Review: Rob Kennedy, acts of dis play, Talbot Rice Gallery until 17 December 2016

Rob Kennedy’s ‘acts of dis play’, currently on view at the Talbot Rice Gallery, presents visitors with a chaotic and jarring series of encounters with material culture, challenging the ‘typical’ exhibition experience in every way. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are plunged into what appears to be the debris from a working building site. Scaffolding juts out into the space and chunks of wood lean precariously against the walls. At the heart of the room, an enormous living tree springs out of a pile of rubble on the ground and stretches right up to the ceiling, forming a central axis around which visitors circumambulate nervously. Several people have asked me whether the exhibition is still in the process of being constructed or whether it has already finished. 

Quotes painted on the walls throughout the gallery warn the viewer that “true life takes place when we're alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self aware, the sub microscopic moments…”, D. DeLilla, 2010. They seem to be telling us to embrace the mundane as we walk amongst this scattered collection of everyday objects. ‘acts of dis play’ questions the very nature of both art and exhibition culture by providing a new context for cardboard boxes, packaging, and litter. The functional by-products of everyday living, the aesthetics of which are normally ignored, are here placed in a space which allows them to be reconsidered.

Broken television sets flicker on the gallery floor like wounded animals. A faint electrical current still pulses through them, creating shimmering petrol patterns on the screens. It is strange to see objects, which are generally treated with so much care, deliberately smashed and lifeless. Kennedy talks with disdain about the low quality technology with which they are manufactured and describes how putting them into a new context allows them to be viewed as beautiful visual artefacts in their own right.

Two paintings from the gallery’s Torrie collection lean against makeshift walls in the main gallery space, a seventeenth century genre scene by David Teniers – Peasants Playing Bowls – and a copy of this work. Kennedy describes his intrigue in identifying the absence of a number of elements from the original in the copy: a tree, a plume of smoke, and a shadowy figure urinating against a house at the back of the image. He has taken these missing elements and drawn our attention to them by physically manifesting them within the gallery space. On Saturdays the shadowy figure comes to life in the form of a dancer, comedian or actor and roams around the exhibition in costume, interacting with the public. 

Upstairs, a disjointed film plays in a dark room where a series of chairs lie flung around for viewers to reposition. A series of amateur videos provides illustration for sections of abstract text, hesitantly narrated by a group of non-native English speakers. Kennedy explains that he gave the texts to his participants only a day or so before filming in order that they, and the listening viewer, would learn them as they are spoken. As they repeat the words with growing certainty, our understanding of the concepts expressed strengthens. The slow-dawning clarity, which emerges out of the video’s initial ambiguity, works as an apt metaphor for Kennedy’s vision for the whole show. Discussing his hopes about the impact of the exhibition, he talks about his own experiences of reading philosophy, describing how his understanding of complex concepts solidifies as he repeatedly reads over them. In the same way, this show, whilst initially confusing and potentially alienating, should gradually settle in the viewer’s mind as they move through it.

This exhibition is an attack on the senses. Precarious piles of cardboard boxes which threaten to fall to the gallery floor at any moment, an enormous video screen merges fast moving blocks of brash neon colour, disjointed phrases and patterns of strobe lighting emanate from signs around the space and an intrusive electronic sound-track permeates throughout the gallery, spliced with the loud banging of steel workers. Kennedy’s aim is clear: to force us to reexamine our relationship with gallery culture. Kennedy criticises exhibition culture for its insistence on “filtering the idea of experience through a series of coded instructions relating to historical or cultural frameworks.” The pamphlet for ‘acts of dis play’, a satirical intellectual discussion between the artist and curator, pokes fun at museum culture. The work itself however, refuses to exist within the confines of the traditional exhibition, neither imposing nor expecting any art historical knowledge or academic understanding of the viewer.

Kennedy wants to encourage viewers to interact with art in new ways and form personal responses to it. Many seem cautious and unsure of how to act in the space. Here is a show to take non-art lovers to – those for whom traditional gallery settings may appear stuffy and intimidating. Here, art is fun, free and whatever you want it to be. The power of the show comes less from any individual work and more from the experience it provides. There are no preconceptions, no prescribed responses or experiences. What counts are instinctive reactions and personal encounters. A refreshing change – not your typical exhibition.

Rob Kennedy (2016) and David Teniers the Younger, 'Peasants Playing Bowls', c.1635. Credit: Talbot Rice Gallery

Exhibition review by Rebecca Heselton