Bodies Rest And Motion: Magali Reus At South London Gallery

At Magali Reus's current show at the SLG, Matthew Turner finds objects that speak for themselves in a warped material reality

If you travel to the South London Gallery by bus from central London, you will probably alight from the number 36 bus, like me, at stop N, just down the road from the gallery. This stop and the adjacent front lawn of the flats behind it is one of the filming locations for Patrick Keiller’s seminal ghostly post-thatcherite dérive London. The shot is statically poised on some fairly utilitarian fencing, the voiceover then reveals – as the 36 bus trundles into the shot – that the railings are in fact made of stretchers used in air raid shelters and to transport the wounded. The genteel tone of the narrator continues to describe how the iconic curved shape of the London routemaster bus is based on techniques of aircraft construction developed during WW2. In this few seconds of film Keiller excavates the narratives of war and conflict in these everyday sights and objects, and even more disquietingly of the history of violence against bodies imbedded in the red London bus, that most iconic symbol of an idyllic London.

The geometry of a London routemaster bus figures heavily in Magali Reus’ As mist, description as well. It is anatomically laid out in different configurations around the gallery space and skinned of identifying marks down to its skeletal substructure, that becomes a frame for narratives to be traced out on. Like Keiller, Reus is also interested in how the inanimate can collide so intimately with human history, however instead of using a voiceover to manipulate the meaning of commonplace objects – à la Keiller in London – she would rather let objects speak for themselves by manipulating their materiality, and impregnating them with virus-like sculptural interventions which speak of the human histories that occur around such mass-produced objects, but don’t usually leave a trace on their wipe clean and wear resistant surfaces.

We once enjoyed the mass-produced, we enjoyed – Warhol included – that we could drink the same Coke and eat the same Campbell’s soup as a movie star. But that was the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first century our lives – we like to think – have become more personalised and bespoke. We want artisan cola and homemade organic soup. Despite this, production has not really caught up. Artisanal products are still similarly manufactured en masse – they are all the same despite being made by smaller companies. But Reus captures what the world would look like if we fulfilled our desires for everything in our environment to be customisable, and makes the mass-produced bespoke and tailored. She warps their material reality to represent our emotional and subjective relationships to the inanimate, while exposing the collective urge of the time we live in.

Through her processes of complex casting, moulding and weaving techniques Reus collides handmade crafts with the sterility of mass-production, imbuing her commonplace standardised items with an individual and deeply personal subjective materiality. As architecture and everyday objects become increasingly subtopian and repetitive, the desire that Reus expresses through her work is more urgent than ever. But in her current show she also explores how these themes relate to the human body as it becomes abstracted in various inanimate ways.

The exhibition catalogue professes to Reus’ sculptures being ‘recognisable’, but there are hardly any visual pointers to guide the viewer around the story of the show and most of the objects have been abstracted until they are unrecognisable. In her previous exhibitions there has been something clearly identifiable, such as a padlock, meaning that her material and formal abstractions can be clearly traced. But here there is little familiarity, instead it reads, suggested by the title of the show, as a ‘mist’ of associations that constantly reform themselves. Reading the show then, becomes like a murder mystery and it requires a constant hunt for clues.

The assemblages at first appear scientific, with their crisp edges and uniform surfaces, littered with numbers that could be a guide to follow, but there is no such precision and a deeper reading of them doesn’t yield any results. Reus undermines these numbers – which are based on the water level measurements on a ships hull – and exposes them for their sterility and meaninglessness, using the same approach she has to the mass-produced objects themselves.

There are surface meanings but these are often red herrings and we are forced to look deeper into the objects’ minutiae. The devil is usually in the detail of modern mass-produced objects. Reus on the other hand ameliorates the detail and equates them with the act of seeing and thought. In her work, and contrary to usual logic, this often means the details appear more captivating and present than the whole – exposing the honesty and truth of her objects’ substrata, instead of relying on shallow first glances.

Due to this, her work is ripe with multiple meanings and laced with esoteric clues, and invites an obsessive reading, similar I thought, to reading ‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov. The story is conveyed through scrupulously refined and repetitive images, details and motifs. These are intricately designed and fashioned so that reading the text is also an experience of working through an interlocking network of signs and symbols. In a similar vain to the exhibition, the short story has a rigid surface that expresses the threatening mass-produced pattern of realistic experience, which is becoming more apparent now since we rely increasingly on automated computer technology to express ourselves. But below this, the story — and likewise the exhibition — constructs an elaborate referential system to pit the realm of creative imagination against such a threat.

This story of signs and symbols that hovers precariously below the exhibition’s outer order explores the relationship between moving and inert bodies or volumes. The Sentinel Sculptures (2017) are quasi-fire safety points and provide a physical thread that runs through the exhibition in the form of a fabric water hose carefully embroidered with text. Increasingly in the modern world, the body is becoming more abstract and inanimate and due to the rising price of living, the ease of high-speed travel and remote working capabilities, our sense of place is becoming more splintered. The Sentinel Sculptures read like such abstract bodies, with their associations of warmth, and a hose that can be pressurised with fluid – just like a body when rendered down to its basic substrata – or, more precisely, like a vein waiting to be pressurised with blood. Sentinel (Chestnuts), (2017), features a picture of a cast iron Victorian fireplace or hearth embedded in its surface. The hearth was once the centre of the home, the epicentre of our sense of place, but the Sentinel Sculptures are not a static centre, they rove around the gallery space, awaiting further animation when they are flooded with water, and the hearth, the place of safety and home, is recast as a symbol of the threat of uncontrollable fire.

The Sentinel Sculptures are static but awaiting animation, the routemaster bus forms – Hwael series (2017) – on the other hand, are an almost constantly moving form that has become inert and splayed out anatomically. The bus is another vessel that has bodily characteristics, a moving volume filled with varying amounts of other volumes – in the form of people – at different points in the day, like the pressure of anxiety rising in a human body, or oxygen and antibodies flooding it. Looking at this series is similar to looking at an embalmed cadaver. It’s scientifically correct, but its preservation is counterfeit because its been stripped of its personality. It captures a sterile cut in time, instead of being allowed to follow its natural journey of deterioration. The same process has damaged the bus and it has been stripped of its iconographic features and movement – its life has been taken away through inertia.

Humans are naturally moving beings, but perhaps when they are made to become static, due to socio-political restraints, their life and personality is similarly taken away from them. Or maybe, when humans are forced to move constantly like a ‘mist’ another type of violence is wrought against them.

Magali Reus, As mist, description, is at the South London Gallery until 27 May

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