Turner Contemporary, Margate
5 February – 8 May 2016
by ALEXANDER GLOVER
If you make the trip down to Margate to visit the latest exhibition at Turner Contemporary, you will be greeted by a small warning next to Department of Abandoned Futures (2015), the latest work from Joachim Koester (b1962): “Please be aware that this work contains powerful relaxation techniques. We highly recommend you do not combine this with any other task demanding your physical attention, such as driving.”
What becomes immediately apparent is that you haven’t just signed up for one trip, you’ve signed up for two. This idea of the “trip” is a metaphorical thread that weaves in and out of the gallery spaces but begins here with this new audio work by the Danish artist. Department of Abandoned Futures marks a departure from the usual mediums of film and photography that Koester’s audiences have become accustomed to. Several futons are laid out across the floor along with headphones. The visitor is encouraged to lie down, get comfortable, and listen to the gentle pulsating hum of white noise. Every so often a voiceover calmly instructs you in a manner not too dissimilar to that of a self-help audiobook. The voiceover leads the listener through an imaginary city to a large basement space where an archive of abandoned futures can be found. It’s an unusually disarming way to begin an exhibition, but an incredibly effective one.
Across the room from Department of Abandoned Futures comes the main focus for the exhibition: The Other Side of the Sky (2015). This psychedelic black-and-white 16mm film is housed in a large wooden cabin made specifically for this show. The film portrays the movement of heat-sensitive liquids that float around in between glass slides. It acts as a conversation between Koester and both JMW Turner (1775-1851) and Henri Michaux (1899-1984). With Turner, it’s a modern response to the well-documented story about the time the painter tied himself to a ship’s mast whilst at sea in a bid to feel what it was like to be in the eye of a storm. It could be said that Department of Abandoned Futures acts as the calm before the storm (The Other Side of the Sky), but that may be too much on the nose. Through the idea of the “trip,” Koester attempts to draw parallels between Turner’s trip or experience tied to the mast and the chemical experimentation of the 1960s. Surrounding the cabin is a selection of Turner watercolours made between 1792 and 1822, chosen by Koester, that evoke similar sensations to that of The Other Side of the Sky. Through this contemporary setting, the Turner watercolours are given a new life and a new set of meanings. The Other Side of the Sky also acts as a nod, aesthetically speaking, towards Michaux’s automatic drawings – the surrealist practice of drawing from the subconscious; letting the hand rather than the conscious mind make the mark on the page. Funnily enough, Michaux would go on to express disdain for automatic drawing in its purest form.
In the corridor just outside this first room, are several sets of photographs. One set, called Occupied Plots, Abandoned Futures – Twelve (former) Real Estate Opportunities (2007), comprises photographs Koester has taken of formerly empty sites in Los Angeles. They act as a dialogue between Koester and Ed Ruscha, who documented these same sites in his work Real Estate Opportunities (1970). For Koester, these kinds of sites contain spaces that allow people to explore what he calls an “archaeology of abandoned futures”. Another set of photographs, Some Boarded up Houses (2009-14), captures a series of repossessed homes across America that were boarded up as a direct result of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007-9. Coincidentally, the current film The Big Short has brought the subject back into the public eye. Although Koester’s comment on what the crisis would lead to is much smaller in scale than that in the Hollywood drama, it provides a focused snapshot of the damage that resulted from the crisis (something that the film did not set out to do).
Moving on into the South Gallery of Turner Contemporary, two films from 2007 are on view: My Frontier is an Endless Wall of Points (after the mescaline drawings of Henri Michaux) and Tarantism. My Frontier is an animation based on hieroglyphic drawings Michaux made while on mescaline. The effect of the animation creates a visual akin to television static noise and, despite having no sound, acts almost as the soundtrack to the other film in the room. Tarantism features professional dancers performing in a frenzied way in accordance with a medieval myth that the only way to cure the bite of a tarantula was to move uncontrollably. The other creature of nature that holds focus throughout the exhibition is the praying mantis. In Praying Mantis (2015) and accompanying photographs, the insect is examined within its natural habitat. Koester, who bred them for a time, was interested in their balletic movements, their otherworldly appearance, and the fact that they were the subject of an essay by the surrealist writer Roger Caillois in the 1930s. The praying mantis acts as a physical embodiment for the metaphors and ideas of the exhibition; acting as a useful go-to symbolic focus for the meditative trip that is The Other Side of the Sky.