Guy Tillim

REVIEW: Mythologies, Haunch of Venison

12 March - 26 April 2009

If the scale, scope and sheer audacity of Haunch of Venison’s launch exhibition at 6 Burlington Gardens is any measure of things, the only myth being touted today is that the world is at the point of global economic collapse. Crisis? What crisis?

Taking over the 21,500 square foot gallery that previously housed the Museum of Mankind, Mythologies is both a breath-taking homage to the history of the building and a stunning ‘up yours’ to the suggestion that the contemporary art world is in dire straits.

Incorporating new and historical works from over 40 internationally recognised artists including Bill Viola, Sophie Calle, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Jannis Kounellis and Damien Hirst, Mythologies is a dizzying and mostly successful attempt to explore notions of the uncanny, the curious, the mysterious and the anthropological as a means for elucidating some of the more fascinating social and cultural mores of the world at large.

Envisioned as a giant cabinet of curiosities, the exhibition is, as claimed, ‘a labyrinthine journey of discovery’ that begins with the tactile wall-mounted works of Anita Dube and Hew Locke in the Entrance Hall. Yes, there is an entrance hall. Works by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and Carlos Amorales can also be found on the ground floor but it is the ephemeral, delicate shadow work of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Wall of Shame (2005-2009) that is the most striking. White painted acid-etched brass shapes, shot with a light projector, cast dancing shadows of disturbing, anxious vignettes and creatures that tremble against the white wall. Simon Patterson’s nearby eponymous text painting Charles Darwin (2007) seems glib and by comparison and not a fair representation of his skill or his wit.

Ascending the sweeping staircase there are another seven large gallery spaces on the upper floor, each loosely afforded its own curatorial or thematic concept – Belief, Memento Mori, History and Magic, Material Culture and (Un)natural Histories. Galleries 4 and 9, featuring respectively a new installation by Kounellis and Christian Boltanski’s Theatre d’ombres (1986) are the only rooms bereft of a conceit but the all-room encompassing works really speak for themselves. Kounellis’s untitled installation features folded rows of second-hand suits framed by empty shoes and wrought with a subtle sense of sadness and nostalgia, it speaks to the passages of time and the imprint of the now absent. Boltanski’s famous shadow puppet work, with its carnivalesque parade of character, reminiscent of a macabre sideshow alley, appears to mock the universality of death and the fleetingness of life.

Highlights of the upstairs galleries include Guy Tillim’s black-and-white portraits of Mai-Mai rebel soldiers dressed in their magical camouflage. In capturing both the humanness and soulfulness of his subjects, Tillim rescues them from what might otherwise be a straightforward ethnographic study. And overtaking two large walls in a separate room is the subversive but visually stunning installation of Ed and Nancy Kienholz, 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade (1993-94). With various images and kitsch replica icons of Christ mounted on 76 cross-shaped handles from children’s toy wagons, this well-known work by the Keinholz’s explores ideas about the abuses of spirituality and some of the inherent problems with organised religion.

Mythologies is an overwhelming experience, both for the art on display and the sheer grandeur of the building. The semantics of museum versus commercial gallery experience are articulated but far from resolved as visitors wander the rooms speaking in the sorts of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for the National Gallery. Still. Art is still art is still art, whatever the context, and it will be interesting to witness the development and reception of Haunch of Venison’s exhibition program going forward, given their intention to continue a focus on both historically significant and recently commissioned works from the gallery stable along with lesser known emerging artists. There is no doubt that the purchasing of Haunch of Venison by Christie’s International in 2007 has enabled much of this activity, not least of all the move to Burlington Gardens, but whether or not the blurring of museum and commercial gallery experiences and expectations will upset the purists who like to know when they’re being sold something, Mythologies marks an ambitious and considered development for the gallery and makes for a provocative and most worthwhile encounter for the visitor.