Review: The Indivisible Present at Modern Art Oxford

As I walk up the stairs from the hustle and bustle of Modern Art Oxford’s café at lunch time to their current exhibition, The Indivisible Present, I am transported to an entirely different world. The busy chatter and clinking of coffee cups fades away to eerie music, reminiscent of a horror movie soundtrack. The first room of the exhibition is blacked out, with a large screen dominating the space, showing Pierre Huyghe’s installation film, De-extinction. The attendant hands me a programme, and I stumble off through the darkness.

The Indivisible Present is the first exhibition of Modern Art Oxford’s new Kaleidoscope programme. To celebrate the gallery’s 50th year of presenting contemporary art and performance, they will open year round with a series of shows that aptly share the theme of ‘time’. Over 700 artists have exhibited at MAO since its opening, and some highlights of their work will be shown alongside newly commissioned pieces. It is truly a celebration of all the gallery has done in the past fifty years, and all it sets out to do in the future. As one exhibition is dismantled and the next assembled, the gallery will remain open, allowing visitors a sneak peek into the process.

The Indivisible Present advertises its theme as ‘temporality’, specifically our experience of time. Huyghe’s opening piece, for instance, presents ‘a moment of reproduction’ between two insects, frozen forever in amber, depicting just one moment in a vast history of time. In the following room, Viola Yeşiltaç’s photography series, I Really Must Congratulate You on Your Attention to Detail (2016), also captures otherwise fleeting moments. Here, precariously balanced paper sculptures are captured on film just at the moment before they fall.

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Pierre Huyghe, De-extinction, 2014, video still. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London and Anna Lena Films, Paris

The pieces on display also confront the ways in which our perception can be flawed. Douglas Gordon’s film installation 24 hour Psycho (1993) shows the classic Hitchcock film stretched out to a day-long duration. At this slow pace, details from the individual frames are revealed, highlighting what we may miss in real-time. This is not the only way in which our perception of objects or events is biased. The show encourages the viewer to see artworks as events, bound up both within their own temporal context and with that of the viewer. As the curator Ciara Moloney explains, “as we ourselves change, so too do our perceptions of the artworks”. By bringing back previously exhibited pieces, the show raises questions concerning the importance of an artwork’s context, both original and new, in creating or influencing meaning. John Latham’s Drawer with Charred Material sparked debate when he first showed it in 1963, featuring as it does multiple books burned for the purpose of making the artwork, which many protested as ‘immoral’. He continued this controversy in his The Moral High Ground (1988), featuring a damaged Bible. The exhibition encourages us to consider the pieces’ history as part of their current manifestation and as an influential factor in understanding them. In this way, the meaning of an artwork can grow as a result of its past appearances.

Although the individual pieces are brought together by an exploration of time and perception, they also have their own diverse agendas. The exhibition can feel disjointed at times, as different works provoke debate on unrelated issues. Huyghe’s piece, for example, does explore the magnitude of geological time and humanity’s place within it, but also examines extinction and humanity’s relationship with nature. Yoko Ono’s Eye-Blink (1966), on the other hand, features a close-up of the artist’s eye, exploring issues of objectification and the viewer’s gaze. Elizabeth Price’s video installation, SLEEP (2013) focuses on fast-paced modern life and the threat to rest in the digital age, making prominent use of speed-reading technology.

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Elizabeth Price, SLEEP, 2014, video still. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International London & Brussels

The exhibition features Turner Prize winning artists Douglas Gordon and Elizabeth Price as well as other exciting and controversial works. It is a great look back at the variety of artists Modern Art Oxford has shown in the past, and a thought-provoking start to the year’s programme.

Alicia Eames

The Indivisible Present runs at Modern Art Oxford until 16 April 2016. The exhibition is free. More information can be found on the gallery’s website.

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