Heather Phillipson’s The Age of Love at the BALTIC

By Gabriella Rutzler

In her most recent commission for the BALTIC in Gateshead, British contemporary artist Heather Phillipson returns to her multi-sensory environments, placing objects and space in opposition to each other in a mix of modern media and escapism. As is often the case with Phillipson’s work, we are led into the space and then left to explore all of its coaxing, hypnotic aspects. Ushered behind a tall wooden backdrop, we are immediately aware of the theatricality we expect. The lofty converted factory – that covers two floors in the heart of the building – is lit only by a source of constant blue flashing light, syncopated to the beat of rave music.

The Age of Love plays on the response of the senses to obtrusive forms of technology. The viewer is watched by a surveillance camera, transmitting the image to a screen on the balcony overlooking the floor below. The viewer is greeted by screens showing old recordings from the BALTIC’s ‘Kittiwake Cam’ – cameras positioned in the niches of the building’s exterior – creating the illusion that the cameras are monitoring birds outside in real time. Their sleeping, non-human, reminder makes the viewer feel like an intruder who is drawn into the curiosity of the spectacle.

Heavily manipulated digital images proliferate as you move further into the heart of the space. Several LED screens on stands at the edges of the room each show a series of looping stock images of nature – clips of parrots, motion capture of a germinating plant, close-ups of swaying grass, stills of dogs. These things represent to the viewer the idea of a new and unstable environment, existing only through the electrical energy it is dependent upon. The spinning, disembodied, green helix-shaped eyes of a cat create a psychedelic pressure, temporary and finite like the installation itself. There is a sense here that reality is only what you conceive it to be, and your existence is where you place yourself within the loop. On the off-beat of the music the sound of clunky mechanics is also present in the space, emanating from old farming equipment; the sound of utilitarian technology meets digital and intangible images. The grain silo is the source of the pounding music – Phillipson’s own version of the heavily remixed 90s track “The Age of Love”. The conveyor belt processes nothing, creating a sense of being trapped in a loop where cultish fantasy meets mechanised intimidation.

Philipson creates an atmosphere of ‘détournement’ (French for ‘hijacking,’ a term revolutionised by Guy Debord) to portray the inversion of capitalist production in on itself, constantly formulating excess and through excess, birthing and reshaping the new. The space is littered with the nostalgia of British rave culture for Phillipson and ideas of “collective transcendence in fields”. Hedonistic escape within the confines of the modern art gallery purposefully feels contradictory to the ‘do-not touch-etiquette’ the viewer might be used to, but this is not a direct invitation. The viewer is confronted with the possibility of their own transgressions and there is a glorious defiance in this exploitation, but one that is ultimately fantastical and uncontained.

Phillipson has recently become a prominent figure in the contemporary British art scene. Her winning Fourth Plinth Sculpture plans for 2020 (The End) and her recent Gloucester Road Underground station installation (my name is hetty eggsyrub) have allowed her to experiment with different kinds of environment outside of the gallery. Her latest commission combines the BALTIC’s internal and external environment with a new awareness of art installation practices that respond to a gallery’s local and institutional history. Experiencing the exhibition before it closes on 31 March 2019 is important to gauging the direction of Phillipson’s work; to finding its wit and boldness in provoking questions in the viewer’s mind. Such questions are key to a sustained engagement with her art as it continues to go against the grain.

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