‘Bacon is the opposite of the apocalyptic painter who envisages the worst is likely. For Bacon, the worst has already happened. The worst that has happened has nothing to do with blood, the stains, the viscera. The worst is that man has become to be seen as mindless…Living man has become his own mindless spectre’
John Berger, Portraits
Deleuze describes Bacon’s bodies as ‘figural’, abstracted – a philosophical state rather than a representation of a material reality. In an age when Berger’s mindlessness is a given, in a show that is itself preoccupied with the body, when selfhood is fractured and mediated through the virtual. Nothing whole is on display here, no single painting to encapsulate the existential angst of a generation. Painting has long since mutated, expanded and escaped, emerging outside or ‘Beside itself’ as in Joselitz. In Doppelganger, these young artists play with the body, tearing it apart, bending it in half, cutting it in pieces. Viewed from the perspective of a child the body loses its semblance to itself. The body becomes a plaything, hidden behind partitions, blankets, and canvases.
The work of the five final year students that created Doppelganger brings to mind, at first glance, certain aspects of the Young British Artists (YBAs). Julian Stallabrass’s dismissal of the YBAs as reactionary, a kind of artistic debris of Thatcherism was far from being entirely baseless, but, equally, it was also far from entirely justified. Some of the work of the YBAs has endured – changing and maturing into something more serious and substantial. YBA artists like Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Douglas Gordon were inspired by an older generation of artists, often American: Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, Bruce Nauman and Robert Gober and Louise Bourgeois. Ironically, it was through these artists – whose experience and articulation of childhood was central to their practice – that their disciples in the YBAs were to reach a kind of maturity. The voices of their predecessors, and their contradictions, are audible in Doppelganger, especially in their stubbornly autobiographical approach to making, and a shared preoccupation with the way the self articulates itself through the body. Continuity is met and mixed with change here too, however: this new generation speak softly, seriously, flee from bombast – and from univocity. Theirs is a constrained optimism: a careful hope.
The former warehouse where Doppelganger plays out seems a place out of time, uprooted from the world of forty years ago and set adrift in the present. With its stained floorboards and exposed rafters, the space feels like the attic floor of a gigantic dolls house. Props populate the space, each one placed precisely yet also somehow provisionally; contingency haunting the objects – and the audience. Luminous pink fur arms hang limp from a woodchip partition, a makeshift room divider. I wonder what the divisions mean, what path round the display is the correct one. The folded canvases, cast body parts, wax heads empaled on lampstands, wax hands holding the artwork: striking as they are, they remain in flux, as if the owner of Doppelganger’s doll house has abandoned their playthings, but only briefly. The low hum of repeated voices from the installations reverberates in the semi-gloom.
Gaudy colours and vanity bulbs alert my gaze to Dominic Cooper’s sculptural works, cropping up across the warehouse like fairground attractions. I move towards ‘Challenge Castle:’ a pillar plastered in billboard collages, YouTube stills from a nineties game show brimming with bravado – and machoism. Cryptic messages like ‘Don’t worry we are having a bloody good laugh’ further imbricate the nostalgia with a distinct note of menace. From the far corner a banner proclaims “Don’t we all love organised fun”, suspended on ropes at each corner: art masquerading as in a high school gym equipment. The references to 1980s pop culture – Grease, Twin Peaks – are evident, but the chronology isn’t. We’re on the set, but it’s not clear if we’re too early or too late to see the action itself. Maybe one, maybe both: we’re missing the main event either way.
On Doppelganger’s threshold –past the entrance, but before we’ve truly entered – our path is blocked by Zane Dree’s sculptures. A blanket shrouds a crouching figure. It protects and conceals a figure in a macho, energetic pose: interrupted halfway through a press up that will remain forever incomplete. The figures half-formed partner is a small child, frozen in a squat, next to a pillar at the room’s fulcrum. Already faceless, the child’s dented and dusty head has been hastily squashed into a ball. In place of hands they have cut- off pieces of bracelets, a delicate chain hooked to each wrist, dangling on the ends are tiny charms, silver gloves . A miniature silver mouse – a toy? Jewellery? A monopoly token? – gleams in the twilight, sitting patiently by the old sink. The care and precision that has gone into replicating these everyday objects, from a patchwork quilt to miniature silver hands, imbues them with an eeriness reminiscent of Robert Gober’s installations. As I walk round the back of the squatting child, I notice something on their back: a deep, painful gouge, and within it, a jolly plump cartoon man stands on a ledge. A mini street shrine where Mr Blobby has taken Mary’s place.
A woman is ranting somewhere in the distance. Muffled at the back of the hall, her voice echoes as blue screens flicker. Mis-matched body parts appear and disappear: a body cut into interchangeable segments. Another pop culture reference: the parts switch places like a 1970s-style pinball game. In JUST HOW YOU LIKE IT artist-performer Josie Swift dresses as a superhero, their costume blue grease paint painted on the skin, sweating and glistening under the camera lights. She’s indigo, reptilian – and reciting a mantra about the abuse of women. ‘The spit at the back of the mouth’ ….
Bleached baby teeth, slithering tongue, the endless chant: “every woman before me and all women to come”. Her testimony goes beyond the political: it makes for uncomfortable viewing, suggestive of things I can’t quite put words too. And in spite of that, oddly familiar. Becket’s ‘Not I’ with masculine existentialism rewired through glamour, kitsch, simulation. Angst as rehearsal. But for what?
On the hall’s opposite end, an apparition of the outside lights up the factory wall: a slice of google earth, street views of a redbrick terrace, a goat standing in front of the houses as we stand in front of the projection. A masked fiddler plays ancient jig on an empty stage. No one is dancing.
If the body centred Swift’s work, it haunts Leon Scott-Engle’s. A large canvas is spayed on the ground, hinged at the midpoint and bent double. Painted traces of bodies stain the canvas – which is, we realise, a bed, or was. Entrapped, destined never to be exposed to the world, the sleeping figures fold into one other, their canvas supported by the ornamental wax hands who seem to be in control: the tangible inanimate against spectral life. Casts heads on sticks congregate in a crowd, old lamp stands and charity shop finds glittering in the gloom. Beyond the lamps and the heads hovers a huge, crooked painting, vividly, even monstrously purple. Midway down the smooth and shiny canvas a pointing hand protrudes – from a body mostly hidden, hunched over himself, feet dissolving into a purple puddle. We can’t even see his face. He’s using his one chance at corporeality – his hand – to remonstrate, accuse.
A sudden movement beckons me towards Tom Enoch’s Hug & Love performance. The florescent pink arms – I think of Sesame Street – that once lay limp against the partition have burst into a frenzy of movement. A sign, scrawled in crayon, invites me to have a hug. I try to fight the instinctive fears aroused by Hugh & Love’s insistent, insensate thrashing but in the end I retreat: scared of covid, I think. Or am I scared of touch? I stop worrying: a screen has recorded previous hugs and that comforts me, though I’m not sure why.
On the other side of the panel a fist punches through a blank paper picture. Tom Enoch’s Man in Plinth performance begins. Bare Forearms suddenly fill the frame, wrestling with each other, straining against each other – straining, also, to escape? The writhing limbs – their constriction, and their power – chill me. Enoch’s wall-based work Twister is a hybrid sculpture-painting with a traffic light pallet is that luminous against the brick; four identical squares hang together to make a single larger square. A perfectly formed blue hand gestures towards me, like the hand of Christ in a gothic altarpiece, pulling me to the sole of the pillar box red foot occupying the second square. Crossing the diagonal from the yellow to green square, a deformed arm stretches, glitchy but arresting. Turning back to ‘Man in Plinth’, I see the arms beginning to make a painting like Paul McCarthy’s ketchup, black, industrial liquid everywhere. And then I realise Enoch isn’t trying to make a painting at all. The forearms are adult, but the sentiment is childlike and profoundly “unpainterly”: the juvenile urge to dirty and destroy. I’m relieved when it’s over. Despite myself I’d felt almost panicked by the performance. Running out of control, spilling, wrecking, disconnecting: it gave the lie to the nearby plaque’s praise of “organised fun”.
Exiting Doppelganger, I notice for the first time a large screen with text, dirty but legible, inscribed on it. TIME HANGS LOOSE LIKE A TOOTH ON ITS LAST THREAD. A melancholy note to end on, I think, but not an untruthful finish to the exhibition. Doppelganger is concerned with memory as a breach, a gap: as breakage within a broken world. The bricolage of dated references, the mixture and subversion of technique, the direction of the audience’s gaze backwards, to a past that might never have happened: at the heart of Doppelganger lies an apocalyptic nostalgia. The exhibits are united in a sentiment of nostalgia – an attempted excavation of meaning from the bittersweet coils and dead-ends of history – but this end lacks a beginning. Bacon’s apocalypse of mindlessness is, in the era of the internet, both a general and a personal condition. Sense cannot be drawn from the past not because sense is, as in melancholia, in the end irretrievable, bittersweet. Sense cannot be drawn from the past because sense itself is senseless: even the body lacks a stabilising logic and history to refer back to. In the era of the pandemic, this temporal and existential disjunction is especially intense, mixing childhood with adulthood, leisure and work, movement and a profound staticity. The playfulness and humour of the work on display speaks to an honest appreciation of that intense dislocation, not a denial of it. The artists here know the one thing it’s still possible to know: that the worst is already happening.