‘Sights from a Steeple’ deals with issues such as a romance that has failed, a Poe-esque approach to the subject of the night or attitudes of austerity and self-restraint. The exhibition takes its title from the chapter of a book by the Nineteenth-century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each story in the book had previously been published or told before. In the chapter ‘Sights from a Steeple’, an all-seeing narrator surveys the world around him from the heights of a church tower. His reflections create a sense of dizzying vertigo but also relay a sense of liberation that can come from looking at an environment from a distance, whereby the past and future can be seen together in one moment. In a similar way, many of the artists in the exhibition can appear forward-looking in their vision whilst equally sharing a fascination for pre-Modernist canons. Through multiple references from Post-punk music to Nineteenth century literature and scientific photography, each have found similar possibilities in the past in the way that music groups such as The Cure or Joy Division explored Nineteenth century links between disaster and romance, and saw them as closely related; or, looked at recent subcultures that are still somehow unknown or have already been claimed by others. Additionally, the show can be described as an antidote to the traditional summer exhibition. Some of the works are moody and foreboding, black and monochromatic, contain obscure references, or are formed purely from text and diagrammatic structures. (...) Because of, rather than in spite of, this aesthetic sensibility that could be described as shadowy or austere, displaying an almost Protestant attitude to materials, these practices suggest a richness of content that is borne from studious research, that invites a certain level of engagement from the viewer and has an expectation of investigation.
The summer has arrived at last so instead of complaining about the fact that it hasn’t we can now complain about how ‘muggy’ it is. Another thing usually worth complaining about at this time of year are the ‘summer shows’ put on by commercial galleries. Always hit-and-miss affairs, these are normally either filler whilst the gallerists go to wherever they go in the summer, or a chance for someone at the gallery (or a hired freelancer) to stretch their curatorial muscle with a thematic group show. Ibid’s summer show, ‘Sights From the Steeple’, falls into the latter category. The works presented, according to the press release, take their cue from late-Romantic views on love and loss, as well as ‘attitudes of austerity and self-restraint.’ The title, taken from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne first published in the collection Twice-Told Tales (1837), gives some sense of what is on offer here: the works, imbued with gothic wistfulness, will constitute an ‘antidote to the traditional summer show’. But all is not lost. Two works in particular, by Karl Holmqvist and Ulla Von Brandenburg, make the trip worthwhile. The other artists in the show – Gregor Hildebrandt, Jorinde Voigt, Barbara Wolff and Skafte Kuhn – are too easily packaged and explained away by the theme. Kuhn’s diptych, an etching on glass, Untitled (Hervor aus Gebrigen des Nichtmehr / Coming from the mountain of the bygone) (2007), depicts English goth rockers Bauhaus alongside a sampling of their lyrics, translated into antiquated German. Referencing the collision of ‘80s pop music with gothic imagery is well-trodden ground. Von Brandenburg is represented by a film, Geist (2007), in which a figure draped in a white sheet activates a 16mm camera, aimed at an area of park land with trees in the distance. As the figure nears the trees, moving almost out of view, the reel finishes and the film loops. This pastische of Victorian quasi-scientific recordings of paranormal phenomena juts uncomfortably – or maybe all too comfortably, which is of course the point – against the form of performance-based video from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The fact that the theoretical underpinnings of conceptual and post-conceptual practices can be mapped to certain tropes of late-Romantic thought and art is by no means revelatory, but in this context adds a touch of critical sophistication. Holmqvist accompanies a small photocopied book of his poems (available to peruse, but not to take away) with a manifestation of a work that has been recycled several times since its first outing in 1991, and which normally accompanies a performance. It consists of three empty wine bottles with simple orange labels emblazoned with the title of the work: Give Poetry a Try (1991–2008). Behind these, on the wall, there is a framed list of handwritten instructions encouraging viewers to make candle holders out of recently emptied bottles and to write their own poetry. The last two read: ‘4. Read poem out to yourself and/or someone else’, and ‘5. Ready.’ Holmqvist humorously punctures the Romantic view of poetry as a privileged, exulted form, while simultaneously casting doubt on the contemporary dictum that everyone has ‘talent’.
On the face of it, ‘Sights from a Steeple’ shamelessly bundles together several recent curatorial trends: the doomy summer show, the fixation on the gothic and pre-modernist in general and post-punk music. Actually, it’s a tiny bit subtler than that. Drawing on a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, the show themes itself around a dual orientation: looking backwards and forwards simultaneously. That’s true enough of Karl Holmqvist’s installation of three empty wine bottles and a text, the latter inviting one to participate at home by drinking a bottle of wine, sticking a candle in it, writing a poem and performing it – a sort of democratisation of the Romantic impulse. Meanwhile, both Ulla von Brandenberg and Gregor Hildebrandt consider the affective potential of foregrounded – and outmoded – technologies. The former does so through her scratchily evocative, eerily self-contained 16mm film showing a ghostly figure switching on the camera that’s filming a shiny bauble, in which is reflected the recording device itself. Hildebrandt, for his part, appends a Cure song title to a black abstract canvas made from neat rows of cassette tape. Elsewhere, we get intermittent sparks amid chaotic, would-be obsessive diagrams of songs (‘loop’ and ‘volume’ being among the categories), dangling sculptures combining dreamcatcher-like forms and pot plants and texts translating Bauhaus lyrics into German. As long as artists and curators remember their miserable adolescences, it looks like this stuff is here for the duration.