HYPER BOWL – Tamsyn Challenger, Summerhall, Edinburgh

Nowhere is a culture of hyperbolic language more evident than Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. Everything that moves is described as “best ever”, “a prodigy”, and “cutting edge”. Following on from the success of her previous Edinburgh Festival exhibitions 400 Women (2011) and Monoculture (2013), artist Tamsyn Challenger returns and focuses on what happens when discourse gets swallowed up by exaggeration, overstatement and excess.

Everything about Challenger’s exhibition is hyperbolic, from the five-star ratings before it opened, to the obvious reference to one of the world’s most hyped events, The Super Bowl, to the Summerhall exhibition text: “OMG, this ingenious brand new best-ever installation by dynamic, polymath, artist agitator Tamsyn Challenger will be housed in the spectacular, cavernous, intuitive basement space at our world famous venue Summerhall. A concept such as “Hyper Bowl” comes around once in a lifetime and could be the greatest contemporary art work of a generation.

The installation itself is a bowl structure, gorgeously constructed out of varnished solid wood (reminiscent of school gym halls or ballroom dance halls). It’s emblazoned all over with hyperbolic language, harvested from the media and stripped of its context. While some language-uses are recognisable (I’m pretty certain both Kanye West and Donald Trump feature), others are anonymous, placing us in a hyperbolic alphabet soup. Brushing up against “Born to admired all over the world”, “once in a generation” and “drench your body in nature” is “amazing lustre for infinite mirror-like shine”.

It may look like a bowl, but it is in fact a mirror that Challenger is holding up. The tone is unfalteringly familiar – Challenger exposes the upper limit of the hyped-up rhetoric that underpins and potentially undermines our culture, from advertising-speak, social media and print to the way politics and news gets reported on television.

Recent studies such as Andrea Greenbaum’s The Tropes of War: Visual Hyperbole and Spectacular Culture (2016) have explored the effects of a public discourse dominated by overstatement, exaggeration and excess. In particular, Greenbaum has discussed how hyperbole results in a “distortion of reality”, and can alter decision-making. Inside the bowl, it’s an immersive  and emotional experience, overwhelming at first. Hyperbole provokes response but gradually, the experience becomes strangely intimate, as though the bubble-like structure comforts us, desensitises us to the sting of exaggeration. This acclimatization is what makes hyperbole so fascinating and so dangerous. It becomes the norm: grandiosity and over-dramatisation.

Challenger’s wry, playful but nevertheless piercing critique infiltrates hyperbolic language from the inside – this is what makes the bowl shape of her structure so interesting. Not only is it an echo chamber in which hyperbole resounds and reverberates, but it also physically manifests hyperbole’s tendency towards totalising: literally enveloping and entrapping discourse.

Colin Herd

Hyper Bowl continues until 30 September at Summerhall. www.summerhall.co.uk

1. Tamsyn Challenger, HYPER BOWL. Courtesy of Peter Dibdin.