‘Risk’ exhibition at Turner Contemporary – review by Fiona Sinclair.

‘Life is a gamble, at terrible odds – if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it’ writes Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Turner Contemporary’s exhibition ‘Risk’ attests to this.  The Focus is two- fold, dealing with the risky business of living and the nature of art itself as a gamble.

Humour is used throughout to ameliorate the sometimes uncompromising nature of the works.  Visitors are also invited to interact with many works thereby intensifying the experience.  The result is a constant dialogue between audience and art where all aspects of ‘risk ‘are examined forcing us to think about our own relationships with jeopardy.  In a sense this is a deeply philosophical concept for which installations are an excellent conduit.

And Life this exhibition reminds us is a risky business.  Starting it would seem as soon as we draw our first breath.  This is exemplified by the initial witty installation of a birthing pool which reminds us that we are born into risk.  Thus the exhibition is both deeply serious but also playful by inviting the visitor to enter and participate with the installations.  This serves to reinforce the other element of ‘risk’, where the artist takes a leap of faith that their work will be appreciated.  Further there are many pieces in which the artists take physical risks to their bodies thereby combining both artistic and personal risk.

At the heart of the exhibition lies our relationship as a society with the term ‘risk’.  Initially it appears to have been born out of commerce and capitalism, first appearing on insurance documents of the early 18th century.  There being at this period, where priceless cargos were concerned, a need to mitigate against everything from pirates to the weather.  On display are sailor’s journals of the period and insurance documents.  In more modern times we have a giant freeze frame photo of the Chinese stock exchange.  The size effectively reminds us of the vastness of the country and its fiscal dominance over other countries at present.  The stock exchange is an excellent example of the illusionary nature of controlling risk for at its heart we are reminded this is gambling on a large scale and therefore in the hands of fate.  This shift to the 20th and 21st century brings into play our obsession with risk assessment at all levels of our life.  This idea all the artists would seem to argue is worthless in that however much we try to anticipate effects, life is fundamentally too unpredictable.

The artists in the exhibition are predominately of the 20th and 21stcentury.  Their interest in risk perhaps engendered by witnessing  between them two world wars and the creation of the atomic bomb.  The idea of mass destruction is vividly shown in a wall dedicated to the nuclear threat of the 1950s in which Peter Kennard has starkly reproduced posters reminiscent of the original warnings issued by the government and the CND.  These are thought provoking works.  On one level they remind us of the risk attendant to the creation of the ‘bomb’ on another we consider again the idea that wars are inherent in human society and often their outcome cannot be best guessed.  Yet looking at these remnants of the 1950s we are also reminded that the threat of war was over thought despite the cold war, nothing actually occurred.  This leads to a subtler argument of the exhibition, the link between imagination and risk.  We need imagination to anticipate the consequences of great risk but sometimes we overthink, our imaginations run wild and foresee events that due to the random nature of life do not transpire.

So the majority of works remind us unswervingly that however much we try to control the world around the idea of a risk free life is illusory.  Life is chaotic and our efforts to militate against it are pygmy.  We may live in sophisticated cities and societies but scratch the surface the pieces say and we delude ourselves that we can control nature.  Nature, particularly the pull of gravity, is a consistent theme throughout.  Thus we have video sequences of a young artist who walks into the heart of tornadoes, the vivid footage emphasising its sheer force.  The young artist Francis Alys who exposes himself to this risk is one of many artists who do so in the exhibition.  Yoko Ono in her video ‘Cut piece’ surrenders herself to having her clothes cut away by strangers.  Fear and vulnerability are shown in her breathing and eye movements.  In the same vein the large image of ‘Rest Energy’ a performance piece originally has artist and wife at either ends of a large bow and arrow.  The bow is tightened by the woman with the arrow inches away from her heart whilst the artist draws the arrow leaning back to gain maximum jeopardy.  Whilst this is just a photo of the original performance it is gripping, the audience experiencing a visceral response to the work even at this distance.  It is the same uneasy yet compelling feeling experienced when watching the Yoko Ono video.  These pieces then are skilfully designed for the audience to not just voyeuristically observe but empathetically feel the element of risk in the works.  This culminates in Orlan’s photographs and videos that chart her plastic surgery.  These recordings are not for the squeamish as we are invited to watch her surgery.  Yet as with all squeamish things we are both attracted and repelled by her work.

This exhibition is not afraid to suggest contradiction.  It boldly deals with all aspects of our relationship to risk and reveals the complicated nature of the idea.  There are a number of works which are counter risk suggesting that we attempt to over protect ourselves thereby preventing us from living fully, a life without risk being no life at all.  This leads onto the second strand of the exhibition the idea that art itself is risky.  The outcome of each work is unpredictable as indeed is its reception by an audience.  In many works these two strands work symbiotically.  So we have Robert Morris, ‘walling hanging’ that demonstrates gravities pull on hung felt; Marcel Duchamp’s ‘3 stoppages Etalon’ and Chris Burden’s ‘Beam Drop’ all of which emphasise gravity’s dominance on art work and of course life.  There is also in these pieces the concept of chance, the uneasy feeling that ultimately fate not only places girders in concrete in random order but also is a dominating factor in life and we delude ourselves if we feel we can control it.

This exhibition constantly gives the visitor cause for thought.  It forces us to confront the random nature of our lives which is not always a comfortable position, yet in its variety and with its varying discourse, humour and interaction it is an unforgettable experience.

Fiona Sinclair © 2015.