Although generic stock images and humorously isolated body parts have influential presence on the internet, we are perhaps less familiar with these images in material cardboard form, dotted around the white “background layer” of the art gallery walls as they presently are at the current DCA exhibition. In fact from afar, your eye might momentarily visualise Heather Phillipson’s installations as digital paintings. Such an arrangement, along with a backdrop of point-of-view film projections and a soundtrack of rhythmic poetry, await visitors at sub-fusc love-feast.
Phillipson began her artist talk by confessing to an inability to say exactly what the work “is” but she nonetheless described the cognitive place from which it unfolded. A respectful opening statement, I thought. Reoccurring themes of nature, waste, the body and language guided both the discussion and the work itself – a journey commencing at a brightly coloured septic tank where viewers, almost intrusively, overhear the artist’s philosophical bewilderments addressed to her mother, “Dear mum. I’m ready to find out whether I really exist”. A nearby choir recites the word “plants” in various harmonies, compelling you to enter the adjacent larger and more climatic room.The audio flows like a stream of consciousness, asking universal questions only to intervene on these ponderings with fragments of intimate memories and snippets of rhythmic repetition. Certain sentences stand out as noticeably daring, not unlike the quiet affirmations made after hours of irresolvable deliberation in order to assert some gut feeling, “nature is total chance, even total bullshit”. Upon hearing these words I imagine the neurons in my brain interpreting the voice that informs them of their unmediated competence. Each cell, we are informed, has some form of authority within the brain and yet, in isolation, each is useless; a cell finds its purpose only within the network of alternative cells also searching for purpose. This physiological conundrum echoes in the random stock images scattered around the room tagged with titles such as “isolated leg”. Each tagged image seems inadvertent on its own, but the collection of these images finds a place within a network of language and understanding, not unlike scrolling through an internet search (an analogy mentioned by the artist herself).
The voice filling the gallery space searches for a conclusion, finds a moment of clarity and then trips over itself in an almost circular pattern. Phillipson is an accomplished poet with collections published by Faber and Faber, Penned in the Margins and Bloodaxe. Words make significant appearances on the back of cardboard structures, on film in sync with their utterance and are hummed in fluctuating keys. Idyllic scenes of Scottish mountains and Dundee’s Botanical gardens are juxtaposed with candid recordings of cows standing in fields, returning the gaze of their observer. sub-fusc love-feast pans out like a projection of the limited, muddled but also busy human consciousness. Perhaps this is why it is difficult for Phillipson to pinpoint exactly what the work means.
Returning from the larger second room, the contemplative excesses that the artist’s mother is subjected to in the previous room somehow takes on a more pressing tone. I now hear a voice in search of resolution and confirmation between the everyday meanderings. However pressing, this voice assumes an inquisitive disposition rather than a forlorn one. The weightiness of Phillipson’s more profound questions is leavened by the comical objects placed in nonsensical positions throughout the projections, along with anecdotes of times when life refuses to be predictable, for example, when a naked man offers her a granny smith apple at a party, “A granny smith? What’s that all about?” The exhibition is intriguing more in its arrangement than its constituent parts, which seem to be more like the familiar landmarks of internet searches and POV candid footage. Language might always be interpreted through the senses; however sub-fusc love-feast sheds a revelatory conscious light on language as a sensory experience.