Abstract Typography: Michael Dean: Government

Perhaps unexpectedly, the primary concerns of Michael Dean’s (b. 1977) Government do not include satire, contemporary politics or acerbic finger pointing and it is refreshing to encounter an exhibition with such a value-laden title that is concerned instead with the fundamental worth of the term rather than its party-political resonance.

The pieces that compose the exhibition, while ostensibly made from cast concrete, manifest in varying forms. Three large arrangements of concrete slabs: education (working title), health (working title), and home (working title) dominate the gallery space and while visitors are invited to approach and touch the sculptures their scale resists any immediate comprehension. Two smaller spherical structures (analogue series (head), analogue series (sphere)) are placed around the gallery in correspondence to these larger pieces with a third sphere, analogue series (cabbage), facing a widescreen television on which is shown Tendance: a looped film of a picture of a cabbage exposed to a series of subtle light changes, while near indecipherable phrases appear at the bottom of the screen.

How these sculptures are placed suggests a discourse between them which prefigures the placement of “interaction” as an apparent central preoccupation to the exhibition. Before entering the main gallery space visitors must first (however methodically) negotiate the sculptures “yes” and “no”: two tactile cast concrete blocks-cum-door handles that mark initiation into the exhibition. Two paperback books entitled “diminishing book” from which visitors are invited to rip a page also sit in the gallery.

What immediately resonates is the exhibition’s dexterity in straddling two worlds that often exist in complex contention and collusion. The thick, wool carpet and lack of seating forcing the institute’s Information Staff to sit on the floor gives the large gallery rooms a hint of domesticity compounded by the frisson of unorthodoxy instilled by the encouragement to move some of the installations around and tear pages from others. But this tone of domestic accommodation occasionally gives way to the imposition of the vast, vertical, cast concrete sculptures that lean resolutely against the wall, too large to be removed from the gallery space. These white and grey monoliths are evocative of a typical post-war aesthetic and, with their brutal tactility, remind one of late twentieth century municipal buildings built for uncompromising utility. The hint of these two spaces establishes what appears to be the main discourse of the exhibition: that between the individual or the social unit in relation to a governing body.

While this binary may seem to stray into the polemical, everything remains comfortably apolitical. Titles such as health, education and home are natural buzzwords of political rhetoric, but the exploration is pared down, reduced to a core of interaction that wilfully seems to have no immediate contemporaneity and the words themselves are easily contextualized outside of government white papers and party politics.

The discourse however is often left just to be observed. Despite encouragement to get involved with the “diminishing books” and the imperative involvement with the door handle sculptures “yes” and “no”, any invitation to involvement seems merely gestural or passive, with few conceptual implications remaining beyond immediate contact.

This perhaps points to another unnerving intention of the exhibition: the illusion of autonomy. The hospitable gallery space is occasionally obstructed by the sculptures (notably with home (working title) nearly obstructing a doorway) and this same hospitality is further contended by the lack of usual seating for the gallery assistants. Before even entering the gallery the binaries of “yes” and “no” are presented as an illusion of choice, but with no discernible question and no implication of the consequences after one is chosen. Visitors are given the feeling of choice and movement in the opportunity to move the concrete balls that comprise the analogue series, but they are still contained within the oppressive omnipotence of the large concrete slabs (and are also moved back to a specific space by gallery staff after: interaction, within limits).

There are aspects of the exhibition that unfortunately do not resonate with quite the same success. While Dean places the written word as a central informant to his work (and indeed has written much about his work before this exhibition as well as alongside it), the treatment of the writing is often heavy handed. The “diminishing books” around which some of the sculptures are based contain brief, repeated scripts in thick volumes from which visitors are invited to rip a page. The words, while cast – according to the exhibition notes – in the role of government white paper, seem unnecessarily opaque and dripping with pretence. The aural element of the work (pages from Dean’s working notes are read aloud by gallery staff throughout the day) also seems to be an example of mild hegemony masquerading as creative interaction and does nothing to dispel the level of unintelligibility. The words are much more successful as sculptural insertions, used more for their aesthetic resonances than their semantic.

Despite these reservations it is, over all, a rather successful aesthetic. The brutal tactility of the concrete upon the woollen carpet juxtaposed with the other more dynamic elements of the exhibition leave a generous amount to be explored both visually and conceptually. The apparent austerity that first greets one on entering emerges as a recurrent subtlety in the exhibition where, over all, understatement speaks louder than words.

Michael Dean: Government, 12-04-2012 until 17-06-2012, Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH. www.henry-moore.org

1. Installation view of Gallery 3
2. Installation view of health (working title) (2012)
3. Detail of education (working title) (2012)
All images courtesy of the artist, Herald St, London and Supportico Lopez, Berlin
Photography: Jerry Hardman-Jones

Text: Lyndon Ashmore