Grand Union, a gallery in Digbeth, Birmingham, is located near the former Bird’s Custard factory. Melanie Jackson’s solo exhibition, comprising animation, sculpture and a glossy publication written collaboratively with Esther Leslie, is an exploration of milk, the main ingredient of custard; a pleasing coincidence. Deeper in the Pyramid brings together the many associations of this white fluid, its use and representations, from biologically essential to technologically disconcerting.
Elevated metal flooring, like a deconstructed grid, forms a space simultaneously dense and light. All three video works in the gallery emit ambient sounds, at times reminiscent of the satisfying noise of a PS1 PlayStation—tickling the gamer-brain. For non-gamers, this computer-generated digital chiming takes you to another world. On the grid itself, iridescent bulbous sculptures are sparsely arranged, occasionally clustered together, like constellations in a night sky.
A white hanging sculpture—a paper-snowflake or molecular structure perhaps— divides the room. Natural light floods in through the large window, bouncing off the metal grid. A zigzag cardboard construction lines the walls: some of these ‘walls’ have shelves for the exhibition publication, Deeper in the Pyramid, a compilation of research undertaken by artist Melanie Jackson and Esther Leslie, professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London.
Three videos are fixed on elevated poles stretching up from the grid. All are short and on a loop. In one, a white lactic compound piles up like Play-Doh, perpetually spinning, producing more and more and then jolting to resemble a collage of GIFs oscillating over Instagram stories and selfies: the screen becomes overloaded with data.
Another video displays thermal greens and pinks overlaid with a cartoon cat guzzling milk, rubbing its belly to indicate sated fullness. A fast cycle of images acts like a chemical reaction to this milky overdose. The final video has a particularly memorable moment—a baby languidly moves around a cosmos. Harking back to the iconic Nirvana Nevermind (1991) album cover, this infant is instead surrounded by water, an avatar floating in clouds of baby formula.
These kaleidoscopic videos illustrate a breaking down and reforming of positions, viewpoints, opinion. There is no narrative: the underlying message touches on a story of milk which, in debunking the pastoral fantasy of cows and farmers, places the ubiquitous product in a more complex world of meaning than it is generally associated with.
The publication catalogues subjects that mingle with milk: short texts on powdered, ice cream, skimmed etc; the marketing and consumerism of milk; what we think of milk (gentle, soothing, restorative); mythical tales and nightmares associated with milk and cheese; the technological kidnap of milk. The Laughing Cow, of the eponymous spreadable wedge of cheese, has now probably collapsed from exhaustion at the hands of the dairy industry. ‘The cow body might make milk but not calves’ (from the chapter ‘Synthetics’). A surge in veganism, a number of controversial documentaries on the dairy and meat industries, and online animal and dietry information, taps into an exhibition such as this, perhaps even influences it.
What is perhaps most thought-provoking of all in this installation, is the presentation of milk’s mutated online identities. Breastfeeding is now documented in ‘brelfies’ (see the ‘brelfie’ hashtag). The ‘glass of milk emoji’ has been used by white supremacists on social media bios that chant ‘Down with the vegan agenda’. Milk’s entanglement in contemporary social, political and technological discourse is all too complex and concerning.
Laura O’Leary is curator and writer based in Birmingham
Deeper In The Pyramid will be shown at Primary in Nottingham, and Banner Repeater in London, later in 2018