Bringing together thirteen emerging artists between the ages of 16-25, the Barbican’s latest exhibition, It All Comes Down, explores how young people navigate the world and approach their artistic practise during the pandemic.
What does it mean to make art during a pandemic, and how does a pandemic affect the type of work you make? How are modes of creation different when forced to social distance? What preoccupies our minds when we are not allowed outside? These are some of the questions explored in the Barbican’s new digital group exhibition, It All Comes Down. The show displays the work of thirteen young, emerging artists between the ages of 16 and 25 who are members of the Young Visual Arts Group, part of the Barbican Guildhall learning programme. The exhibition is the culmination of a year’s worth of collaborative working and discussion, exploring ways to be creative within a digital space. Each artist approaches the act of making work in their own way, making use of a variety of media including film, photography and sculpture, to explore those things that most preoccupy or interest them.
The show begins with artist Annie Lee, who documents her daily life during lockdown, creating ephemeral “paintings” which she captures using photography. She takes a shower, out of which are born Shower paintings: long dark hairs clinging to the droplet-patterned glass, the tiled wall creating strange, abstract shapes; footprints on the bathroom floor, ghostly, hinting at a journey, some kind of intention. There is a surreal quality to her work, an element of random chance, seeing images in existing things rather than producing something consciously. This is most evident in her Accidental food paintings series. In one, a smiley face can be discerned from noodles and beansprouts. In another, an abstract composition is created as a result of a homemade toad-in-the-hole gone wrong. It is a reminder of the temporality of existence: these works are not made to last and the only thing left of them are the photographs, a substitute for the real thing.
This sense of temporality, of time passing, is also explored in the work of Rebecca Cromwell, Safiye Gray and Sneha Alexander. In her video work emit I, Cromwell records an hourglass perched on a surface in a public space. The video records people walking past, the evidence of time passing, but the hourglass does not drop any sand from the top half into the bottom. This juxtaposition of time moving and yet simultaneously standing still is in some ways jarring and draws attention to these dual aspects of the work. Gray, on the other hand, creates large, black and white photographic works of plants, which are then hung in the Barbican Conservatory. These images, printed on fabric, give them a ghostly quality. The images are almost see-through, hinting at the fragility of the flowers depicted, but also drawing attention to the surroundings, altering our relationship to the space.
Alexander similarly creates works inspired by nature. During the lockdown, she built large wooden frames from fallen tree branches, on which she displayed her lino prints. The prints themselves explore the relationship between the human and non-human. In one, a hand descends into a body of water to touch a fish, which swims gladly towards the fingers. In another, a hand looks as though it is planting an onion-like vegetable in the soil. What is noticeable about each of Alexander’s prints, is the repetition of shapes: circles, waving lines. Each print utilises a pattern of two curled, intertwining lines which are altered slightly in each print to become the tail of a fish, two legs, a lock of hair, a hand and a snake. Alexander creates, therefore, a thread through all of the prints, as though each one is part of the same story.
Since the numerous lockdowns in England, many of us have had to stay at home, maybe only venturing out to buy food or walk in a local park. Journeys that were once an integral part of our daily lives (going to work, visiting friends, going to the cinema) have all dissolved into nothing. Emily Marshall’s works record journeys through the Barbican over many months. Using archival material and photographs to map things she encounters, Marshall deconstructs the journeys into simple forms. This results in abstract renderings, shapes layered on top of each other, almost as though it were a modernist painting. Viewing her sculptures in situ, it is tempting to try and recreate these journeys, to the sculptures as a guide. It draws attention even more to the fact of our confinement, that we are having to view these works online rather than in-person.
Molly Morphew creates sculptures out of the everyday objects she finds on her weekly walks in London. Fashioning various bird-like forms from what she finds, they have a very surrealist, Dadaist quality to them. I am intrigued by the distinct characteristics she gives to each sculpture, the way she pieces materials together. But the sculptures also seem resolutely rooted to the spot, contradicting our associations with birds and flight. Perhaps it also reflects partly on our inability, currently, to do a lot of the things we would like to do. In the same way that Marshall’s maps make us want to retrace her steps, Morphew’s birds draw attention to our inability to venture very far, our inability to (in other words) fly. This, in turn, brings up ideas around home and our relationship to domestic space. Morphew’s sculptures are nested in their surroundings, they occupy a specific area of space. It is interesting then, to think about these sculptures in relation to her performance work. During the performance, Morphew, as a bird, journeys through the Barbican’s pavements-in-the-sky down to street level. In this way, her work explores the many lives of birds, both as migrators and as homing creatures.
Aside from a reflection on lockdown, the exhibition explores and critiques the digital world, examining the dangers of the internet and the media. I’m thinking particularly of Becca Lynes’ film Becca Becomes A Real Girl; Chapter 1: True Love’s Kiss. What starts off as a beautifully composed series of photographs and videos of the early stages of Becca’s life, quickly turns into something darker. Lynes juxtaposes images of her younger self with clips from Disney films, toy catalogues and adverts to show the influence of the media on young girls to wear makeup, play ‘mummies and daddies’, grow up faster. By the time she is a teenager, magazines, clothing brands and films like Twilight are used to express the way girls are taught to care about their appearance, to seem attractive to men. This escalates to clips from shows such as Made in Chelsea and Snog, Marry, Avoid which show some of the horrific ways women have been treated by men on TV. The result is a film that leaves you with an uneasiness, wondering why these things are still happening in society today.
In a somewhat similar vein, Arabella Turner’s video for the song ‘fitterhappier’ by musicians D’monk and Ama Mizu imitates what it is like to exist within a digital world. Set up on a computer desktop, the video illustrates the daily experience of navigating the world with a smartphone or computer, with various videos, Twitter notifications, text messages and internet tabs popping up all over the screen, constantly fighting for our attention. Along with the lyrics to the song, Turner’s video perfectly encapsulates the conflicting want to be both on and offline, to present a curated version of ourselves whilst navigating real-life anxieties.
Using her own experience of growing up on a council estate, Lay Stevens creates a series of sculpted buildings, which look like blocks of flats, to explore the lived experience of the inhabitants of these buildings. Projecting phrases such as “Don’t get caught” and “Ignore the no ball games sign” onto her sculptures evokes memories of childhoods spent playing games in the concrete communal spaces outside council flats. While the large, black, undulating capital letters create a sinister tone to the work, Stevens erects a concrete-textured background behind each building, illuminated in greens, blues and purples which give the work a kind of inner light. These two aspects highlight Stevens’ aim to illustrate both the darkness and the joy of growing up in this environment.
Vangelis Trichias’ piece Bareuropean explores attitudes towards nudity through the last century. The film begins with the warning “Please check the information presented to you” which is reminiscent of the inability of many to distinguish genuine fact from ‘fake news’. The film then goes on to present a variety of ‘facts’ and questions about nudity such as “1931 Daphnis and Chloe, a film by Orestis Liaskos. First European film to feature nudity!” and “Spain marked the fall of Franco with allowing toplessness in the beaches”, which overlay videos of a nude male artistically shot in different ways. The Greek statue image in Bareuropean is reminiscent of one of the photographs taken by Jordan Robertson in his photo essay Pity the Dark. The image shows a topless man in a darkened room. His eyes are closed, face turned towards the camera. His muscular body and facial features, the way the light and dark work over his body, remind me of the classical marble statues in museums. Pity the Dark is supposed to show the stages of a transformative experience, although I find it hard to navigate a narrative thread between the loop of images. Some images are more intrinsically linked than others, although they all have a wonderful attention to light and create a strange, psychedelic series of images.
During lockdown Defne Ozdenoren found it difficult to make work. After a conversation with her friend Emilie, she started a series of photographs of Emilie taken over an evening which pays homage to their friendship and the difficulties they have both overcome in their recovery from anorexia. The series is a beautiful portrait of Emilie, a celebration of her as well as her relationship with the artist. It is at once joyous and sensitive. The images are accompanied by fragments of the conversation shared between Ozdenoren and her friend, which gives the viewer insight into their thoughts and emotions, the way they relate to each other.
Sam Ahern reflects on lockdown in relation to its effect on people with autism. Her use of illustration juxtaposed with photographs of signs taken in various public spaces gives an insight into what it might be like for an autistic person navigating the world of social-distancing and self-isolation. The work is very insightful and addresses the lack of understanding around the issue. It made me think about the way information is presented to the public, in a way that is perhaps not as accommodating as it should be.
It All Comes Down is a show that encompasses the preoccupations of young people today. It examines not only the things that worry them, the things they enjoy or are interested by, but also the way they navigate the world. It is full of thought-provoking work, a wonderful collection made in a year that was unbearably hard. I would encourage everyone to take a look at the exhibition, which runs until 27 May 2021 and can be viewed online here: https://itallcomesdown.com. Follow the exhibition and artists on Instagram @itallcomesdown_