The Other Side of the Sky. Joachim Koester, JMW Turner. Turner Contemporary 2016.



This exhibition brings together two artists successful in their own eras.  Each works in a different medium yet both are similar in pushing artistic boundaries.  Koester uses a variety of media including photographs and audio; however the preferred medium in the exhibition is that of film.  The artist has broadly three aims: the predominate one is to bring the audience into an altered psychological state whereby they can reach what he calls ‘the basement’ of the mind.  This is a place of imagination and altered mind set, to this degree the installations are a means of encouraging the viewer to bring their own interpretations and emotions to the pieces.  The audience must be prepared to fully engage with the works spending some while on each image.

The Turner studies are quite rarely seen works that blend well with the Koester pieces.  They are clearly experimental as is Koester’s work so they chime in terms of practice.  But they also compliment in terms of effect.  We struggle to make sense of their dramatic blurring by doing so our imagination is stimulated and we are drawn in by the intensity of swirls and daubs.  They are in some respects mediations, there is a sense of seeing the artist’s own imagination at play here.  The images sit well beside the largest of Koester’s installations, a ramshackle cabin within which a film constantly plays.  This experience was chosen to be seen beside the Turner studies since it too seeks to draw the observer into reverie.  This eponymous film The Other Side of the Sky creates a hypnotic swirl of images that are constantly changing.  They are in fact the result of projecting heated swirling liquids.  Thus they pair with Turner’s swirling studies.  The effect on the observer is the initial human desire to create form which gives way to an enjoyment of the abstract resembling our childhood joy with Kaleidoscopes.

Continuing the idea of unlocking the imagination, the artist has playfully placed three meditation mats on this gallery’s floor, each with an attendant set of microphones that play a unique mediation routine.  This is a blend of white noise, alpha sounds and a soothing voice taking the listener through a meditation ritual.  The idea is for the more daring to lie back and enjoy the experience but for the less bold this meditation aid can be downloaded from the Turner web site and enjoyed in the privacy of home.

This focus on the recesses of the subconscious is further developed in the other galleries.  Plunged into twilight to encourage concentration even disorientation the largest space becomes a labyrinth of strobe images and varied short films.  These studies are arresting and are designed to alter the observer’s perceptions.  One film sees a man trapped in a repeated series of fits. This frenetic movement is disturbing yet compelling whilst others are more soothing including as they do the use of mime.  The concept of the maze again invites the observer to lose themselves.  The films may be dipped into or watched for extended periods but the aim is again to encourage the visitor to find multiple meanings, no two viewers coming from the same mind set or life experience.  However, the aim is to move beyond meaning to reverie, a sense of leaving the conscious mind to move into what the artist calls ‘the basement’ of the brain.

The sense of the mind losing control of the body is a dominant theme here.  The fitting man in the film is a victim of ‘Tarantism’, a condition caused by a bite from the wolf spider which does in fact cause the body to lose control and eventually leads to the mind reaching heightened states.  The results are disturbing but also have a mesmerising effect on the viewer.  Similarly, other films recreate séances that can lead to automatic writing, or a series of shamanic gestures so far removed from ordinary life that they encourage the reader to stop and watch with fascination.  In this pause as it is hoped that the viewer becomes lost in their own reverie.

There is a sense that by incorporating as it does, Turner’s work, the exhibition references the 18th century’s Romantic Movement, where art was designed to engender awe and sublime in the observer in order to stimulate their imagination.  As in the Industrial Revolution where science and commerce held sway, we now live in a society where our every waking hour is fixed in the pedestrian.  We are distracted by chores, work and of course our only outlet is to further shut down with smart phones, smart TVs and the internet that tells us what to think.  Thus this exhibition reminds us of the importance of our subconscious lives and indeed the pleasures of the imagination.

A word should be said concerning the artist’s aim for us to delve deep into our subconscious.  His use of the word ‘basement’ is interesting since it brings with it, especially in recent times, a slightly sinister meaning.  The audience should perhaps be aware that both good and bad encounters can be made within the deeper recesses of our subconscious minds.  This leads to a series of photographs in the corridor playfully focussing on cannabis.  The artist is in fact more interested in a subculture who quite literally grow the plant underground.  For them the drug is a by- product as they take an obsessive horticultural interest in the plant itself.  Whilst the drug is of course also linked to meditation and altered mind states the artist is actually fascinated by sub cultures who eschew ‘normal hobbies’ for more bizarre interests.  There is we encounter a whole sub culture that loves to photograph their cannabis plants displaying them in a magazine aptly titled High Times.  These enthusiasts take an almost pornographic joy in showing off their own plants and salivating over centrefolds of other’s people’s plants.  Similarly, there are a series of photographs of the artist own self-confessed unusual hobby that of keeping and breeding praying mantis.  His fascination grew out of their graceful almost balletic movements.  The artist then seeks out and delights in sub cultures whose hobbies whilst strange to the rest of us actually inspire contemplation and joy in their participants.

Perhaps the most instantly affecting of the works is a series of photographs taken in the US of homes now abandoned that fell victim to the subprime mortgage crisis.  The artist’s aim here is for us to question the lost lives, to try and imagine the back stories behind these boarded up homes.  What strikes the observer is that these were not shanty houses but rather typical Meet me in St Louis picket fenced homes that are now abandoned.  Examined carefully we notice a forgotten pram in front of one house hinting at the family whose dreams were destroyed by bankers for whom they were simply collateral damage.  Once again our imaginations are engaged to contemplate these untold stories.

This is an exhibition where the artist wants us to switch off our jaded minds and’ inhale ‘the sensory stimuli.  He invites us through various means to take a journey not just through the labyrinthine works but into the recesses of our mind.  We are being encouraged as William Blake states to open ‘the doors of perception’.  As such it must be carefully walked through, the visitor must expect to stop and pause at certain woks that particularly resonate.  It is also an exhibition to visit several times, each time finding something new to trip one’s imagination.

Fiona Sinclair © 2016.