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It was a smell rather than a sight that first captured my attention on entering the ICA for this year’s New Contemporaries and a “perfume performance” by Leah Capaldi the culprit. On first scent I admittedly failed to realise I was inhaling an art work, but its guiding and binding influence on the exhibition later became apparent.
Chosen by Pablo Bronstein, Sarah Jones and Michael Raedecker, this exhibition of forty recent graduate artists came with Pryle Behrman’s warning in Art Monthly’s review of its Sheffield leg that “… in New Contemporaries, what you are looking at is a sample of a sample of a sample.” This caution points to the selection process, delimiting the art on offer, and the possibility of the viewer's deferral to Präganz, hastily identifying themes which characterise "the future of contemporary art."
Aware of the Präganz theory that human perception is undermined by a tendency to rationalise and simplify experiences, I recognised my own irresistible keenness to compare certain works at the ICA with those of artists I already knew: this occurred with Marie Angeletti’s Winter’s Egg #1 photograph, whose colours I aligned with the rich high definition greens, reds and oranges of Ed Atkins’s films, and again with Anna Ilsley’s Ghosts in the Back Garden painting, which sent me back to the expressive Hernan Bas landscapes shown by Galerie Perrotin in 2010. Another visual link I made was between the explosive video art of New Contemporary Ian Marshall and the filmed detonations of French super artist Cyprien Gaillard.
This last link is perhaps Präganz gone too far: the Marshall - Gaillard pairing disregards the artists’ respective politically critical and Romantic entropic positions. Meanwhile, the flattening of differences between Angeletti and Ilsley and their more established counterparts still seems useful insofar as it helps identify a few examples of new contemporary artists developing practices coherent with their wider contemporary peer group.
But let us return to the idea of the sample in the form of the Allure perfume tester handed out by invigilators demystifying the ‘New Contemporaries’ scent trail. Leah Capaldi’s piece seems harder to pair with a previous work of art (precedents may be traced in Ewa Partum, the Polish conceptual artist who also used cosmetics and corporeality in performance but, unlike Capaldi, to stage explicit feminist ideas). Indeed, Capaldi’s performance was the only piece I could identify as new: it engaged with senses previously untouched by any art work I have experienced before and, though invisible, interacted brilliantly at times with other elements of the show.
Capaldi’s Allure manifests itself through the exhibition using otherwise inconspicuous perfume wearers as carriers. These participants are doused in a whole bottle of Chanel Allure and alternately attract and repel viewers to various parts of the gallery: I had to withstand the overpowering scent of one performer to watch Samuel Williams’s We are the Robots, a video that portrays a series of simple tasks (opening a can of beer or a water bottle, slicing swiss roll) amusingly thwarted by the use of pliers, hammers, saws and paintbrushes attached to the end of wooden arms.
As I continued viewing the works situated on the ground floor I was thankfully unhampered by Allure and able to appreciate the sculptures of David Buckley, resembling an oil painter’s thick brushstrokes rescued in 3D globules and immortalised on MDF plinths; the beating monotony of Hyun Woo Lee’s 17 times of I hate this job; the almost holographic Disco prints of Peles Empire; Poppy Whatmore’s Cocked leg individualisation of an otherwise unremarkable work table and jotta collaboator Savinder Bual’s moving image piece evoking the approach of a steam train through the rapid repetition and enlargement of one photo.
Upstairs, I was faintly reacquainted with the perfume as I watched Se-jin Kim’s excellent evocation – through silence, use of near-blinding white light and variations of speed - of the numbness and loneliness involved in working nightshifts. But, when I moved through the final gallery and into the auditorium I was joined by Capaldi’s perfume wearer at its closest range and most pungent yet.
Initially it was a shame to have such a distraction here as the films arguably show the ‘New Contemporaries’ at their strongest: Kim Kielhofner’s compelling series of confessions of theft rendered more dramatic and humorous through huge subtitles. Yelena Popova’s UNNAMED, which blends scientific facts in the material properties of glass with musings on human experience filtered through Blanchot and H.G Wells. Popova’s most compelling interest is in social and political history and its part in her own autobiography as a young woman born in a Russian town afflicted by a nuclear past.
The competing presence of Allure was finally welcome, as one woman in the auditorium covered her nose and mouth with her scarf and whispered a complaint before walking out, I became first hand witness to the success of Capaldi’s aims to inspire unique physical reactions to works of art.
Beyond this achievement of the sensory kind, the notion of works competing that Capaldi more unwittingly introduces seems apt: while it’s easy to look to past ‘New Contemporaries’ exhibitions and see Anish Kapoor, Hirst and Hockney as exhibitors who have thrived, it might be just as telling to look at the lesser known names and wonder why their work is not as visible now.