Situated Senses 02: 30cm of Obscurity at the Old Police Station

News of an interesting group exhibition at an equally interesting venue: Deptford’s Old Police Station, which was the venue for one of Union Gallery’s shows a couple of years back.

Situated Senses 02: 30cm of Obscurity

Artists : Minae Kim | Sangjin Kim | Jaeyeon Chung
Curator : Jay Jungin Hwang
Venue : The Old Police Station | 114 Amersham Vale | London SE14 6LG
Dates : 11 April – 20 April 2012
Opening Hours : Tue – Sat 12 – 6pm
Private View : Wed 11 April 6 – 9pm
Admission Free

“With ruin a city comes to death, but a generative death like the corpse that feeds flowers. An urban ruin is a place that has fallen outside the economic life of the city, and it is in some way an ideal home for the art that also falls outside the ordinary production and consumption of the city.”
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006)

Situated Senses 2 poster

Situated Senses is an exhibition project introducing contemporary artists who focus on the theme of space: site-specificity in particular. The aim of the project is to find dormant and useless places in the city, such as urban ruins, and transform them into a cultural space by revealing spatial relations. Those relations do not only include physical relations between the artworks and selected places but also social and cultural relations stemmed from perception of the places. Interpreting the ruined space as a place for artistic experiments and challenges, artists, as participants of the project, find the way in which they express their senses and create particularised and unrepeatable moment of situation based on their interests and artistic sensibility. In this way, the abandoned urban spaces become creative laboratories for artistic trials and experimentations and the artists become practitioners.

For the second project subtitled 30cm of Obscurity, Situated Senses has selected three prominent contemporary Korean artists, Minae Kim, Sangjin Kim and Jaeyeon Chung as participants. As the venue, the four cell spaces of the Old Police Station located in Deptford in London was chosen. The Old Police Station (the former Deptford Police Station) is one of the various forms of urban ruins remaining to this date. Although the old Edwardian building itself is a ‘grade 2′ listed English heritage, only the four individual cell spaces show an apparent evidence of their original function as the police station. Without any information of the site, the cells are hard to be discovered and rather difficult to access because of their hidden location and lack of public awareness of the site. In this respect, the abandoned cell spaces might be defined as one of the urban ruins and, in Solnit’s term, the unconscious city. The project, thus, will explore the ways of situating artistic senses into the venue to arouse the unconsciousness of the cell spaces.

Three artists present experimental installations closely related to the site-specific feature of the abandoned cell spaces where it is differentiated from typical exhibit spaces. In the subtitle of this exhibition, ’30cm’ indicates the thickness of a solid cement wall surrounding each cell and symbolises the cell space itself. The word, obscurity, implies its double meanings: one being ambiguous and the other is the state of being unknown or forgotten. On this implicit assumption, the artists articulate their thoughts on the site by adopting different approaches, seeking physical, political and social meanings of the cells. Each artist shows the contradictory situations related to physical conditions of two symmetrically constructed cells (Minae Kim), the unstability and ambiguity of signifying space and its relation to the system of governance (Sangjin Kim) and the inconspicuousness of monumentalised space and its continuity of oblivion (Jaeyeon Chung). Every work in the exhibition are all newly commissioned for the project. These outgrowths of works were generated from extensive research and a penetrating observation of the space in preparation of the exhibition.

Minae Kim shows concise forms of installations in spaces as physical and emotional responses to architectural spaces. In the project, Kim questions the contradictory physical and emotional states of two symmetrical cell spaces, which are divided by a thick concrete wall.

The first contradictory state is related to the symmetrical structure of the two cells. Since a single wall divides the cells, the imprisoned individuals are never able to communicate with each other. They are forced to spend their time completely alone in an isolated space except for the supervision of inspectors. Kim considers that even though they can never have a conversation with one another, each prisoner might be afforded some mental succour when considering the proximity of the two spaces. In her work La reproduction interdite, Kim visualises this situation by installing mirrors at the same height as the bed, making them reflect the body of each individual lying on the bed in the cell. Through the reflected image of the body in the mirror, the prisoner can imagine another prisoner lying on the bed on the other side of the wall. The problem is, however, the prisoner can never actually reach the other person behind the wall. Having an insatiable desire to communicate with others, the only thing he or she is confronted with is a reflected image of themselves. As may be expected from the title of the work, the work illustrates a similarly contradictory situation to René Magritte’s La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced, 1937), from which Kim’s title originates. The painting depicts a man standing in front of a mirror, in which the book on the mantelpiece is reflected accurately while the man can only see the back of his own head. In this vein, Kim puts a mirror in each cell in a participatory manner and each mirror functions as a window for non-communication. At the same time, the mirrors work as a tool for self-reflection and reformation.

The second state is generated from the physical features of the single cell space. Solitary confinement is not only designed to restrict unruly criminals, but it is also characterised by minimal facilities such as a small wooden bed, a window for sun light, which is out of reach, a toilet, and tiled wall for sanitation to meet the minimum basic requirements to satisfy continuing existence. Kim installs a carpet in the single cell as part of the work to express the unexpected comfort of the cell, which is in contrast to the mood of the cold cell space. All things considered, the two symmetrically structured cell spaces thus play a role as the spaces of collision with antitheses between anxiety and safety; solitary imprisonment and the comfort of isolation; companionship in misery and the limits of communication.

Sangjin Kim is concerned about the system of human cognition in relation to semiotic perspective. To exemplify his interest, he creates various works using language, sound and time as the main means of representation. In the second project of Situated Senses, he expands the range of his concerns to the issue of space. In the instability of signifiers in the signifying system of language, he has discovered a similarity between language and space. According to his idea, space itself is as empty as a vacuum before it is filled with certain contents, which identify the space. That is to say, the intrinsic attributes of the space are determined by the particular criteria used for classification in the society. For him, the individual cell space, which is isolated and excluded from society, is the conflictual site of power and social control. It means that a void space is determined and identified by a certain type of governance, power, knowledge and other social-political agents. In this aspect, the cell space becomes ambiguous in that it is not only neutral but also subject to forms of governance. In addition to this concept, he also problematises the instability of law, which is based on written language and is liable to be changed due to social changes.

In Kim’s work IN VISIBILITY, he installs a unique device to visualise the instability of socio-political classification by statute, which relies on written language. The device consists of two parts: the upper part of the work is designed to print out edicts of British criminal law on the surface of the water, while in the lower part the printed law dissolves into the fluid. Try as they may, the audiences can never read the law because every words printed on the water is immediately dissolved and disappears into the framed water tank. The moment of dissolution asks a question of the audiences about the validity of division. In addition, the text of the law printed on the water surface is revised as time goes by. As ambiguous as the characteristics of the cell space itself, Kim questions the absoluteness of the written law and its flexibility, and goes even further to control power to question power in the society. Furthermore, he adds spatial tactics at the entrance of the cell to symbolise a form of governance. As to the notion of spatial tactics, Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga define it as ‘the use of space as a strategy and/or technique of power and social control’ in their book The Anthropology of Space and Place. This is also reminiscent of Foucault’s thought on the relationship of power and space by positing architecture as a political ‘technology’ working out control and power over individuals, which makes each individual a ‘docile body.’ Regardless of its environmental considerations, Foucault describes the materiality of a prison as an instrument and vector of power, a technology of power over the body. Under the control of spatial tactics devised by Kim, the audiences can never secure a clear view of the whole space or even enter the cell. This is because the door is blocked by the glass tank full of water and sparsely screened by timber. Allowing only a limited, obscure view of the cell, he casts doubt on the reliability of social norms, which are human inventions and control the society. The whole process of Kim’s work allows the cell to exist on the line of demarcation between being neutral and that of being governed, helping to recall the title of the work, IN VISIBILITY, a state of being visible but also invisible at the same time.

Jaeyeon Chung is interested in the relationship between works of art and the public places where the works are situated. Through sign-based installation works in the public sphere, she creates an emotional stir among the public, showing an indifference to the public places which people pass through every day. In the project, Chung raises the possibility of the cell space as a monumental space as the site for various socio-cultural events and simultaneously draws out its hidden monumental aspect. Just as Musil points out the impregnated contradictory features of monuments – conspicuously inconspicuous, erected for public attention yet somehow eluding people’s perceptions – Chung considers the historical monument of the cell space as a dead site sleeping in the sea of oblivion.

For her work Century, she has made hundreds of rectangular-shaped cement tablets which accumulate from the bottom of the allocated cell space. Each cement tablet, like the opening plaque outside the building, functions as a commemorative unit of events in the cell which has its own history through the socio-cultural relationships of people who have utilised the space as a real prison and as a social venue for cultural events since it was built in 1912. Even though the site itself celebrates its one hundred year anniversary, the place has been forgotten and buried in local residents’ mind with the passing of time. Chung’s repetitive and continuous action of making and accumulating tablets, bearing no inscription, arouses the audience’s curiosity about the tomb-like space, filled with grey tablets in the nooks and crannies of the cell. The number of tablets placed inside the cell alludes to accumulating layers of passing, stratigraphic time. The single upright tablet highlighted by a vague light may imply the present condition of the cell, occupied by her artistic action. Among the piled-up tablets inside the cell, the upright tablet plays the role of an intriguing clue for the public to recognize the cell as a monumental space in the local community.

As can be seen above, all artists address their visual identities raised by the site. Those hidden senses within spatial relations could be ascertained by the audiences’ faculties of observation and perception. Unwittingly encountering the ways in which each artist creates specific situations by articulating spatial relations in the old cell spaces, the audiences might come to realize and identify the meaning of site-specificity, and furthermore engage with its crucial role in the three artists’ works in the urban ruins, both consciously and unconsciously. Lastly, Situated Senses will continue its journey to develop its experimental movement to arouse audiences’ latent senses that situates within their inner world. It also aspires to touch audiences’ daily lives through active participations of their movement in the abandoned places in the city, which is occupied by the artists’ existing senses.

Jay Jungin Hwang (independent curator)

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