Camden Arts Centre, London
26 July – 29 September 2013
by KATE TIERNAN
As you enter the chaos of cascading papers and flung-open drawers, a cacophony of ceramic coughing fills the room. Grey office carpet is laid out in the space, with bare chipboard furniture: drawers, cupboards and cabinets. Mobile phones ring and beep among blushing speckled ceramic tongues, standing phallic or drooping as if extracted from the body. Images of squashed strawberries line a drawer, a metaphor for the blushing and shame that would arise if desk drawers at work were made public.
Hart draws on her own embarrassments while working in a call centre in her 20s. With authenticity and truthfulness, the disorder is contained mostly within the furniture; peeking through the open doors and into the drawers reveals a mess of scribbled papers and to-do lists – tasks left unaccomplished during the frantic working day, contained but spilling over, spoiling the illusion of professional order.
A large white X marks the spot to stand on: here, you look up at a cloud-shaped mirror mouth on the end of a serpent-like tongue rising out of an orange ceramic bucket. Sounds of tapping on a keyboard accompanies moving images reflected in the mirror. The recorded mechanical voice of Hart selecting an image of a toothless gargoyle is interspersed with gnashing teeth narrating instructions. “I’m at your service … quick blind spot … take a break … I don’t understand what it is you’re saying …”It has a similar quality to the automated human voice that calls you up at inopportune moments, asking for feedback, seeking to rate the quality of your experience on a recent visit to the bank, supermarket, mobile phone shop or cosmetic counter.
Hart’s lightly slapdash, crudely made ceramics echo the childlike urgency of blurting things out, echoing the fractured, chaotic nature of the audio content and context. Tongues hang over a handmade water cooler filled with yet more tongues – the heart of all office gossip.
Hart’s desire to disrupt our appetite for visual imagery is reminiscent of 2012 Turner Prize-winner Elizabeth Price, seeking to dismantle film by re-presenting a fractured yet deeply choreographed visceral experience.
Among other papers in the drawers lay A4 plasma screens displaying trees – perhaps surrounding the office – a man-made, fake garden situated in an industrial estate. On a long unravelled roll of printed paper that hangs down inside a cupboard, lists are scrawled, hinting at what’s missed off, and the stress of completing everyday chores outside work within a finite time. The lens is anaesthetising reality, the world around us as, it edits and represents constant bite-size chunks which we passively consume every day.
Leafing through papers, you might lick a finger to turn a page, but here the limb-like tongues lick the corner of ceramic A4 sheets. Sticking your tongue out is deemed rude or a childlike act of defiance railing against etiquette and politeness. The tongue may be a very small body part, but it has status, powerful influence and control: witness 1 Corinthians 14 … for anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God.
Dirty Looks invites us to question the currency of the spoken word and human encounters in a digital world. Office folklore is a contemporary of the oral traditions tribes used to pass down history. These days, the office water cooler is the trading ground of information, transformed through multiple translations and reappropriations, constantly in flux. This is a thought-provoking and visually stimulating observation of modern working life. Make time in your own busy schedule to see it.
Emma Hart lives and works in London and has presented solo exhibitions and performances in galleries both in the UK and internationally. These include: Whitstable Biennale, Whitstable; Matt’s Gallery, London; Performa, New York; and the ICA, London. Hart was also a member of the art collective The Work In Progress, which worked on the Reclaim the Mural, an offsite commission and publication for the Whitechapel Gallery (2011–13).