In The Presence, Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2011, ICA, London

Text by Sophie Caldecott

The Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition has long presented art lovers with an annual snapshot of emerging talent from the next generation of artists in the UK. The first exhibition was held in 1949, and despite having evolved from featuring the work of young graduates to profiling more broadly the work of emerging artists at the beginning of their careers, it has remained close to its original concept: to present a cross section of the new talent on the artistic scene. The success of its endeavour is highlighted by previous exhibitions which have included such illustrious names as Eduardo Paolozzi (1958), David Hockney (1960), Patrick Caulfield (1961), Helen Chadwick (1977) , Anish Kapoor (1977), Antony Gormley (1978), Grayson Perry (1980), Mark Wallinger (1981), Peter Doig (1982), and Damien Hirst (1989).

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2011: In the Presence at the ICA in London features mixed media work by 40 new artists, whose work was chosen by a panel of internationally established artists in an open, anonymous submission. For many, this is the first time their work has been exhibited in a professional art gallery. The common theme was a prevailing fascination with the corruption of mid-to-late 20th century suburbia that carried notes of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections (reviewed in The Guardian here). Hyun Woo Lee’s looped video of a sprinkler rotating with the words “I hate my job” flashing repeatedly across the bottom of the screen as if typed by an invisible type-writer resonated bleakly with the graffiti announcing “Death is here!”, spray-painted onto the grey doors above the hood of a woman’s grey car in Noel Hensey’s photograph.

Jonathan Trayte’s gold-plated bronze slice of tree trunk, In the Presence of Nature, presented a refreshingly tender engagement with the title of the exhibition. Every wrinkle of bark and line in the wood was glorified in gold, as Trayte brought new life to the dead stump.

The Ghosts in the Back Garden by Anna Ilsley is a large Chagall-like oil painting of a dreamscape with an orange sky and distorted perspective. Together with Ian Marshall’s video of geometrically arranged explosions, these pieces form part of the more apocalyptic end of the emotional spectrum. Hyewon Kwon’s disused buildings, Sophie Neury’s abandoned gymnastic equipment and Joshua Bilton’s black-and-white photographs of some triangular boards in an empty field and sticks woven into a triangle shape in a wood contrasted with this frenetic energy; quiet meditations upon the loneliness of the material world devoid of human contact.

Savinder Bual’s Train and Samuel WilliamsWe are the Robots, both videos, raise interesting points about modern life. Train, a series of layered black and white photographs of a railway track and an approaching train getting closer and closer hint at the relentlessness of the passage of time. In his choice of a steam train, Bual draws attention to the progression of modern technology rendering what came before it redundant. We are the Robots highlights the modern disjunction between human skills and machinery. In a six-minute looped video, a pair of roughly constructed “mechanic arms” (two pieces of wood with hammers or paintbrushes and other tools attached to the end) try to perform pointless tasks like smashing a can and hammering nails into potatoes. Williams makes modern society’s reliance on mechanical world look faintly ridiculous, as well as pointing out that all machinery is human-made in the first place.

The exhibition started near the entrance to the ICA, continued past the café and up several flights of stairs. Walking through to the second half of the exhibition made the question – provoked by several of the artists – ‘what is art?’ yet more pertinent. With such a variety of media, tone and subject matter, this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries demands engagement and challenges the viewer to unpack the meaning behind each piece of art.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2011: In the Presence, 23/11/11 – 15/1/12, ICA, London.

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Installation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Photo: Steve White