Review: Ashley Bickerton, "Ornamental Hysteria"
By: Aaron Muldoon
The end. It’s not what we expected. The result of one nuclear disaster after another, satire and surrealism now reign supreme - the age of hedonism and greed is no longer. Far from the barren wasteland we might’ve imagined, Earth is now inhabited by violently coloured, rubbery plants and its waters teem with demonic, plastic monsters. Ashely Bickerton offers a glimpse of this dystopian future through the wormhole of Newport Street Gallery. In place of the Victorian theatre sets that were once constructed here, Bickerton directs a play depicting a future that is both comedy and tragedy.
William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ is premised on events surrounding a group of boys fighting to survive after becoming stranded on an island. Golding’s disturbing reflection on the human psyche explores themes of corruption and distorted realities with a similarly reflective approach to Bickerton’s exhibition. More observational than interventionist, ‘Ornamental Hysteria’ appears to mock us for destroying the planet rather than persuading us to alter our way of life.
Upon entering this towering cathedral of contemporary art, viewers are initially directed towards a series of machine-like, steel constructions mounted on the walls. These ‘self-portraits’ address a conceptual division between representation and reality. Complete with huge signatures and instructions on how to be displayed, these metallic masses are self-portraits only in name. An ontological abstraction of the artist, they investigate what a self-portrait represents. ‘Tormented Self-Portrait: Susie at Arles’ is plastered with the logos and brand names that the artist used throughout his life. It cites the commodification of culture as a reason for Earth ending up in this dire state.
The juxtaposition of idyllic and apocalyptic imagery is another visual paradox at play. Paralysed mid-shriek, the tormented faces of ‘5 Snake Heads’ in the second room are a haunting remnant of humanity, but the incongruous pink and yellow plants sprouting out of their heads prevent us from offering them any pity - or even taking them seriously at all. Circling high above our heads are four life-sized resin sharks. We might find them intimidating; if not for their padded diving suits and coconut shell buoyancy aids. But their positioning reminds us that the exhibits remain sculptural only as long as we are present. We are intruders in this distorted subterranean world, glimpsing only a fraction of it frozen briefly in time.
Good, bad. Order, chaos. Nature, artifice. Debris, collected from a beach, has been neatly organised into orange oil barrels fixed to the wall. Perspex lids let us examine precisely what items of detritus with which we pollute the ecosphere. The dualism in ‘Ornamental Hysteria’ forces us to reconsider the opinions we hold. Everything recognisable is displayed out of context so that we may come to a new understanding of it. “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away”, Golding writes. As fugue and hysteria blur the lines between what the boys on the island believe to be right and wrong, Bickerton’s work weakens our confidence in society’s moral standards.
The exhibition has set fire to medium specificity. Assemblages, painted sculptures, and photo-collages on canvases surmount the boundaries between media. The requisite effect is too immersive to be constrained by conventional art forms. Bickerton lays out his overwhelming, but nonetheless fragmented vision and - with our own imagination - we begin to fill in the gaps.
A plastic man flies by on a motorbike as we enter the penultimate room. He has no head, limbs or genitals and the ropes keeping him atop his mechanical steed cut into rolls of rotting, grey flesh. The most poignant line in ‘Lord of the Flies’ comes as the boys realise something about the beast from which they’ve been hiding: “Maybe there is a beast... maybe it's only us.” Such is our realisation at the end of Bickerton’s reflection on the human condition. His biker encapsulates the mocking attitude he holds toward the supremacy of the human race. The pounding silence of the gallery is uncomfortable. A mirror has shown us our obese, unproductive, alcoholic, desensitised selves - and we are jolted awake! But is all of this nothing more than Bickerton’s scathing, dark sense of humour? After all, maybe ‘Ornamental Hysteria’ really is a prompt for us to change ... or maybe it’s too late.