Published  10/05/2011

I Know Something About Love

I Know Something About Love

Parasol unit
foundation for contemporary art, London
9 March–22 May 2011


I Know Something About Love, curated by Ziba Ardalan for Parasol Unit, comprises works by four international contemporary artists, and takes visitors on a tour through time and space, to experience love through the eyes (and hearts) of different époques and cultures. Initially quite charming, there is, however, an unsettling element to each work, raising questions about human relationships and conventions.

Flutter, Flutter… Jasmine, Jasmine (2002), a three-channel video installation by Chinese artist Yang Fudong, portrays a saccharine view of love, focusing on a young couple in Shanghai. They sing a song that closes with the lines:

No matter what happens
We will fly in the sky
For that is the place where we belong to [sic]

Nevertheless, as the visually seductive frames contrast with the dusty Shanghai cityscape, Fudong highlights the confused feelings of the young lovers as they struggle to balance Western cultural influences and the American movie ideal of love with traditional Chinese values.

Sexual tension, set against the backdrop of Islam, is addressed in New York-based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s highly charged two-channel video work, Fervor (2000). The brief encounter, of a man and woman at a crossroads, pans to a public gathering, men on one side of a curtain, women on the other. The speaker relates a tale of seduction from the Qur’an, and warns of the dangers of lust, imploring the audience to denounce any form of sexual temptation. At this point, the protagonists, out of sight of each other, but constantly aware of the other’s presence, get up and leave. A happy ending? Perhaps not. The final shot is of their walking away in opposite directions.

A seemingly more light-hearted work is Slow Dance Marathon (2005), shot on a stage in a park by Cypriot artist Christodoulous Panayiotou. He arranged for a chain of volunteers, all complete strangers, to dance to well-known pop songs, with half-hourly rotations of partner, for an overall duration of 24 hours. With no instruction to do so, each pair immediately entered into an intimate embrace, reflecting a learnt cultural response to the love song and an instinct to act out the romantic ideal.

The final work, a large-scale labyrinthine installation of ivy-covered trellises which fills the ground floor gallery space, transports one through a time tunnel back to 18th-century Rococo France. Within the maze – which British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE suggests to be a metaphor for love (“I don’t know about everyone else, but I always come to dead ends!”) – and voyeuristically visible through peepholes in the hedging, are three sculptural tableaux of lavishly dressed couples, after paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). Found in compromising positions, they epitomise frivolity and excess, but there is a dark undertone in the fact that they are headless, a reference to the downfall and guillotining of the aristocracy in the approaching Revolution.

Happy to discuss the political and theatrical aspects of his work, Shonibare, when faced with the question of whether there is such a thing as unconditional love, in fact abstains. Whilst this multi-aspectual show makes it clear that, indeed, we do all know something about love, just what that is, is left to the individual to determine.

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