based in Glasgow. His research interests connect to moments of entanglement between social, art historic and personal narratives. Recent projects include 464 Years of Cinematography, a screening of work by Aurélien Froment at Glasgow Film Theatre supported by LUX Scotland, the publication Shadow Matter, which centred on how the idea of smuggling, as a mind-set, infiltrates art writing practice, and the exhibition Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiouslyat Project Arts Centre, Dublin, which meditated on the role that the arts play in times of upheaval.