Sarah Browne: How to Use Fool’s Gold, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Text by William Davie

One of the current exhibitions at Ikon Gallery is Sarah Browne‘s exhibition How to Use Fool’s Gold. This exhibition is the first UK solo exhibition by the Dublin-based artist and presents a survey of film and sculptural works, including Browne’s entry for the 2009 Venice Biennale. Using “the economy” as the basis for her artistic practice, Browne investigates and analyses the way in which differing communities from around the globe utilise material items that can be seen in some contexts to be worthless, but in others develop to help define wealth and status.

It is clear to see from Browne’s choice of title and the site specific details of works throughout the exhibition that Browne is deploying a fascinating use of localised knowledge and intriguing visual experiments to show her concept. How to Use Fool’s Gold – Pyrite Radio (2012), the work which the exhibition is named after, is a simple homemade radio using a piece of pyrite (otherwise known as “Fool’s Gold”) as a detector allowing for transmissions to be received without the use of electricity. Browne’s use of the gallery space, with a long rope protruding out into the hallway, beckons the observer to investigate what lies beyond the initial focal point. However, it is the radio broadcast discussing an undercover police officer that, through the social juxtaposition, provides the link between the works.

The second piece in the first room is How to Make Muscha in Vaasa (2011) shows a homemade distiller developed by Finnish immigrants during the prohibition age in the US to make water into moonshine. It is placed upon a plinth in the corner of the room, surrounded by technical drawings and plans, as well as primary source accounts of people that have, and still are, using this method to produce alcohol to counteract the tax increases. Browne even goes as far as to list the possible defences that people who have been caught illegally making the alcohol have used, including “art.”

The exhibition continues to progress introducing several video projectors and a slide projector which, when the gallery is empty, conjures up an echoing similarity to Browne’s concept. The mechanical devices and sounds are not works of art, but are merely there to allow these seemingly worthless materials to be developed into something of importance to communities. This emulates the process of alteration and production that has made the items valuable in the first place.

The way in which the works are presented to the viewer and the use of space within the exhibition is also a key factor in understanding the artist’s concept. The way in which the viewer must circumnavigate around the work rather than being a detached spectator allows them to be at one with the work and its particular context within its community and culture. For example, Carpet for the Irish Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale (2009) and Letter to Eileen Gray sees a huge carpet hanging vertically that almost resembles a Rothko painting. When viewing the letter, it is divulged that the worth of one of the original carpets was £23 million. At first one could simply see the carpet as an ode to Eileen Gray, however across the room a double sided screen shows a projection of a film displaying footage from the Donegal factory, where this style of carpet was originally handmade. The installation becomes ever larger as the viewer uncovers the final two pieces on the inner wall; two pieces of paper entitled One Hour’s Drawing for One Hour’s Knotting (Sixteen Knots per Square Inch) and One Hour’s Drawing for One Hour’s Knotting (Nine Knots per Square Inch) which depict their respective titles in pencil drawn grids. Finally, the mask of ambiguity has lifted and the piece offers itself up for interpretation, displaying not an ode to Gray but an ode to the women in the factory that stitched these carpets from nothing.

The final room of the exhibition has a much more conservative layout. A silent film entitled Second Burial at Le Blanc (2011) plays at the far end of the room, showing a procession of people carrying a ticker-tape countdown clock, a glass-domed mechanism. Along the far wall are two frames; in one, a map with correction fluid highlighting a journey and the other, a 5 franc note with the procession hand drawn onto it. Taking into account the underlying theme of “economy” in this exhibition, it is quite clear that this is about the actions of 17 February 2012 where, in the midst of an unfolding European currency crisis, the Central Bank of France ceased to exchange French francs for euros, signalling the end of a system that has continued since the introduction of the currency and this marking the demise of the franc altogether. Further study into this piece reveals to the viewer the fact that the in the small French town of Le Blanc, local merchants have continued to accept francs for goods and services. This procession, and the timer, is an quasi-religious emulation of the death of the old France and the birth of the new. This image brings us to a suitable end; making plain that the one thing that is more dominant in changing lives, materials, and the world in itself, money, is nothing more than Fool’s Gold.

Sarah Browne: How to Use Fool’s Gold, 15/02/2012 – 22/04/2012, Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HS.

Caption: Sarah Browne
How to Use Fool’s Gold (Pyrite Radio) 2012
With thanks to Geoffrey Roberts
Photo: Stuart Whipps