Common Readings/Bad Faith

Shock tactics and the hollow men at The Golden Thread Gallery

Collective Readings at the Golden Thread Gallery brings together a pertinent mix of lithographs, screen prints and one appliqué blanket by Tracey Emin, the 'enfant terrible' of proto-feminist Brit art.
These are visual works, selected from the British Council Collection, which incorporate text, thereby overriding the silence of the image. The statements are spare and predictably cryptic. In places they are humorous and probing.

Tracey Emin’s piece continues the artist’s vaginal obsession. 'Something’s Wrong' (2002) features an emotive scrawl of a woman with her legs spread. Coins are streaming from between her thighs, like she’s menstruating money, or rather, suggesting that her sex is a marketable asset, an orifice that can make a profit, a pubis with a pound sign. ‘Something’s Wrong’ is written in infantile script.

It’s an effectively provocative work. Yes, it uses obvious shock tactics to make the viewer stop and think about woman as a commodity and female objectification as a multi-million pound industry (rooted in female insecurity and male desire) selling glossy magazines, lipsticks, liposuction and pornography.

But sucker-punch tactics are well and good if they make a worthy point. Emin knows that a woman with her legs open will stop you in your tracks. It’s the artist’s job to shake, rattle and provoke you in this way. Once she has your attention she has stooped to conquer. You’re wondering how money and the female genitals are linked. It’s a bold feminist critique distilled into a blanket covering and a single phrase. Point made.

Another of the most interesting pieces in the collection is Donald Urquhart’s 'What a Bitch' (2006). This screenprint says so much about ‘frenemies’ and phony niceties. It reads 'Say it with flowers: What a Bitch', the text done in flowery font that prettifies the insult.

It’s a pithy way of underscoring how civilised interaction buries detestation and honesty, until we’re telling absolute cretins we wouldn’t cross a room to drink sherry with just how lovely their shoes are or what a marvellous job they did in the boardroom. We deal in a lying currency of niceties, pleasantries, artifice, a lingo of polite untruths.

Victor Burgin’s lithograph 'Possession' (1975) addresses inequality. A photo of a predatory blonde reaching in to kiss her man has a telling caption: 'What does possession mean to you? 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth.' Western imperialism and riches, the subjection of other nations and poverty… there’s a depth of thought behind the words and a multiplicity of possible interpretations.

Running alongside the Collective Readings exhibition is Bad Faith by Common Culture, a series of video works. Bad faith or mauvaise foi was the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s term for inauthentic living. To be in bad faith is to lie to oneself, to live in a way that denies one’s freedom or essential convictions.

The inauthentic individual lives a life of self-deception, pretending to themselves that they have no other choice than to continue with the waitressing job they hate, or staying in a relationship that has become staid simply to save face. Authenticity, on the other hand, involves embracing your freedom and acting in a way that is true to one’s autonomy.

In Sartre’s view, the individual is absolutely free and therefore should not be blindly complicit with societal ideals, conventions or ideology (obviously within the limits of the law) unless he or she finds them valid. You are free and if you deny it you are guilty of bad faith.

This multi-channel video installation implicitly shows how individuals are indeed largely unquestioning complicit agents, spewing out the lines expected of them, too reified and fixed by ideology and manufactured consent to grasp their freedom.

Familiar faces from Coronation Street, Brookside and other ex-soap stars alternately act as sales assistants or business people enthusiastically trying to close the deal or sell a bottle of perfume by allowing these adopted roles to eclipse their individual identity.

On one screen an actor holds a sign pointing out a sale – the figure has lost autonomy to figuratively become part of an advertisement. In another video the actor has become a fire and brimstone preacher shouting at the viewer: 'Man is hollow, he is running on Mammon’s treadmill'. The projector behind reflects your own shadow onto the screen – visually highlighting how you too are complicit in this economy of bad faith. Every so often the actors switch roles, appearing on different screens, interchangeable ciphers.

For the way this exhibition points up mass complicity, unfreedom and the tired performativity of conventional living, Jean Paul Sartre would, one suspects, have given it the thumbs up. Both exhibitions run until May 8.

Joanne Savage