Art Transponder, the gallery and project space dedicated to contextual and social-embedded art, opened last week an exhibition by the art group Reinigungsgesellschaft (‘Cleaning Association’ or possibly ‘Purification Society’). Promoting themselves as operating in the spaces between art and social reality, for this exhibition, the group has drawn on research time within the German consumer rights body, Stiftung Warentest, a product testing organisation and watchdog. As a subject rarely (if ever?) the focus of art research, I was interested to see the results, but unfortunately I have to say, most of the exhibition didn’t really grab me. I was particularly put off by the dominant presence of graphic collages and flow charts produced in a cheap, ill-thought-out digital manner. I might of been convinced of their relevance in mirroring the visually-impoverished language of corporate power-point presentations, had the artists followed through on this logic in their final display decisions… what we get instead are wooden frames and (bizarrely) passe-partouts. Maybe this is a coy nod towards the clash of aesthetics when operating between art and social reality, but I just didn’t get the point of the framing.
Not to be all negatively critical, there was a series of works which I very much loved, if exactly because of their well-chosen simplicity and lack of any framing or stylisation. Presented at the rear of the gallery space were three video loops (two on monitors and one as a projection) recording some of the real product testing protocols carried out on chainsaws. The machines are filmed in profile retrained or forced by various mechanical grips, armatures and springs. Repetitively sent in convulsive spasms of action either through release from some holding mechanism or into forced contest with their own safety breaks, the efforts and reactions of the chainsaws are meticulously measured and documented – with the engineers’ actions documented in turn by the artists (both figuratively and literally… in one video an occasional anonymous arm enters stage right to adjust or reset a mechanism). Denied real agency as functional tools, the mechanical beauty derived from both the materiality and actions presented by the chainsaws during these product tests, relates the objects instead to the history of kinetic sculpture. To read them more psychologically, the videos depict the restraint, domestication and observation of raw aggressive energy… a movement from a presence of fear, to that of remove and aesthetic contemplation. We could argue then perhaps that the videos are related primarily to the older history of artistic preoccupation with the sublime.