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Location, Location, Location: Mark Fell At Focal Point Gallery
Robert Barry , February 9th, 2019 10:48

Robert Barry finds his way and loses it again at Mark Fell’s first UK solo gallery show

You Are Here. But where exactly? At the heart of Mark Fell’s present show at Southend’s Focal Point Gallery, is the promise of a fixed point of reference, a secure anchorage, a place from which to find your way. You are here – a red dot on a map is supposed to reassure you, to situate you in space, and to offer you a way out. But how are we to cope when that supposedly fixed point becomes destabilised, buffered to and fro and knocked out of true? The agent of that de-centering is sound.

“It’s about you and your presence,” Fell tells me when we sit down to talk in the office next door. “But the fact that it’s oscillating like that… There’s a kind of latent energy to it.”

The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent, Fell’s first solo show in a UK institution, consists of three installations, a wall-based work, and an app, designed to be listened to on the train from Fenchurch Street to Southend-on-Sea. This last, A Stitch Outside Time, uses your phone’s GPS to follow your journey east towards Shoeburyness, soundtracking the view from the window with a generative composition for FM synthesis percussion based around the rhythms of the tala systems of Indian classical music. Electronic drums ripple skittishly as we leave gleaming high rises of London, beats becoming denser, pitches becoming more pronounced, and the whoosh of the trains own HVAC systems provide something like the drone of the tanpura, or the side-chained rush of electronic dance music. At Benfleet, the shores of Canvey Island, visible to the south, the track staggers and starts in plips and plops, like light rain on a plastic roof. And all long, the interface on your phone shows a big red dot moving slowly from one end to the other of two repeat marks on an empty stave.

“We built the whole thing in max/msp and made it quite clear what we were doing and stuff and then gave that to the iPhone developer who then copied it as an iPhone app,” Fell explains off the work, on which he collaborated with his son, Rian Treanor. “I kind of did the synthesis end of it and Rian did the pattern generation end of it, with the rhythms. Then I kind of did the bit in the middle that glued it together.” The work is called A Stitch Outside Time, Fell says, because, “the actual larger structure of [the work] has no time component whatsoever. It's a spatial structure.” The piece then becomes a means of exploring and exploding one of the oldest myths in western music: what Fell calls, “the idea of a piece of music as a journey.”

We will meet this red dot again. It’s there in the gallery, on a map on a light box. The map shows us Southend-On-Sea, and in the middle of it, a big red dot showing visitors the location of Focal Point Gallery. This is more than just a helpful info; it’s a nod towards the work that stands just beside that map. You enter into a hexagonal room, carpeted in grey from floor to ceiling, in the centre of which is a massive red helium balloon. Kick drums, programmed to the same tala-type rhythms as on the app, pound from a pair of stereo speakers buh-buh-buh-b-b-b-b-b-duh…duh…duh…b-b-. The lights strobe in time to the beat. A fan, positioned high on the wall, shoves the balloon about and it seems to duck and dive and oscillate in the flickering light on the strobe. The outside world slips away and suddenly that sense of place, of situatedness, of who and where and why and how, starts to feel a little less certain.

The exhibition title ‘The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent’ is intended, Fell tells me, to “cue a certain kind of response in the audience.” You don’t need, he insists, all the conceptual baggage and in-depth explanation he weaves about the work. At the end of the day, he stresses the point, the show consists of “a bunch of interesting experiences” aimed more at “toddlers and grannies” than the standard art crowd. But nonetheless, he hopes that title might just trigger some thought that “works in the background” subtly shaping your thought processes, priming particular ideas and interpretations as you go from room to room, work to work. “It's a bit like a sort of Derren Brown sort of mind game-y thing,” he admits. “But nonetheless, that’s what I do.”

Still, visiting ‘The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent’ remains a uniquely unsettling experience, whether it’s hall of mirrors on the gallery’s north side, or the bobbing red balloon at the other end, everything is geared towards disrupting the stable, unified, “classical view of subjectivity”. There are no maps for these territories, no guidebooks to the mysteries of the universe. Fell’s work has the unique quality of being able to take you on a journey while simultaneously making us question the very notion of travelling from some presumed point A to another hypothetical point B. The choice is always there to simply gaze out the window and enjoy the ride – there’s certainly plenty to look at and take pleasure in. But if you pick up the thread and follow Ariadne’s path through the maze of competing epistemologies, beware – you might find yourself coming undone.

Marl Fell, The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent, is at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, until 21 April