PUBLICSFEAR @ South London Gallery

Review by Paul Hardman

Walking first up stairs into the dark, then along a black felt lined corridor, around a corner and finally into an almost entirely lightless circular room, a feeling occurs of retreating into ones own mind, into the roof of consciousness. This experience is further enhanced by ambient sounds, a long harmonic drone that becomes ever louder, until entering the chamber where the acoustic effect blocks out all background noise and comes from all sides creating complete immersion. The amplifier providing this music is the only thing visible. It glows benignly in front of cushioned seats providing a shrine like focus in a meditative space.

After the initial trepidation of walking into the darkness of Silent Sound (2006)the opportunity to sit in its core and listen to the score by J. Spaceman of Spititualized and Spacemen 3 is an undeniably pleasant experience. However Silent Sound is not intended to be so simple. Pollard and Forsyth would have us believe that the music in Silent Sound (2006) contains a subliminal message, one that is intended to create a powerful and moving experience. This small seed of doubt sown by the artists adds complexity to the installation, and the question of manipulation cannot be separated from any sensation of the sublime. If the experience of listening to the music is moving, is it because of the pleasure of the rich sounds in the excellent acoustic space, or is it due to the subliminal message hidden by the artists? The authenticity of music appreciation has been deliberately complicated.

Pollard and Forsyth examine the notion of authenticity throughout PUBLICSFEAR, addressing the subject through a variety of strategies. In File Under Sacred Music (2003) the artists have meticulously recreated a cult video of a performance by The Cramps at the Napa State Mental Institute in 1978. This is projected at a large scale onto the wall in such a way that the various performers and members of the audience, mingling amongst each other, are displayed lifesize. The effect is of an invitation to feel as though you are there, taking part in the ‘real’ moment, despite the fact that the grainy handheld footage remains, however authentically copied, a further step away from the original moment.

Re-enactment is tackled from another direction with Kiss My Nauman (2007). Pollard and Forsyth’s work focuses on popular culture, especially music which is significant throughout the exhibition, but here another trait of their work comes into play – direct references to canonical pieces of art, in this case, Bruce Nauman’s Art Make-Up (1967). In Nauman’s film he gradually paints his whole upper body and head in white make-up then repeats the process in pink, green and then black. In this revision, four monitors each display the face of a member of a Kiss cover act as they prepare their make-up for a show. Each one draws out the patterns on their face, then fills in the black and white areas and applies their lipstick, slowly becoming Kiss. Except of course they aren’t becoming Kiss, but as a cover act they are becoming a copy of Kiss, but then, aren’t the real Kiss also actors of a sort, they do not portray their own authentic selves on stage, but stylised and exaggerated characters. Again the artists construct a work musing on layers of authenticity and of its various implied forms. Here however, the authenticity of their work seems to be challenged, although this irony may be set up knowingly. Through making a piece that follows so closely to a seminal artwork, Forsyth and Pollard become a cover act, re-enacting the hits of past greats, it could be said that they are ‘covering’ Nauman.

The canon of conceptual art provides source material for another film in PUBLICSFEAR: Performer, Audience, F*** Off (2009), is based on the format of Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror(1975). The original performance consisted of Graham standing in-between a seated audience and a mirror while describing first his own appearance, his behaviour and his feelings, then members of the audience’s appearance, mannerisms and behaviour. He then turned to the mirror to describe himself from observation, then finally returned to describing members of the audience again. Forsyth and Pollard have recreated this performance replacing the role of the artist with a well known stand-up comedian Iain Lee.

The result is hilarity for some of the time, but this is peppered with uncomfortable moments as either Lee either takes his self-conscious examinations further than would be normal in a stand-up act, or examines individuals to a degree that pushes at the edges of acceptability. The tension in the audience is tangible as they wait for each awkward moment to pass. Although this is not a conventional stand-up act, it is notable that the strategies of self-depreciating description, embarrassment, and isolating and even bullying members of an audience are all familiar. It is as though the integrity of the original performance by Graham is challenged by revealing its comic potential, while at the same time Performer, Audience, F*** Off works as a tribute. The format has a power to create a tense situation through only stating what can be observed, and this is clearly shown in this revision.

Other films shown in this exhibition continue the artists’ preoccupation with examining music, in Anyone Else Isn’t You (2003), 14 people each describe some experiences with music directly to the camera in an intimate fashion, linking particular songs to important memories or people. Placed in the same exhibition as the more complex pieces, these very straightforward interviews form quite a contrast and do not sit comfortably with the ambiguity of the rest of the work. But then, Pollard and Forsyth are investigating the relationship between music and fan, between contemporary artist and influences, between the iconic and the false, through a broad variety of means. The works in PUBLICSFEAR, as the mirrored letters that spell out its title on the wall of the gallery, function as mirrors themselves, any questions are reflected back towards the visitor.

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard PUBLICSFEAR continues until 18 March 2011 at South London Gallery. Please visit for more information.

Image Credit:
Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Kiss My Nauman (No. 1 The Starchild), 2007