Partly an underground cave house with relics of the distant past and all amenities, and partly a turreted castle on the flanks of a pensioned-off volcano, the gallery at El Castillo in Santa Brigida on Gran Canaria represents another step in the internationalisation of Bristol’s Test Space venture with a continuing partnership with the curators of Berlin based, Volkskammer. The exhibition “Saga (Tamaran)” opened on 2nd March and ran until 5th, with what the curators oddly called a “preview” on March 4th.
Big work would be dwarfed by the castle surrounds, and the artists have wisely chosen to opt for small-scale pieces which expand upon imagination. Each work reaches down into the volcanic past of these Saharan islands, into the shamanic and indigenous rites which civilisation has scrubbed too clean, and up into contemporary themes of disturbance, dislocation and dissonance which settle on the mountains of our culture like late February cloud systems. It is, after all, only a short step from Guanche clay fertility goddesses to televised drag queen contests.
Zanne Andrea sets the tone for the exhibition with two talismans from a set of four. They take disregarded items, scraps, detritus, and by recombining them with a combination of magic and flair create evocations of the perpetual magic of our times. These talismans would belong as comfortably in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, as they do on a slate shelf in a castle. They regain the word ‘charming’, snatching it back from Victorian bric-à-brac charlatans and placing it against the night-sweats of the sick and the delusions of the deranged. Their expressive force is also embodied in Julian Claxton’s Mysterious Blue Rider (which is part installation, part happening and part seaside-postcard intervention) and in the collaboration between David Blandy and Larry Achiampong: their short video, Finding Fanon II uses Grand Auto Theft technology to explore colonisation in the footsteps of semi-imaginary playwright Frantz Fanon, in a work entirely in tune with this African wasteland which speaks Spanish and whistles.
Helen Grant subconsciously echoes these themes with her souvenir drawing from Madrid, Pedro. In many ways this is a pivotal work for the whole show. It has a fragility and ephemera which contrast dramatically with the gallery itself. Pedro himself – slave-owner and Castillian conqueror of Gran Canaria – personifies the modern dilemma between the proliferation throughout the world of Castillian / Californian technology on the one hand and the respect due to indigenous cultures and ways of seeing on the other, ways of seeing which are being compromised and destroyed. Visitors will find themselves returning more than once to this gilded drawing.
Yvonne Buchheim’s short video shows 13 minutes of a Cairo, and individuals, disturbed by revolution and cultural difference. The building of castles continues. Society is in transformation and is forced back on to its heels to revalue what it sees as important and what it demands from the social compact which glues it together. The Arabic subtitles fracture the experience for English-speaking visitors and invite them to share a sense of dislocation and discomfort. The African and Islamic mainland is, after all, just beyond the eastern horizon.
James Hutchinson’s video-loop does nothing again and again until nothing becomes as real as the stones from which the castle is made. The video becomes a trance into which the shaman, talisman-rich and intoxicated with second-sight, can lose himself and find the essential. Mark Samsworth’s Lanza del Destino entreats the same field of thought, with a xerographic print on paper. Once again we see juxtaposed a fetish item, a mythological tool and a physical symbol of a lost way of seeing the world. Our jet-lagged, TV-sized eyes have learned to ignore and dismiss too much archaic wisdom. Martyn Cross picks up this lance and runs with it, not towards a crucifixion, but to another kind of fiction, Sun Ra’s Mr Mystery. His small and smoking volcano echoes the shape of Teide on Tenerife which is dramatically visible through the clouds from the island.
Harry Meadley’s otherwise rather mildly digressive piece – Curada la mesa de centro – serves to blur the line between object and context and invites the visitor to return to a consideration of El Castillo itself – a commonplace ikea coffee table supports some seeds from a Guanche graveyard, a tourist souvenir keyring of the Guanche deity – pretty much the degraded cultural symbol of Gran Canaria itself – and a packet of Gofio – a powder made from corn used in hot and cold drinks, essentially all that is left of the stamped out Guanche culture in the contemporary Canary islands.
Not all fictions are untrue, as a temporary memorial, comprising a folksy carved wooden owl and candles erected in Chris Fordwoh’s memory replaces the work that ChrisKimFordwoh’s were in the event unable to realize for this show.
The building of castles is always motivated by a mixture of bravado and fear and that illuminating combination fuels all the work in “Saga (Tamaran)”.
Since the piece went to press we heard of the untimely death of Chris Fordwoh. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.