At risk of turning this into a “things what I done” blog (although it might increase the chance of a readership, godforbid), I wanted to make a shoutout to two exhibitions in Oxford, one soon to close, and one with about a month to go. Behind the times?
Firstly, there’s the Eccentricity
exhibition at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science.
This was a really surprise for me – a great exhibition that turns a mirror to itself. Superficially, and on entering, it may seem to just be an exhibition about the objects that testify to peoples’ eccentricities, but what it turns out to be is a sustained rumination on the idea of the museum. It suggests that perhaps at any level there is something compulsive and eccentric about amassing things and then categorising and cataloguing them so that they can’t escape, can’t signify beyond what they’ve been designated to be. It’s a wonderful exercise in making-the-museum-strange, asking what the distinction is between a university-backed monolith and a collector’s personal collection. Museums are eccentric things, it says, and says it well, and there are two more days of it, so catch it now…
Secondly, another thing I was completely captivated, arrested by was Kerry Tribe’s Dead Star Light
exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. What this exhibition did the most for me was to play around with how science and technology can smash down our boundaries as to what is poetic in the sense of poetry being on the side of beauty, the body, and nature, as opposed to the mechanical, the man-made, the systematic (although poetry is all those things, I think that people like to make claims for it as necessarily transcending, perhaps even sublating these elements).
I came in first to the short film about Sergei Krikalev, the cosmonaut who was left orbiting the earth for 311 days after the Soviet Union collapsed. I entered on a bit of a news report, in Russian, which had subtitles. The message given across by the images was typically newsy – authoritative-seeming, sober, serious, evoking facticity, the real world, things happening sequentially, according to provable laws, or as the shock of the event, but here providing a discourse to anchor it down. But the subtitles (I don’t speak Russian) were speaking an incredible poetry about weightlessness in space, of feeling in your body constantly as if you’re falling, but not falling, because of the reduction in gravity. It was an incredible effect of disorientation, as at first I decided that the subtitles must have been subversive, lies. But then I started to shift, as I realised that this was the whole subject of the film, of a strange evocative, poetic event coming as a result of a vital, practical, political one: the subtitles weren’t lying. And this pattern came up again and again, as when there were testimonies about TV stations during the collapse of the Soviet Union cutting to an old recording of a performance of Swan Lake when the news got too intense, and revealed too much.
The next room was even more staggering. Either side of the gallery – which, owing to an internal room, you couldn’t see from one side to another – had a reel to reel tape player, one recording onto the tape and one erasing a testimonial about seeing a UFO. In the small internal room was a projector showing a film apparently of the wing of a butterfly as seen through a microscope. I think that both had interesting enough things to say about the mediation of technology in our understanding of the world and a kind of Uncertainty Principle effect, where the act of observation through a technological medium effects the object observed. But what I was most struck by was how both of these machines were wrenched out of their usual shapes, made to work harder in their mechanical, moving aspect. It reminded me of ballet, in fact, a strange mix of elegant beauty – of body becoming pure shape – and torture – bodies unnaturally wrenched out of their place and form, extended beyond their capacities in order to achieve something. The reel to reel tape ran in two parallel streams along the walls of the gallery. I cannot state how incredible this was, how monumental it seemed, in terms of effort and scope despite these being relatively thin pieces of tape taking up such a small proportion of the height of huge white walls. And the projector’s reels were pushed upwards way above the machine itself, bent into two mirrored triangles, looking almost like a butterfly, and maintaining a form and solidity in the air that seemed gravity-defying.
In the library today I got fixated on a microform machine that was, for me, suddenly transformed through the lens of my seeing Tribe’s exhibition. It became a slightly poignant, and very benign, peaceful object, that had a kind of animal sentience – an otherness, but one that provoked a reaction of acknowledgement, acknowledgement that this thing had a history, a being, and a body all of which were still playing out, yet to be closed off.
Machine-fancying aside, this was definitely one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a while. Worth a look.