Reversal

Unseen installation and drawings, rural Northumberland

This is how it will be.

Anyone who believes that ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ is a badge of genuineness to be admired, might reconsider that view after experiencing this exhibition by the reclusive artist Max P. Gegenüeber.

The setting is certainly enticing: a quasi-mystical, quasi-medical space has been created in the gallery, inviting us to learn from whatever higher authority might temporarily be in control here. Low-level greenish lighting provides some ambiguous atmospherics – unsympathetic to anyone who visits with a hangover, but no doubt suitably evocative for others.

Gegenüber’s brief foray into the world of fashion design in the late 1990s partly influenced the conception of this show; but it is her background in the therapeutic sciences that has more commonly informed her practice in recent years. Her work follows a long tradition of aestheticising human anatomy, going back to Da Vinci and beyond. The use of her own body as a shaper and mark-maker is not especially original, and would seem to owe much to the art of Ana Mendieta in particular; but since Gegenüeber is rarely seen in public, these traces and imprints are a strangely effective substitute presence.

There is certainly plenty to view here. We encounter large and small wispy drawings on all of the walls, artefacts mounted in miscellaneous display cabinets, and a series of folded, creased, crumpled and rolled paper sculptures that range across the floor, representing more or less recognisable parts of the human form.

No facial features are seen anywhere. This, combined with the stiffly static attitude of all the figures, results in the whole assemblage having very little emotional content.

Unless, that is, the shock-value of the central conceptual conceit counts as emotional impact. For throughout the individual pieces here, the insides of the organism have become the drapery on the surface. Not just a heart on a sleeve, but a heart as a sleeve; viscera as a shirt-front; nerve-endings forming the hem of a dress. In exchange, the conventions of clothing have been internalised – literally. Through cross-sections and cutaways, we see vessel networks and skeletal segments replaced by scarves, stockings and bolts of embroidery.

The wandering piano track being piped from a speaker high up in one corner could evoke the music now routinely requested as background for surgical operations, or the endless loop that plays in the clothing hall of a department store – but either way, it has the unfortunate effect here of unnerving things further, rather than soothing.

There is some metaphor being groped for at the core of all this, but one feels that the artist has not quite succeeded in articulating it very completely to herself. How much more difficult is it therefore for us as the viewers to grasp any meaning.

The challenges here are compounded by some distinctly strange curatorial decisions. Unusually, we are directed to enter the gallery by what would normally be the rear entrance. The first works we encounter are the most complete examples of the theme of the exhibition, with subsequent ones being less and less developed stages of the idea. The wall-mounted interpretation panels first describe the conclusion of the commission, and next to the door as we leave there is information on its original inception. One has the distinct sense of being guided through this exhibition in completely the wrong direction.

In conclusion, I have not seen any of this work yet; but I am convinced that when I do, this is what I will feel.

Dave Pritchard / August 2020

It had been intended to stage a performance in the space shortly after the launch, which would have helped considerably to animate the installation. The event however was unfortunately cancelled, after the dancer and choreographer were prevented from reaching the venue by heavy flooding and road closures.