That’s Entertainment: Oculist Witnesses at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston

Preston’s Harris Museum & Art Gallery encourages us to “dance first, think later” with two new exhibitions. We talk to Oculist Witness artist Sovay Berriman about her ever morphing sculpture, nomadic herding odysseys and molluscs that hunt wizards...

Feature by Sacha Waldron | 05 Jun 2015

February 2015 marked the beginning of an exciting new programme of exhibitions, commissions and events at The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston. Curated by Clarissa Corfe, the 16-month programme takes the Samuel Beckett quote “Dance first, think later” as a starting point to explore ideas of performativity and the human conditions of tragicomedy and absurdity. Fitting, as the line itself comes from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the ultimate gloomy funny frustratathon in which the characters Vladimir and Estragon endlessly wait for the character or entity they call Godot. The programme so far has been impressive, opening in February with the exhibition The Varieties which played with conventions of the 19th- and 20th-century dance hall and was co-curated by artist Harold Offeh.

In May, two new exhibitions opened: the first major solo show from London-based Lucy Beech (whom you may have seen in the most recent Bloomberg New Contemporaries show) and a group exhibition, Oculist Witnesses: According to Duchamp. Beech’s solo exhibition also includes her most extended film work, Me and Mine, which follows the loose story of a female undertaker as she navigates the changing landscapes and people involved in the business. Performance is also an important element of Beech’s practice and she has been collaborating with fellow artist Edward Thomasson for a number of years. Often these performances involve several participants and take the form of expanded therapy sessions (stay with us) in which the participants seek to find new ways to solve their internal struggles and problems by movement, actions and sound. If you catch this article before 6 June then make a plan to see Beech and Thomasson’s specially conceived performance for Preston Guild Hall (between 11am and 5pm. It's free; just drop in). If you manage to miss Beech’s Preston show entirely then you can catch it in Leeds as it tours to the Tetley (who were also co-supporters in the commissioning of the work) from July to September.

Oculist Witnesses: According to Duchamp is another kettle of fish entirely. The exhibition brings together new and existing work from Sovay Berriman, Lindsey Bull and Ruth Claxton and takes Richard Hamilton’s The Oculist Witnesses as its starting point. Hamilton made the glass plate work in 1966 as a reconstruction and interpretation of Duchamp's famous Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) for Tate’s Duchamp retrospective, as the original was too fragile to be moved from its home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The piece is now held in the Whitworth’s collections and the Harris have loaned it from them for this exhibition. Like Hamilton’s seminal interpretation, many of the more contemporary works also deal with ideas of re-configuration and re-purposing. This is perhaps best seen in Berriman’s sculptural work, titled Entertainment Suite, which has already been on quite a journey (by way of Exeter, Bristol and down an alleyway in Margate) and is re-configured here at the Harris in its fifth iteration since 2010.

"Any exhibition is an opportunity to test something" – Sovay Berriman

Constructed from timber and acrylic sheets in what amounts to a miniature explosion suggestive of a semi-assembled or de-assembled set or stage, the work responds to the architecture of the Harris – is it also in conversation with the other works in the show? “I always make a site visit,” says Berriman, “and this has to happen before I can plan any iteration of Entertainment Suite. So the conversation is with the gallery architecture rather than other works. It shifts and alters with each iteration, taking into consideration the exhibition space, but also what other developments and research are taking place within the rest of my practice at the time of each iteration. So for instance the form at Harris has attempted to be more open than previous iterations but generally, and what is fundamental to Entertainment Suite is that it was conceived as a fragmentary sculpture. Each element of it could come in or out of the sculpture, or be shown independently.”

The work’s iteration at the Harris sees the structure open up to the atrium of the Harris’s exhibition space but, as is often the case, also reflects research and ideas from other projects Berriman is currently working on. “I have an ongoing project called Molluscs Hunt Wizards,” says Berriman, “which explores markers and boundaries in desert and plains landscapes – that’s my current focus.” The work often takes the form of pencil drawings, crosshatched planet-like objects co-existing with clean lines in what could be architectural drawings for some future spacey time, and postcards that chart the ongoing narrative of the project. “During the beginning research stages of the project I travelled via Beijing to the Mongolian Gobi,” says Berriman on her website, “where guides helped me to learn more of nomadic herder relationships with, and reading of, the epic and often harsh terrain. I returned by rail to Beijing to fly to Australia, where, using both Melbourne and Sydney as bases, I made excursions into the central red deserts and the World Heritage Willandra Lakes region. I met with artists and rangers who helped me find access to the desert, and understand something of its landscape and the significant points within it.”

Sounds like a pretty incredible adventure. You can follow the development of the project on Berriman’s website and blog. “I’m working on a new piece for Molluscs Hunt Wizards that involves a level of participation,” says Berriman, “and also a publication that will bring together the postcards, drawings and blog posts of the first part of that project when I travelled to Mongolia, China and Australia.” So how does all of this relate back to the installation at the Harris? “The main influence from Molluscs is the openness,” says Berriman. “I wanted the work to really open up towards the atrium ceiling of the gallery and this relates to the wide landscapes that feature in the project. The large wrapped ball (which you see on the structure) is also a main feature of Molluscs Hunt Wizards, as it is a ‘marker.’ It shifts the focal point of Entertainment Suite, and also softens it – in my view. Molluscs Hunt Wizards is about being movable, journeying to seek markers and boundaries, but also about making those markers while you’re seeking them – as a narrative it’s an odyssey. As a sculpture Entertainment Suite is creating its own narrative with its shifting form, it certainly has ambitions to be an odyssey in its own right. Placing the soft marker (blue ball) in Entertainment Suite marks a point in the evolution of that sculpture, and also brings it in line with the ideas of Molluscs Hunt Wizards. Molluscs Hunt Wizards in some ways is just a very large sculpture, a more amorphous version of Entertainment Suite.

The idea of markers is an interesting one in the case of a lot of art-type objects. To view Berriman’s work in the exhibition the viewer certainly would not be aware of most of the backstory and context that make up the visual form. Can we say, then, that most of the stuff of exhibitions is in fact just visual markers for a whole world of ideas, thoughts and research that is hidden suggestively within its surface, glue, nuts and bolts? Perhaps the actual object could be anything and what is really important is that there is something, and the exhibition space is a test site or an opportunity for the creation of new knowledge. “It’s important to say that each time I am given an opportunity to show Entertainment Suite I think about what it is that I and the work needs, to try it out or to learn about it,” says Berriman. “So any exhibition is an opportunity to test something. Learning, learning spaces and their edges, the potential we all have for learning, how we respond to learning spaces and their edges and what relationship fantasy has to all of this – i.e. allowing us to imagine it, to test how it or we might be or feel post-learning – are all important to how I make work. They are part of the thought process and always present in the studio.”

Oculist Witnesses (and Lucy Beech) continues until 4 July at the Harris, and the Dance First, Think Later programme continues with Art From Elsewhere, the Hayward touring exhibition curated by David Elliot in October and the really promising-sounding final exhibition, Beyond the Sublime (Jan–April 2016), which uses the Theatre of the Absurd and the work of Samuel Beckett as a starting point to explore notions of repetition, farce and tragicomedy. A key element of this will be the Harris Museum’s latest commission and acquisition from Nathaniel Mellors, with whom the Harris won the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award 2014. All very good reasons to get yourself to Preston over the coming year.

Oculist Witness: According to Duchamp, until 4 Jul, Harris Museum, Preston